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Mixed emotions as E Timor marks vote

By Karishma Vaswani
BBC News, Dili

President Jose Ramos-Horta
The president says the real failure is the pervasive poverty in East Timor

It was hailed as the youngest country of the century.

Now East Timor is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its vote for independence from Indonesia.

The battle for freedom was a long and bloody one.

In the lead-up to the vote and its aftermath, pro-Indonesian militia went on a rampage, killing and injuring hundreds of East Timorese.

But independence has not been easy for the young country, which is still struggling with lawlessness and extreme poverty.

Cycle tour

Last Monday, the streets of the capital, Dili, were closed off for the start of the Tour De Timor.

Members of the Timor team

The five-day cycling race - East Timor's answer to the Tour De France - is aimed at changing the image of the country, and convincing the international community that it should not just be associated with violence and chaos.

Hundreds of Dili's residents came out to support almost 300 cyclists from all over the world who were competing for prize money worth $75,000 (£46,000).

Like so many others in the country, the family of 24 year-old Anche Cabral - the only female member of East Timor's national team - hid in the jungle for more than a month during the violence 10 years ago.

During the referendum, pro-Indonesian militia stormed into villages across the country, first trying to intimidate people against voting, and then punishing them when the overwhelming majority voted in favour of independence.

One uncle was killed by the militia, but the rest of Ms Cabral's family survived. But when her family returned home a month later they found most of the homes in the village had been torched.

A decade later, she still feels the sacrifices her people made for their freedom have been worthwile.

"Today is much better than before," she told me. "Now everyone has a house, and we can walk around at night and we feel safe."

Painful reminders

I trailed the cyclists by car as they raced from Dili to their first stop in the city of Baucau.

Along the way, vivid horrors of the past were spread out across the rugged mountainous terrain; burned homes and churches dotted the landscape.

Manuel DaCosta
Manuel DaCosta says East Timor's people need to rely on themselves

While residents have to live with these painful reminders every day, in Bacau some people are learning to put the past behind them. The seeds of development are being sown.

In a tiny blacksmith's workshop, I found young and old men making everything from hammers to shovels for sale to local customers.

They were originally funded by an international aid agency, but now they are fully self-funded and business is growing fast.

Manuel DaCosta, whose family has been in the blacksmith trade for three generations, told me: "During the Indonesian times, we were never taught to run a business.

"When we won our freedom we had to start from scratch. After the Indonesians left, it was difficult for us to do this on our own.

"But we are the younger generation in this country and we have to develop. If we keep relying on others how will we live?"

Church massacre

As the cyclists continued on their gruelling 350km (217 mile) course back to Dili, I veered off the route to visit the town of Suai, 180km from the capital.

On 6 September 1999, just days after the independence vote, 26 people were killed in the town's Ave Maria church by scores of pro-Indonesian militia.

Ten years later, workers are still repairing the ruined structure, because the people of Suai have not had the funds to repair it until now.

Elysius Gusmao, in Suai
Mr Gusmao says he wants greater justice for his people

Overlooking a lush green horizon, the church appeared quiet and peaceful, making it hard to believe a massacre took place there.

Elysius Gusmao, who witnessed the violence, showed me the spot where he hid, behind some banana trees.

The hiding place saved his life as he watched pro-Indonesian militia surround the church and then open fire indiscriminately, before attacking survivors with machetes.

Mr Gusmao said he would never forget the crimes committed against his people. He was angry, frustrated and disappointed in his government.

"We don't have any power to capture those who committed the violence," he said.

"Some of them have come back to this country but not even the police can touch them.

"I don't want to tell my story to any more commissions or human rights groups so that it can end up in some museum. I want justice."

Life improving

Back in Dili, I put that demand for justice to East Timor's President Jose Ramos Horta.

In his newly-built presidential palace, he said his people needed to start looking towards the future.

"The greatest act of justice is that today we are free," he said.

Born out of decades of bitter struggles, this young nation faces many new challenges in the future

"Am I going to spend the next 10 or 20 years chasing the ghosts of the past? We are doing very well now. We had 12.5% growth last year, the second fastest in the world.

"If we can maintain this then we can eradicate poverty and unemployment and I know we can do it."

"If we can maintain this then we can eradicate poverty and unemployment and I know we can do it."

Those are ambitious goals on a journey that is fraught with difficulties.

At the end of the Tour De Timor race, some of the challenges for the tiny nation were plain to see.

Most of the winners of the competition were Australian - only two Timorese racers placed in the top 30.

Ms Cabral said that is because the country has yet to provide facilities and training for its athletes.

"Next year we will do better, but we need help from the government," she told me at the awards ceremony.

Ten years on from the historic independence vote, and some might say there is little cause for celebration.

Despite its development, East Timor remains one of the poorest countries in Asia.

Many victims say they are yet to receive justice from their government.

Born out of decades of bitter struggles, this young nation faces many new challenges in the future.



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SEE ALSO
E Timor leader rejects criticism
29 Aug 09 |  Asia-Pacific
East Timor poverty and violence
13 Feb 09 |  In Pictures
E Timor 'needs help' a year on
11 Feb 09 |  Asia-Pacific
E Timor's wealth: blessing or curse?
24 Sep 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Quiet punch of East Timor report
14 Jul 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: East Timor
27 Sep 11 |  Country profiles
Country profile: East Timor
27 Sep 11 |  Country profiles

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