Subject: Age: E.Timorese women put peace in its place

The Age October 05 2002

Women put peace in its place

By Jill Jolliffe Bazartete, East Timor

Ever since Lysistrata and her sisters refused sex to their warmongering husbands in ancient Greece, women have had a special role to play in brokering peace.

In East Timor, the militia violence of 1999 was almost exclusively the work of men.

They may have been bit players in an Indonesian master plan but that, too, was men's business.

One church organisation decided to harness women's peacemaking instincts to assist the new country's long haul back to health. For two years, Melbourne's Josephine Dyer has worked with the traumatised women of Liquica, west of Dili.

As country representative of the International Catholic Migrations Commission (ICMC), she has the hard job of convincing communities to accept back militiamen returning from West Timor.

The women are key to her success. Most are drawn from village administrations, ex-veterans' associations, or the OPMT (Popular Organisation of Timorese Women). "All have experienced some deep suffering in past years," Ms Dyer says.

Under a program known as Women as Agents of Tolerance and Peacemaking, they are paving the way for the return of former perpetrators, providing their crimes were not serious.

In such cases, if proof is provided, they are turned over to United Nations police for trial.

Thus, a person who burnt down houses or looted can be forgiven if they face the community and recognise their wrongdoing.

A murderer or rapist is sent to trial. It helps that the project is supported by Aurora Ximenes, Liquica's respected district administrator. She spent six years in the mountains with resistance fighters after the 1975 Indonesian invasion, and three years in a detention camp.

Bazartete is in the mountainous hinterland of Liquica. For the ICMC team, the workshop there involves a dusty journey in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

For Elsa Sequeira, 51, it involves a three-hour walk from a neighbouring mountaintop.

This makes her even more determined to have her say. The workshop is for members of the OPMT, all articulate women. Discussion of the meaning of tolerance is not confined to militia reintegration. Polygamy is another topic.

Second wives were tolerated in Indonesian times, but the practice offends Timorese Catholic beliefs, and women see it as a cause of domestic violence. "It just increases the number of widows," a woman says.

There is also the issue of women left with babies of Indonesian soldiers, abandoned wives, ex-prostitutes and rape victims. Villagers stigmatise them, and the women sometimes reject their own babies. These are just some of the wounds still to heal.

The themes recur in Liquica township, where widow Elisa dos Santos, 32, is one of the trainers. Her husband Agostinho was hacked to death in a Liquica church during a militia massacre on April 4, 1999. She was spared seeing it only because she was in another room with her three children.

"Since my husband died, I don't feel I have anything to live for," she said, "But I like doing the workshops, and feel OK then. It's when I go home it's difficult". Mrs dos Santos belongs to Rate Laek, a food and handicrafts cooperative run by 12 widows of the massacre.

It is supported by ICMC, and its members are beneficiaries of a trauma counselling program. For Ms Dyer the experience has been rewarding. "People are changing, starting to trust each other again," she observes.

She recognises, however, that the pain is deep and there's still a long way to go.

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