Subject: AGE: Bishop Belo's Mother

The Age (Melbourne)

September 25, 2003 Thursday

A Mother Of Freedom's Love Of Learning

Jill Jolliffe


Hermelinda da Costa Batista Filipe, who has died in Baucau hospital after a long illness, was a formative influence on her son, Nobel peace laureate Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo. She was also one of the first East Timorese women to be educated under Portuguese colonial rule.

Dona* Hermelinda raised Belo and his five siblings single-handed after her husband Domingos Vaz Filipe died from injuries sustained during the Japanese occupation of East Timor. He had been imprisoned and tortured for having assisted an Australian-Portuguese commando force operating from the mountains around East Timor's second city of Baucau.

Her strength of character was evident from early childhood. She came from royal Timorese stock, her father Felix da Costa Ximenes having been a liurai (traditional king) of the Makassae people, who are the dominant ethnic group in Baucau.

He sided with the Portuguese against his countrymen during a long-running Timorese insurgency, which was supressed in 1912. Known for his prowess in lopping enemy heads (Timorese warrior custom well into the 20th century), he kept a collection of heads on a wall near the family house.

In his book, From the Place of the Dead: the Epic Struggles of Bishop Belo of East Timor, biographer Arnold Kohen described how the young Hermelinda wore down this formidable father with her entreaties to be permitted to go to school, an unheard-of demand for a girl in 1924, when less than 5 per cent of Timorese children in the colony went to school at all. She staged a vigil outside the local school, and with support from her brother Lourenco and the teacher, the old warrior finally ceded and gave permission for her to study.

Unbeknown to Felix, she picked fruit and vegetables from the family plot that she sold in Baucau market to pay for fees and books.

With her preference for religious studies, she became one of the first female catechists to teach in the Catholic Church in East Timor.

According to Kohen, she met her future husband Domingos Vaz Filipe at school. He too was of royal lineage, but also opted for the life of a catechist, rather than take up his post as liurai.

His death in 1951, when the future bishop was three, heralded a period of great family hardship. The colonial regime in postwar Timor was particularly harsh when the Portuguese returned to assert their rule after the Japanese surrender and the economy was in ruins.

Poverty forced Dona Hermelinda to a hard decision: she sent five-year-old Carlos to relatives in the mountains, where he worked as a buffalo-herd for two years.

On return to the family in Baucau, his close relationship with his mother grew stronger. He told his biographer that she was the main influence in his life, in a childhood setting of "love, strict discipline and religious faith" as well as austerity.

He later attended the Salesian school at Fatumaca, south of Baucau, which set him on the road to the priesthood and eventually to become the unyielding defender of Timorese rights that led to his 1996 nomination as Nobel peace laureate, shared with Jose Ramos Horta, currently East Timor's Foreign Minister.

More than a thousand people attended Dona Hermelinda's funeral in Baucau. *Dona is an honorific.

Jill Jolliffe is a regular correspondent of The Age in Dili, where her reporting career began in 1975. She has published several books on East Timor. Cover-Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five, is in development as a film.

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