Rosemary’s recollection on the Study Tour 2019

Contributed by Rosemary Nugent

Our group felt extremely privileged to participate in this tour with Alola founder, chairperson and former First Lady Dr Kirsty Sword Gusmão AO and Nandy Gurr, tour organiser extraordinaire and Alola Australia Board member.

It was a full itinerary which kept us continually busy and engaged, enabling us to make the most of the time we had in this beautiful country where we were continually welcomed by friendly people.

The eight participants from Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia all enjoyed themselves immensely and felt fortunate to gain such a unique glimpse into life in Timor-Leste.

Our many activities and experiences allowed us to acquire an understanding of the role that women play in boosting the economy of their families and local communities.  Funds raised from the tour will support Alola’s Economic Empowerment program.

On our visit to Alola, we were honoured to receive a briefing by acting CEO Maria Guterres and all of the program managers who generously shared their time with us prior to their AGM, and provided a delicious lunch.  They spoke proudly about their work in Economic Empowerment, Maternal and Child Health and Education and Advocacy.  We realised that the organisation established by Kirsty in 2001 has grown and flourished with the 100 staff members working in teams and being 90 per cent women.

We learnt that through the Economic Empowerment program women have been assisted with quality control and marketing of their handcrafts and small businesses.   Importantly, improving women’s incomes also helps with domestic violence as when women are contributing to the household finances they are recognised as valuable partners.  Through the Maternal and Child Health program a new task is to assist women to fund the sending of tissue biopsies to Indonesia in order to provide an accurate diagnosis of cancer.  Alola’s Advocacy program also offers life skills training including decision making, public speaking, writing CV’s and job preparation.

On our visit to Casa Vida its director, Sujana Ximenes, gave a powerful and passionate explanation of this organisation’s care for female victims of sexual abuse, aged three to 18 years.  They provide safe accommodation for 80 girls who receive counselling, education and vocational skills training.  We were impressed with the quality of service and the products at the café and craft shop operated on the premises, and enthusiastically purchased items.

On our visit to the Guido Valadares National Hospital, Dr Ingrid, a paediatric doctor (and also wife of Max Stahl), showed us around and explained recent advances in medical procedures, although their needs are still great.  Mothers were very gracious in allowing us to talk to them about their premature babies who looked incredibly tiny but who were receiving very good care.

In Timor-Leste, the percentage of women in Timor-Leste’s Parliament is higher than in Australia.  One very impressive politician is the Minister of Education Dulce de Jesus Soares, who invited us to join her for an enjoyable dinner on the beach.  She, some of her staff and other community leaders spoke about important initiatives in the education sector.  As a follow up a few days later, we were given a Mother Tongue Pilot presentation with Minister Dulce and her staff.  They presented strong evidence to demonstrate that learning in the Mother Tongue in the early years is better for children’s literacy and numeracy skills and overall development.

We enjoyed a visit to the Xanana Gusmão Reading Room, Timor-Leste’s only public library.  The Manager, Gaspar Freitas, gave us an overview of the facility which is well used by youth and others for reading, computer usage and a variety of activities.  It also has a museum and is quite a community hub which hosts cultural events and art exhibitions.  We were delighted to view an exhibition by gifted artist Jacinto Batisto who was present to tell us about how he had developed his artistic skills despite having no formal training and despite having a spinal condition.

The important role played by women in the resistance was explained to us by a delightful group of young women.  These tour leaders took us in pairs to places of historical significance in Dili where women were taken as sex slaves and often tortured; this included being placed into tanks with crocodiles.  When East Timor was liberated, many of the victims took on leadership roles, demonstrating their resilience and great courage.

Our visit also provided great insight into, and understanding of, significant milestones in history.  In fact history really came alive for us, which was quite exciting.  Dili was abuzz with numerous visitors who had come to join in the celebrations for the 20 year anniversary of the referendum for independence.  The city had been greatly spruced up for this occasion and was looking at its best.

Dinner with Xanana Gusmão, former resistance leader who became the first president of this new nation in 2002, was a highlight for us.  Xanana regaled us with stories from the past and was a wonderful host.

We were also very fortunate to enjoy lunch at the home of José Ramos Horta, another resistance leader who was East Timor’s foreign minister-in-exile, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 1996 and president from 2007-12.  Again, the recounting of historical incidents kept us enthralled.

A private tour of the Museum of the Resistance added to our knowledge of the history of Timor-Leste.  It commemorates Timor-Leste’s 24 year struggle against the Indonesian occupation.

We attended a talk by Max Stahl and a viewing of his new documentary at the Centro Audio-Visual Max Stahl Timor-Leste (CAMSTL).  It was amazing for our group to later join Max at the Santa Cruz Cemetery where he explained how he filmed the massacre at this cemetery where Indonesian soldiers shot and beat people in November 1991.  I was thrilled to find myself taking a photo of Max pointing to where he hid the footage under a grave.  I knew that after it was smuggled out of East Timor that this was a turning point in the country’s history’s as it alerted the world to the atrocities that were occurring there and finally secured international support for their cause.

The rights to oil and gas reserves was very topical during our visit, and we found ourselves continually apologising for our government’s appalling behaviour and lack of fairness.  We had a briefing by the staff at the Maritime Boundaries Office and also viewed the exchange of diplomatic notes between Prime Ministers Taur Matan Ruak and Scott Morrison to bring into force the treaty establishing the Maritime Boundaries in the Timor Sea.  We also attended the launch of Kim McGrath’s book Crossing the Line: Australia’s Secret History in the Timor Sea translated into Portuguese.

On 30 August 1999 the people of Timor-Leste exercised their hard won right to self-determination and voted to become an independent nation.  On the 20th Anniversary of the Independence Referendum, we began the day with an official visit to Parliament.  Although the speeches were long and we could not understand them, we were captivated by the solemnity of the event and spent the time studying the beautiful architecture of Parliament House and the colourful woven tais cloths from each district adorning the walls.

In the evening we enjoyed formal celebrations at Tasi Tolu, just out of Dili, and for which we had all received very fancy official invitations.  We caught up with many who we had been bumping into all week including Steve Bracks, Abel Guterres and Dr Helen Hill.  Prayers and speeches preceded the presentation of the Medal of the Order of Timor-Leste – one was presented to ACTU President Michele O’Neil in recognition of the role the Australian union movement played in the campaign for independence for Timor-Leste.  The festivities continued with cultural dances from some of the districts, fireworks and music by the Dili Allstars and others.  At this point everyone raced from their seats and began singing and dancing in a frenzied manner!  It was a truly joyous evening.  Xanana, who had not been present up to this point, then seemed to appear out of nowhere and was immediately swamped by his adoring fans.

Yet another enjoyable event was a Cocktail Party organised by Kirsty and Nandy, where we mingled with the local invitees such as staff from Alola, and with visitors who had come for the anniversary celebrations.  This was followed by a screening of Alias Ruby Blade and a Q&A with Kirsty and Pat Walsh.  The film and discussion reminded us again of the vital role played by Kirsty and others in the movement for self determination.

We attended the launch of Pat Walsh’s book The Day Hope and History Rhymed in East Timor and other East Timor stories which focuses on Pat’s memories of East Timor’s Referendum for Independence in 1999 and their continuing efforts for nationhood.

Pat Walsh, human rights advocate, promoted self-determination for East Timor for nearly three decades and was part of Australia’s official delegation, led by Tim Fischer, to witness the historic ballot of 30 August 1999.

At a comprehensive briefing by Pat Walsh at CAVR (Comissão de Acolhimento Verdade e Reconciliaҫão de Timor-Leste or Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor), we learnt that Pat was supported by the UN to be special advisor to East Timor’s truth and reconciliation commission.  He edited the English edition of the commission’s report Chega.  Both Timor-Leste and Australia have honoured his contribution to human rights and reconciliation in the region.

There were many other enjoyable activities such the obligatory walk at sunset to Cristo Rei, the 27 metre tall statue which overlooks Dili; visits to see women weaving; dinner at the home of the affable Australian Ambassador, Mr Peter Roberts; visits to the Agora Café, a social enterprise with magnificent food; not to mention our visit to Balibo which included a slight detour to the Indonesian border, and a lovely seafood lunch by the sea.

All of the 2019 Study Tour group enjoyed themselves immensely.  We are very grateful to have been given this once in a lifetime opportunity to gain a greater understanding of, and insight into, the life, culture and history of Timor-Leste, and in particular the important role played by women.  Thank you.