VIQUEQUE, East Timor (UCAN) — The sight of people living in makeshift huts beside the burnt ruins of houses brought home the message of nonviolence to youths from Dili and Baucau.
“I don’t know what to say — it’s unimaginable,” Domingos Soares, 22, told UCA News, looking at the devastation before him.
Soares, who comes from Dili, stood with 60 other young participants in a three-day workshop held April 9-11 in Viqueque parish to help youths renounce violence.
What confronted them was the aftermath of an August rampage by youths who supported the Fretilin party, which won the most seats in the June national election but failed to form a government. Other parties formed a coalition that excluded Fretilin, successor of the armed resistance against Indonesian rule.
Protests erupted, and the rampage in Viqueque destroyed 600 homes as well as government and Church property. Attackers also raped girls at a convent school.
For Soares, the youths’ “exposure visit,” on the last day of the workshop, to see lives shattered by violence was an eye-opener. “People lost all they had, and now they have to start their lives over again,” he said.
As the youths surveyed the scene, one man, who preferred not to be identified, said he would not build a new home for fear that someone would burn it down again.
“We do not know who they were. They just came and burned anything they saw,” he recalled. Like other people in the area, he was now living in a shack made of grass and coconut-tree leaves, with whatever he had salvaged from his wrecked home.
The Justice and Peace commissions of Baucau and Dili dioceses jointly organized the workshop in the Baucau parish, 180 kilometers east of Dili, under the theme “Together We Build Peace and Calm.” The Church has run similar programs in Dili, but this was the first in Baucau.
Father Benedictus Randung, 59, told UCA News they wanted young people from the two dioceses to do something together as a way to help overcome hostility between people of different regions or ethnic groups in this small country of 1 million people.
Timor Leste, or East Timor, has been plagued by violence since it emerged as an independent country in 2002, following more than two years of transitional United Nations administration. Indonesian rule ended in late 1999.
Many youth are caught in a “culture of violence,” with gangs often fighting one another on the streets. Yet Father Randung insists it is “wrong to equate youth with violence.” He said they could be “instruments for peace” instead.
The workshop’s first two days focused on how youths can resolve conflicts and get peers in their home areas to do the same. They discussed examples of conflict resolution in other countries, and outlined strategies through case studies. The organizers gave out posters and pamphlets for participants to take home.
Father Randung pointed out the Viqueque violence was a product of politics, not whether somebody was from the east or west of the country. The “easterner-westerner” divide, to which much of the violence the last two years has been linked, came to the fore after soldiers from the western part of the country who complained of discrimination were dismissed in 2006.
Organizers encouraged the youths to implement back home what they had learned and train others to do likewise. “We will support you financially,” Father Randung told them.
During breaks, the youth played sports and games.
Cricencia de Jesus, 21, from Dili diocese, told UCA News the training helped her understand peace will not come without positive action. “One important way to contribute to peace is to respect to human life,” she said during a volleyball game.
Caetano Tilman, 25, also from Dili diocese, told UCA News he would pass on the good message of peace to other youths in his village when he returned home.
The workshop ended with a Mass and a pledge. As the organizers slit the throat of a goat in a traditional rite of sacrifice, the participants made a declaration to reject violence, focus on peace, and be agents of peace in their towns and villages. Then they all shook hands.