By Wilson da Silva
SYDNEY – José Ramos Horta is an exile. He has no home, no furniture, no car, no driver’s license. His bed is a sofa or a guest room in the homes of friends around the world, or an economy-class seat on an intercontinental flight.
His life is an eternal transit lounge. Three days in Sydney, a week in Lisbon, a month in New York. Forever traveling, yet never arriving at his true destination: his native East Timor.
Ramos Horta, the public face of the Timorese struggle for independence, can never return there so long as occupying Indonesian battalions roam his island homeland. A former Portuguese colony, it was an independent nation for a few weeks until an Indonesian invasion snuffed it out on December 7, 1975. It is an occupation that, to this day, is considered illegal under international law.
Not even the Nobel Peace Prize, which Ramos Horta was awarded last year along with East Timor’s Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo, has made a dent in that yearning felt by all political exiles: a yearning to return home.
Australia, as one of the few open liberal democracies in a region dotted with autocratic and dictatorial regimes, is home to thousands like Ramos Horta – people whose political views or activities would land them in a jail were they to return.
They are patriots who still agitate for change, and dream of a day when they will be able to return.
Along with the Timorese, Australia is a safe harbor for Burmese escaping the military junta that took power in 1988, Tibetans who fled the Chinese occupation in 1951, Kurds escaping persecution in Iraq and Turkey and West Papuans who fought Indonesia’s takeover of the western half of Papua New Guinea, which today is the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya.
More recently, there have been those who chose exile rather than live in political turmoil: islanders from Bougainville, fleeing the conflict with Papua New Guinea, or Fijian Indians who left following the 1987 military coup by native Fijian army against an Indian-led Fijian government. Then there are the exiles from scores of past political upheavals: from Chile, El Salvador and Hungary, and many other places too.
Under U.N. diplomatic conventions which came into effect in 1951, a refugee is anyone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or because of a political opinion. Australia provides exile to some 15,000 annually under its humanitarian aid intake, one of the largest in the world.
They come from all part of the world. But it is East Timor that has given Australia its greatest number of exiles: an estimated 12,000 who fled the Indonesian invasion now live in Australia. About 8,000 live in the sprawling megalopolises of Sydney and Melbourne, the rest scattered through urban centers such as Darwin and Perth.
José Ramos Horta is the most prominent of these.
An official of the ruling Fretilin political party in East Timor, Ramos Horta had been appointed foreign minister on November 28, 1975. He flew out of East Timor on December 5 to present his credentials to the United Nations. By the time his plane landed, Indonesia had invaded East Timor.
From the Timorese hinterland where he saw his first car at the age of 12, he had arrived in New York. He had never seen snow. He was 25. He was an exile.
“A very nice American couple took me to a nearby store to buy cutlery,” he told The American Reporter in an interview. “I bought only one of each – one fork, one spoon – and they were amused that I didn’t buy a set, which would have been cheaper.
“But I wanted to hang on to the illusion that I was just passing by New York and I was going back to Timor soon.”
Within days, Ramos Horta was slushing through the snow to address a meeting of the U.N. Security Council. News footage of the time shows a young man in an Afro haircut and an ill-fitting brown jacket sitting at the circular table of the council, reading from a prepared statement. He speaks English slowly and with a heavy accent. He demands Indonesia withdraw from East Timor.
A few days later, on December 22, the U.N. Security Council condemned Indonesia’s invasion. The resolution was unanimous, despite strong lobbying by Indonesia and its diplomatic allies.
Ramos Horta was euphoric. Indonesia would comply, he thought, or else the Security Council, in accordance with the U.N. Charter, would amass a military force to drive it out.
Twenty years later, Ramos Horta is still waiting.
“I had expected to go back with a U.N. resolution in my hands in triumph,” he says. “Instead, I found out that piece of paper didn’t mean much.”
In the two decades since, Ramos Horta has traveled the world lobbying for his cause, speaking at international human rights forums, U.N. meetings, church gatherings, university conferences, political rallies – to anyone who would listen. He has cajoled and pleaded with politicians and party leaders, pop stars and journalists.
In the two decades since, his sister, Mariazinha, has been killed by shrapnel from Indonesian bombing, and his brothers – Nunu, a guerrilla fighter, and Gui – have been captured and executed by Indonesian soldiers.
Historians say that in the years following Indonesia’s invasion, some 200,000 Timorese have been killed by war, disease and starvation– one-third of the population.
They were the darkest years of our struggle, Ramos Horta says. “That’s when the largest massacres took place, when literally tens of thousands of people died like flies – of massacres, of hunger, fleeing bombardments, military onslaughts and encirclement, unable to cultivate the land.
“There were years when I thought, you know, we were defeated. The odds were so great that I thought we were being deleted from history,” he says, pausing to bite his lip.
But, somehow, he did not lose hope. “I was probably the most irrelevant person walking around New York at that time,” he admits, a self-effacing grin crossing his face before disappearing. “I could have walked away. But never once I lost hope. Never once I thought of quitting altogether.”
These days,Ê with the Nobel Peace Prize in hand and the access it provides to decision-makers, along with the higher profile and greater reportage of the issue in the world’s media, the ghost of East Timor is rising once again to diplomatic prominence. The U.S. has heightened the pressure on Indonesia, banning some arms sales and military co-operation. Even the Australian government, traditionally a strong ally of Indonesia, has stepped up its criticism in the last few years.
The Timorese resistance movement survives on handouts and donations provided by relief groups and activist organizations in Europe, the United States and Australia, or by some of the 17,000 Timorese living in exile in Australia and Portugal. At times, a donation is offered to pay for an air fare here, a train fare there.
Being an exile is not all that financially rewarding. For 13 years, Ramos Horta lived in a cockroach-infested New York apartment [near 55th Street and First Avenue]. Another year was spent in Washington.
These days, he shares his time between his mother’s modest apartment above a pizza parlor in the outer suburbs of Sydney, and the house of a surviving brother in Lisbon, both of whom escaped East Timor with the help of the Red Cross.
He has a “summer job” at the University of New South Wales, teaching diplomacy and the ways of the U.N., which he knows well after 21 years of plying the carpets.
“I am half-happy that we have succeeded in not being defeated, both militarily and diplomatically,” Ramos Horta says. “But, I tell you, I am burned out. It has taken an enormous toll on me, and I’m just amazed that, health-wise, I have no major problems.
“I’m still anxious to reach day one of independence,” he grins again. “Then I can hand in my resignation.”
Ramos Horta believes that, more than two decades after the invasion, the tide is turning against Indonesia as never before. And that it will be only a matter of time before it leaves the territory.
“My hope is that in the next two to three years the issue will be settled one way or another, and I can return to what I always wanted to do. To be a writer.”
Wilson da Silva is a freelance journalist based in Sydney, Australia