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From Grief, the Birth of an Activist

A brother's death is the inspiration for taking on a cause: fighting for East Timor's freedom.

June 03, 2002|LISA ROSEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It has been only two weeks since East Timor became the newest country on the planet, and already it has fallen out of the news. But the triumph of that day, achieved against such impossible odds, will be with me forever.

The last time I had seen East Timor, it was over my shoulder. I was retreating with a pack of election monitors and journalists, racing for the last flight out of the country through a gantlet of Indonesian military and militia blockades. They were chasing us away so we wouldn't witness and report on the destruction they were about to unleash.

At the airport in Dili, there was no security, nobody looked at my bags or documents. I have no stamp showing the date of departure: Sept. 5, 1999. It was the week after the country had voted overwhelmingly for independence after 24 years of brutal occupation by Indonesia.

I had gone to the region as a U.N.-accredited election monitor along with many other solidarity workers. When I returned in May, it was to witness East Timor's birth as a nation.

I was drawn by memories of those left behind on my first visit--especially the family in whose mountain compound I had bunked--and the memory of my brother, who would have been there if only he could.

At the airport, I again found myself in the midst of solidarity workers and journalists. This time we were not being chased, but welcomed. Instead of militia blockades, there were workers from the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor calmly seeing us through customs.

On my previous visit, graffiti scrawled on walls said: "You want freedom ... eat rocks." This time, the road from the airport was lined with fluttering banners for ... Coca-Cola.

We election monitors were there three years ago to help make sure the vote was free and fair. It was neither. The intimidation by Indonesian forces was horrific, but 99% of the voters turned out anyway.

Our presence was also intended to help ensure that nothing bad would happen after the vote--the idea being that the Indonesian army wouldn't try anything with so many foreign witnesses around. In that mission, we failed utterly.

After the election results were announced, we were both forced and allowed to leave. We were helpless to stop a country from being crushed. Guilt over that haunted me and the others who got out.

By the time the carnage ended, nearly 70% of the buildings in the country had been burned--including nearly every school. Militias killed an estimated 1,000 people; a quarter million refugees fled or were forced into West Timor--50,000 of whom remain trapped there.

In the end, though, East Timor survived. And I and the other international solidarity workers were among those invited back to see the flag raised May 20 over a new nation.

I first became involved in the East Timor solidarity movement the week after my brother John died. He had been a lifelong activist, if the word lifelong can be used for someone who lived only to 42. You name the cause, chances are he was involved with it. He was always showing me articles about issues that struck a chord with him, hoping I'd share his passion. In 1997, he was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, and exactly one year later, it claimed him.

One of the last articles he'd shown me had been about East Timor, a tiny half-a-country suffering under the illegal occupation of Indonesia since 1975. He wanted me to get involved. When I returned home to L.A. after his death, in my grief I turned to the cause he had handed me.

Working with the East Timor Action Network was pretty much the only thing that got me out of bed during those first months. I knew what that was about: I couldn't save my brother from suffering or from death, but maybe I could save someone else.

It was selfish, really, but it felt purposeful when nothing else did. We held rallies outside the Indonesian consulate, we hosted fund-raisers, we went to Washington to lobby members of Congress.

And then the day came that people barely dared hope for--Indonesia was going to allow a referendum in East Timor. People would get to vote on whether they wanted continued Indonesian rule or independence. The catch? Indonesia insisted on providing security for the vote.

When I was invited by the International Federation for East Timor to serve as a monitor, my first response was no. I was afraid of getting hurt or killed, of seeing someone else get hurt or killed, of malaria, of dysentery--the list of fears was embarrassingly long. But this vote was everything the solidarity movement had worked toward.

I knew I needed to see it through. And I knew John would have gone if he'd been around.

When invited back for the celebration, my first response was again, no. It was impractical, unaffordable; I couldn't just drop all my work and travel 24 hours for a big soiree. But then, I was drawn back again. How could I not go?

The circularity called to me, or maybe the Hollywood ending of it. And of course, I thought of John. He was never one to miss a good party.

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