Over recent weeks, Australians have been disturbed by news of riots and renewed violence in the capital of East Timor, Dili.
Gangs attacking each other with guns, knives and machetes; homes and cars torched; tens of thousands of frightened people fleeing for their lives. The descent into anarchy was largely the result of conflicts between gangs of unemployed, bored youth, often fuelled by alcohol.
But the underlying fact is that East Timor, the world's newest nation formed just four years ago, is in the midst of a deep political crisis.
The Government, controlled by the Fretilin Party, is universally unpopular. They no longer have the confidence of the people and are not seen to be committed to the good of the country.
A further complication is that the President of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao, who was elected with over 70 per cent of the vote, is in conflict with the Fretilin-led Government, led by Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri. The President tried to resolve the crisis by getting Mr Alkatiri to step down.
Mr Alkatiri, however, refused to go. As one observer said, "We have to remember that Alkatiri and the government weren't actually democratically elected. They [the people] elected a constitutional convention and they've let that run as the Parliament. The people elected Xanana. He's very popular and he still has legitimacy."
The World Bank warned last year that the nation was in danger of imploding into civil conflict, with corruption likely to erode the benefits of the billions of dollars that will eventually enter the country from the development of gas fields in the Timor Sea.
The recent crisis was precipitated by the sackings in March of 600 of East Timor's 1400 soldiers after a strike over claims of "nepotism and injustice." Many of these soldiers were former guerillas who fought against Indonesia.
Added to this there was a sizeable group of disaffected police personnel, ethnic tensions between the Lorosae, or easterners, and the Loromonu, or westerners, and a contingent of rebel troops in the hills led by Major Alfredo Reinado.
With dissention in the army and the army fighting the police, there was a complete collapse of government, and the emergence of gangs who torched houses and looted shops. Their actions were partly a reflection of a breakdown of law and order, but also a consequence of the desperate poverty which the present Timorese Government has done little to solve.
People fearing for their lives sought refuge wherever they could find a safe haven. More than 50,000 displaced persons fled to embassies, churches, convents, schools and other religious institutions.
In Comoro, on the western outskirts of Dili, there were more than 13,000 in the grounds of Don Bosco Technical Training Centre, conducted by the Salesians, and another 10,000 at the nearby Canossian Sisters' School.
A Salesian priest caught in the bloodshed and anarchy in East Timor has described his nation as "a divided people gripped in fear" and the situation in Dili as worse than the violence that followed the 1999 vote of independence.
The Catholic Weekly reported Fr Antonio Trans Pinto, who works at the Don Bosco Comoro Centre, as saying, "people are looting, fighting, burning and killing each other. There is fighting within the military and the police against police. The Government officials are divided, the army is divided, and the people are divided," Fr Antonio said. "We don't know who the bad people are and who are our friends."
The situation has sparked an appeal for humanitarian aid on a large scale to provide food, shelter and medical aid "now more than ever".
The role of the Church and missionary orders in helping people forced from their homes was emphasised by the Chief Executive of World Vision Australia, Rev Tim Costello, who visited several refugee centres in Dili at the height of the crisis.
Interviewed on the ABC's Lateline program, he commented on the key role of the Church in providing refuge for the people, but said, "However, with people, particularly in the camps now having a water crisis - and I was there with the fathers in the Don Bosco school and with the Mother Superior at the Canossian Convent - they were quite desperate."
Religious houses are universally respected, and have not been targeted by the gangs. The missionaries, both foreign and Timorese, have made clear that they will not be intimidated by threats of violence, and have therefore been able to provide safety for thousands of vulnerable people.
Indeed, had people from Australia and other countries failed to support the missions, they would have been incapable of responding to the present crisis.
An international peacekeeping force of military and police, requested by the Timorese Government and under UN auspices, is now in East Timor. Australia, Portugal, Malaysia and New Zealand are providing personnel, with the largest contingent coming from Australia.
What can we say about this sorry situation?
It is all very sad. Quite clearly, the turmoil was the result of the breakdown of the political system.
Underlying the crisis, we must appreciate some facts about East Timor. It is:
- South East Asia's poorest country.
- More than 40 per cent live in extreme poverty.
- Infant mortality is nine percent.
- Sanitation is inadequate with only half the population having access to safe drinking water.
- Half the adults are illiterate.
- Life expectancy is about 55.
The Church, especially through the religious orders, plays a vital role in helping provide health and education for the people, and in this way, helps build the nation. It is a big task.
East Timor needs our help - now more than ever. We cannot walk away from our neighbour.
Sr Alexandrina, a Salesian Sister who runs a training centre for women, will be in Australia during July 2006, mainly in the Melbourne area. For more details ring (03) 9386-6302.