Ailieu Day 10
The Merryknoll Sisters were a delight to visit. It was like one of those days in Canada where you drive for a few hours, visit a short while, then make your way back home again and feel good for doing it. It might seem like a lot of driving but the scenery was so incredible and the visit was a great one. This particular order of 5 sisters and 2 lay missionaries were purposefully far from Dili and its oppressive heat. They chose to be up in the mountains at Ailieu to be close to the people they came to help. They first came to this area in 1992 at the request of Bishop Bellow and thus have lived through some rough times here. This order is part of the same order that Fr Rolf is from, the Dominicans and he had been here a few times before and keen for us to visit the Sisters. With 3 Americans, and one each from Bolivia and the Philippines they are all foreigner here but are treated as trusted locals. Their stories of their times up in Ailieu were so full of heart wrenching tragedy and such love of the people here. After more than 17 years in Ailieu they have witnessed and had been themselves through so much. During the occupation, the district of Ailieu was a stronghold of the resistance movement and many of the men stayed just outside of town in the hillsides while the Indonesian Army stayed in the villages. It’s no wonder the people distrust any military presence as during the occupation the military was too scared to go up in the hillsides and thus targeted and brutalized the women and children during this period. The sisters recounted the days and weeks leading up to the vote for independence. They struggled to stay alive by running during the scorched earth campaign from both the Indonesian Army and the militia who carried out much of the killings and destruction of anything built during the Indonesian Occupation. They told us how they were warned that if the vote went against Indonesia, there would no safe place to hide anywhere and they had better get ready to leave the area immediately. The campaign to destroy everything was carried out with a military precision that was impossible not to have been pre-planned. The memories of the original invasion in 1975 which first lead to the massive killing spree were still fresh enough to many people who took these new warnings seriously and fled to the city and West Timor instead of hiding in the hills for what many thought might be months. Over 400,000 of the 600,000 people fled many parts of Timor Leste and went either to Dili or to the border with West Timor, inside Indonesia to escape the killings by the militia. In September 1999 the UN moved in this time to restore order and the militia was put down in weeks stopping the violence. Those few weeks were a dramatic time in the recent history as even churches were not a safe refuge. We were told that if there were too many gathered within, this enough reason for some in the militia to open fire on the clergy and the people. This occurred in Dili and throughout the country. There are many examples still in the country where buildings remain unocupied as a result.
It might have been the lack of a language barrier or that we were talking to fellow foreigners but the stories of the tragedies seemed all too real and chilling when recounted to us. These stories had echoed some of experiences that Jess Agustin has shared with us during our stay here as he too has lived through some of these same periods. Jess talked about going through the streets of Dili with a priest during the violence and picking up many people with strong times to the church before they were rounded up by the militia, saving the lives of many and being too late to save the lives of others. These harrowing accounts sure make one appreciate the tremendous dedication of these people to do what’s right. We sure hope the future is much kinder to this country.