What Heroes are Made of

Timor-Leste’s tortuous history since the mid-1970s is a sad chronicle, alternately agonising and enraging. Even its high points seem to be characterised more by pride than joy. None of them end very well, and those few that do… well, one senses that they are unfinished, unresolved.

One of the most striking individual stories is that of Major Alfredo Reinado. Respected by all and lionised by many, he died during a 2008 firefight that erupted at the residence of President Jose Ramos Horta. The President was gravely injured during the attack and spent months convalescing in Australia.

On the same morning, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, riding in a three car convoy with his security detail, was shot at on the road to Dili. This attack was perpetrated by Alfredo’s second-in-command,  Gastão Salsinha.

Reports of the incident characterised it alternately as an assassination attempt, an abortive coup and as a meeting between the rebel leader and the President that went tragically awry.

Hundreds of people attended the Major’s funeral. Ramos Horta publicly forgave him and, far from vilifying him for his role in the turmoil that displaced as many as 150,000 people, most people remember him as a patriot and a hero.

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A Flower in the Dust

[This feature appeared in a somewhat shorter form in the Weekender edition of the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

After decades of violence and suffering, Timor-Leste begins to bloom


There is no view quite so striking in Timor-Leste as a bougainvillea in full flower on a dusty plain. Almost every village house has one, as if to put an exclamation point on the landscape, not simply to announce but to cry out, “I’m here, I’m alive!”

After more than 35 years of violence and catastrophic suffering, at their own hands and those of a cruelly indifferent world, it’s nothing short of a marvel that the Timorese can smile at all. But on September 21st, the world’s youngest nation did just that, and more. For the first time in the country’s history, they gathered to celebrate Peace.

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