After Years of Violence, Peace for East Timor's People

11/19/2010 11:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Laura Sheahen

Driving through the countryside of East Timor, my Catholic Relief Services colleagues and I pass a volleyball court. "That's from CRS," says Florentino Sarmento, a long-time CRS staffer who has seen violence and war ravage his country. CRS peacebuilding programs often encourage tension-filled communities to build recreational spaces and, literally, play together.

"Why volleyball? Why not soccer?" I've seen CRS programs that put teenagers from opposing groups on the same team, and often soccer is the game that can overcome hostility--across the world, everyone loves "football."

"Because there's less chance of physical contact," says Sarmento.

I blink. More than ever I understand how fragile and fragmented this country, a small nation near Australia, is. Years of Indonesian occupation, followed by a brutal war for independence and savage flare-ups of community violence, have shattered people's trust in their neighbors--or anyone outside their own family.

In villages and cities across Timor-Leste (the country's official name), small wars are still being waged. "Life is cheap here," says Sarmento. Teens fight with knives and slingshots; grown-ups fight with swords and homemade rifles. They fight over turf, over a dowry, over a water buffalo.

"There are layers and layers of conflict and violence from the past here. People remember the killings from the 1970s and 1999 and 2006," continues Sarmento, referring to crisis moments in East Timor's history. "They are taking revenge for the past."

Timor is one of the world's newest countries, and its fledgling justice system has not always kept pace with events. Many people take the law into their own hands: "If you kill someone, the other villagers will burn your house and try to kill you," says Sarmento.

CRS steps into these deep divides, working with people to find out what the whole community can agree on, like the need for a well or a bridge. Slowly and painstakingly, CRS staff brings angry groups to a common table.

"The most frightening thing is bringing these people together," says Florentino Fernandes, CRS project team leader. "In a meeting, they might explode and use physical violence."

So before a joint meeting, CRS staffers analyze the community's tensions and reasons why people are fighting. They keep groups separate until they sign an agreement in public, saying they won't turn to violence. In some cases, a formal reconciliation ceremony is part of the process. To celebrate the peace agreement, an animal is slaughtered and cooked for the entire community. In the future, whoever breaks the agreement will be fined an animal of the same size to feed the entire community.

The final step is bringing groups together to work on projects. Previously opposing neighbors might build irrigation systems for rice and fish ponds, bridges, village meeting halls, or sports facilities. CRS provides the materials and technical support, but the people themselves create the volleyball court or water pipeline themselves.

The peacebuilding projects get at unresolved issues that some manipulate for political reasons. "At bottom, they are conflicts over resources: land boundaries, water, rice fields, cattle," says Sarmento. "But they turn it into politics and say, 'You didn't fight for independence.' "

Duarte de Conceicao Suares, a 59-year-old man in the isolated village of Ossoala, is relatively lucky. Political tensions in his village are not as high as in other areas, though arguments and violence can break out over things like dowries and land rights. Water for the fields is a key issue, especially because villagers go hungry when they can't grow enough food. There hasn't been serious violence in Suare's village over water, but people "shout at each other about it," he says.

CRS bought water pipes, concrete, and other supplies so villagers could create a reservoir and storage tank. They also cleared away tall grasses and bushes that had overgrown the channel after a landslide. The system directs water to fields that once were dry because a landslide had blocked the water's path. "The whole irrigation system was done by the community," says Suares. "I see CRS as a helping hand from God."

The water now feeds land where lettuce, rice and other crops grow. In one field, two older women--Rosa Maria do Carmo and Julieta Gomes--are harvesting rice. They're going to use the rice for their family's food, not to sell. "Last year, nothing was growing here," they say.

"The scheme has united everyone around it," says Fernandes. "It's not for one group only--the irrigation system waters the whole community's rice plot."

In other parts of the country, CRS has brought together children of divided families to learn English, music and sports. Children from different families then reconcile their divided parents.

"I've witnessed the change in attitudes and behavior," says Maria Guterres, CRS reintegration officer. "People who didn't talk to each other, they changed. They can now talk to each other, they work together."

With funding from the United Nations Development Program and the Australian government, the program has helped 8,000 people, mitigating resentment that could trigger a return to violence. As time goes by, handshakes or hugs may replace shouting and knife-fights; there may be less volleyball and more soccer.

"The tensions are there, but people can agree on the common ground and they can work together," says Sarmento. "What I like best is healing the broken relationships, bringing people together."

Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Cambodia.