02/13/2008 08:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jose Ramos-Horta: Stronger than an Assassin's Bullet

In working with Nobel Peace Prize winners over the last seven years, I have often said that there are "Mandelas and Gandhis" sprinkled around the world who are too little recognized.

As a democracy activist under two military regimes in South Korea, Kim Dae Jung survived three assassination attempts, was kidnapped by South Korean intelligence, sentenced to death, imprisoned and held under house arrest before being elected President of South Korea -- and then he initiated the peace process with North Korea.

Oscar Arias got Central American leaders to shut themselves in a hotel room until they came up with a peace agreement putting an end to the Sandinista-Contra conflict.

There are others. They share a common media fate: They fall out of the news when the shooting stops and, unfortunately, before we have the chance to learn the lessons that their lives have to offer.

José Ramos-Horta is certainly one of those. On Monday morning in East Timor, he was the target of an assassin and was shot twice. After an evening of conflicting reports, I received a phone call saying he had a 50/50 chance of surviving. I realized that if he died, it would be a story for a day, with follow ups for two or three more, and after the story of who showed up at the funeral, it would become old news. And we would have lost a treasure we weren't aware we had.

What most people know about East Timor comes from three major news events. In 1992, when Indonesia was occupying the country -- and it was one of the most brutal occupations in history -- more than 300 Timorese students were gunned down during a peaceful protest for democracy. In 1999, after a UN referendum for independence, the country was torched by pro-Indonesia militia who had been put in place by the Indonesian military; 85% of the country's buildings were burned, foreign journalists and others were killed in the streets, hundreds of thousands were displaced. UN forces moved in to restore peace -- which was shattered by violence in the streets and more torched homes in 2006.

The images have been stark, and frightening. Some of the Timorese youth painted their faces, making them look like savages. Machete-wielding youth, burned-out homes and refugees make good news photos.

The story that's been missed on East Timor is what didn't happen in the struggle for resistance -- bombs, suicide or otherwise, in markets and nightclubs. They didn't happen because José Ramos-Horta, who was the international voice for the Timorese people during occupation, and Xanana Gusmao, the imprisoned resistance leader, told the fighters that if they heard of one instance of the resistance targeting innocent civilians, they would quit.

This is likely why they were able to achieve independence. They did not become terrorists, which might have been justified -- and would have justified their being wiped out in the eyes of the international community. They did not give Indonesia the opportunity to say it "had to" occupy East Timor for its own security. Instead, they gained the sympathy of the international community, and through expert diplomacy on José's part, they won the right to toss out the occupiers and elect their own leaders.

What didn't happen after 1999 was recrimination and revenge. Again, José and Xanana, the country's resistance heroes, had never in their speeches slurred the Indonesian people. Nor did they allow others to. They made it clear that the struggle was against an army, not a people. After the referendum, they urged the Timorese to forgive. The Indonesians who remained in East Timor were treated like other residents. East Timor did not become another Balkans. The Timorese did not build generations of atrocities and counter-atrocities into their country's future.

I was in East Timor four times between 2000 and 2006. Aside from the presence of UN peacekeepers, who shipped out in 2002, you would not have known this was a conflict zone. As a stranger walking down the street, countless Timorese flashed me huge smiles and warm "Bon Tardes!" More than once we turned a corner in a car only to find people crowding in the streets singing and dancing -- for a religious holiday, for a wedding, for any excuse. I spent many evenings on verandas of homes drinking wine with Timorese friends and listening to some hysterically funny stories of the resistance days. You would have never known that just a few years earlier these same people were afraid to go out at night for fear of being raped or beaten, that when they walked down the street they would look at the ground to avoid confrontation with a soldier. You would not know that pretty much each of them had had at least one family member killed or disappeared during the occupation. Or that many of them had seen entire families and villages extinguished.

In 2005, I was with José and Paul Simon in Timor, distributing mosquito nets. José was Prime Minister then, and spent two days out of his office with us, going out to the villages, helping us get the nets distributed, helping to get a traveling medical clinic to go with us and vaccinate children, and holding a town meeting in one of the mountain villages where we went. Before leaving his house, José packed his car with packages of clothes. As we were driving up the mountain roads (four hours -- ouch), the kids would come running down to the road at the sound of a car -- any car. We would stop, José would hop out and distribute clothes. Not a photo op -- there was not a photographer or media person in site. This was, really, his idea of fun.

On the way back to Dili on that trip, I remember making the comment as we were driving through the countryside that peace doesn't make the news. Because, really, it's not a story. Peace is people tilling their fields, going to market, talking to their neighbors, falling in love, having babies, going to work. When it's achieved, it falls out of the international news. When it's lost, the world knows.

There was a cost to the rebirth I had the good fortune to experience in Timor. In the course of forgiveness, ex-militia members returned to their villages. There was debate over whether José and Xanana's eagerness to forgive and move on and rebuild had neglected the need for justice. But José and Xanana were students of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mandela. To do other than forgive would have gone against their grain.

Don't think for a moment there was stupidity behind their thinking. Meet José, listen to him talking about his country, and you will realize you are with one of the really brilliant ones. He was looking beyond the one village, the one militia member. He was looking at the kind of country he wanted East Timor to be. As president, instead of fixing the country's attention on a game of cat and mouse with Alfredo Renaido, the rebel who tried to kill him, he was doing things like unlocking the trust from the country's oil revenues, using them to create a "fast track" fund for projects to create jobs and rehabilitate the villages, improving education, even piloting solar power.

The debate will rage again now. José had called off the manhunt for Renaido. He had wanted a peaceful solution. He had, instead, gone to meet with Renaido. He wanted a negotiated surrender. When Renaido and his boys showed up at his house yesterday morning, even after hearing of a gunfight, he walked up to meet them. Anyone who knows him hears this and says, "Of course he did."

These are the people who start the conversations we all need to have. We all needed José Ramos-Horta to make it through the last 72 hours. We need him to win at what he is doing. And we need to learn the lessons of East Timor's trials while the two men who have made its history are still around to tell.

Mary Wald is the Chairman of Six Nobel Peace Prize Laureates sit on its Advisory Board. José Ramos-Horta has been the Chairman of the site's Advisory Board since 2000. Messages can be sent to President Ramos-Horta in the hospital via