Repairing justice in Timor-Leste

How can survivors of mass violence rebuild their lives?

It’s a question that Timor-Leste’s centre for truth and reconciliation has asked, and one that survivors have answered. Initiatives are taking shape across the island, now two decades out from its independence from Indonesian military occupation.

“Houses of memory to hope” provide homes for survivors who lost their homes during the military occupation that lasted from 1975 to 1999. Ten are in place so far. There are plans to build up to 450, with talk of perhaps ten times that number in time. Meanwhile, survivors are banding together to create small enterprises as a means of livelihood.

The Indonesian occupation claimed some 100,000 lives, filling this small Southeast Asian country of 1.2 million people with tens of thousands of stories of tragedy and loss. Many of those stories inhabit the pages of the Timor-Leste truth commission report Chega! (Portuguese for “no more” or “enough”).

Timor-Leste is now the region’s most democratic country, well advanced in the task of rebuilding. One tool, rare in the world, is a follow-up body to the truth commission. This Centro Nacional Chega! (CNC) is one of the few follow-up bodies in the world — a constant gentle insistence that the work of truth and reconciliation continues.

Truth commissions are often painted as a form of “restorative justice” that brings people together to heal after mass violence and human rights violations. Many see them as a better option than the “retributive justice” of adversarial courts, more centred on the tasks of healing and unity. When Timor-Leste established a truth and reconciliation commission, it added a commitment to “reparative justice” –a bid to repairs the damages of the past.

CNC continues this stress on reparations, on setting things right for victims. Fully 40% of its annual budget goes to reparations for the sobreviventes, the survivors.

Starting in 2019, CNC has made cash payments of $500 (US) to hundreds of survivors. “The funds have been used for income generation activities, health treatments, fixing houses, paying for children’s school fees, and more,” says Hugo Maria Fernandes, CNC’s executive director. “It is one of CNC’s most successful partnerships.”

CNC’s international advisory council visited one of the “houses of memory to hope” in 2022. Timor-Leste offers generous assistance to veterans of the struggle against Indonesian rule, but the most vulnerable survivors can fall through the cracks. We met a family housed in the farm country on back roads from the town of Liquiça, one community hard hit by the violence of the occupation.

Marble floors and interior ventilation keep this house cool. It is simple but spacious, set on a plot of ground that has room for a large vegetable garden, a towering banana tree and a separate cooking house. The new occupants welcome us, show us the sparsely furnished rooms, the cookware hanging from hooks.

More houses are planned. Here, a future seems possible.

On to another settlement near Liquiça, where we ae welcomed by Mana Ana, who was a regional truth commissioner when the Chega! report was being written. She flashes a smile, betel-stained teeth and happiness to see some old friends.

Housing is not the issue here. Instead, this reparations project targets livelihood. CNC has granted $5,000 (US) to a savings group of five families of survivors. The money is seed capital, and follows small business training sessions. The families have invested the funds in livestock — chickens, then in water buffalo, used to plow the fields faster and deeper than a man could manage. Eggs help in a bakery cooperative, while crop yields can rise.

This is one of several savings groups, miniature cooperatives that provide concrete help to families. These savings groups are a model, perhaps. In 2022, inspired by the example, Timor-Leste’s government created a soft loans program for rural credit.

Reparations continue to be one of the most important parts of the ongoing work of truth and reconciliation in post-conflict Timor-Leste. Working with such grassroots groups as Chega! for Us (ACbit), the Victims Association and Asia Justice and Rights, CNC is facilitating access to physical and mental health care for survivors and their families, providing scholarships to the vulnerable, and giving space to survivor groups.

“We are committed to bringing the lessons of the past to guide our decisions and choices as individuals and as a society, working towards the fulfilment of the promise for a better future for all,” says Maria Manuela Leong Pereira of ACbit.

The work of truth and reconciliation does not end after a truth commission reports. It needs to carry on, through reparations and other support to survivors. In this, Timor-Leste is showing the way for other countries, too.

— David Webster