Tue, 10 Jun 2003

E. Timor women must tell of RI atrocities

Karen Campbell-Nelson, Researcher, Commission for Reception, Truth-seeking, and Reconciliation (CAVR), Dili, East Timor

Women's experience of the conflict demands special attention and reflection because, as the stories of Beatriz and the other women at the public hearing suggest, it is different from men's. Stories of rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage, and sexual torture -- not only at the hands of Indonesian police and soldiers, but also those of the other parties in the conflict, Fretilin and UDT -- make clear that women are sexually vulnerable in a way men are not.

Because women are socially constructed as primary caretakers and nurturers of children, guardians of the hearth, healers of those in pain, their social identity is derived from their biological roles as those who give birth and nurse. When they are sexually violated, it is not only their bodies that suffer; their very identity as women is attacked.

This, then, is a part of women's suffering. Many women continue to suffer physical trauma -- they cannot give birth or only do so painfully, their sexual organs are scarred or damaged. But also damaged is their sense of self. How can they come to accept themselves as whole women if they or others feel their sexual abuse has soiled their reputation and moral character for life? How can they heal?

"Reconcile" comes from the Latin word re-conciliare. It means "again-make friendly". Indeed one of the mandates of the Commission for Reception, Truth-seeking, and Reconciliation (CAVR) is to facilitate a process whereby relations among those estranged from each other can be reformed and enemies can become friends once again.

When I consider the experiences and trauma of women in Timor Leste, my understanding of what reconciliation might mean for women is aided when I reflect on another word -- integration from the Latin word integrare, to make whole. What I observed during the public hearing on Women and Conflict was women yearning for integration at three levels.

First, women who suffered abuse during the years of conflict in Timor Leste are at once victims and survivors. We celebrate their courage, fortitude, resourcefulness, and strength when we recognize them as survivors. But we must also recognize them as victims who long to be healed.

Listening to women who shared their experiences I was reminded the healing process may take a lifetime, but it is supported when women are given the opportunity to tell what they know. Telling what they know enables women to take steps towards personal integration.

They need to hear they are valued and loved and to have their questions answered. When one participant expressed concerns about the status of her marriage since her rape by a militia commander in 1999, it was healing for her to hear one of CAVR's National Commissioners, Father Juvito, tell her that rape cannot nullify her marriage.

Telling what they know to others who want to listen helps women place the abuse outside themselves where it can be seen, heard, and whittled down, piece by piece, rather than allowing it to eat away at them from the inside like a silent cancerous growth.

Second, by telling what they know in public, women also become integrated into the truth-seeking and reconciliation process in Timor Leste. However, given the burden of patriarchy it is not enough simply to make opportunities available to women along with men.

The opportunities must be especially for women, something that requires planning, preparation, and often an inordinate amount of support and encouragement for women. The proceedings of this public hearing were broadcast live over national television and radio.

This will hopefully encourage other women to come forward with their statements, to tell what they know to members of CAVR district teams throughout Timor Leste so that their perspectives and experiences are integrated into what would otherwise be a male-dominated process.

And once women are integrated into the process, the stakes for reconciliation are raised. Take Beatriz. Ideally she would receive support for herself and her children from the fathers of her children. Since that is not forthcoming and it is unlikely the Indonesian military will compensate Beatriz for her suffering, then it falls to religious and political institutions in Timor Leste to address her situation.

But what about her friends and family? The men of her community who pushed her into unwanted common law marriages, not once, but three times? Beatriz still lives in this community and has made enough peace with herself and others to continue living there.

But to integrate women into the truth and reconciliation process demands acknowledgement of uncomfortable truths about local communities. The Commission might ask itself: What would be a process of reconciliation for healing this dimension of abuse?

Third, the recent public hearing also suggests something about political integration. At the conclusion of a testimony by Maria, another woman who was yet to tell her story, Victoria, spontaneously arose and came forward, making an impassioned confession.

She admitted to having been involved with the Fretilin fighters who tortured Maria. Victoria yearned for public confession and forgiveness. Victoria approached Maria and hugged her and Maria hugged Victoria in return.

When the women who spoke came together from different corners of Timor Leste and began telling what they know to each other, it became apparent to them that what was common about the violations they suffered was that they were politically-motivated, were instigated by men, and mostly perpetrated by men.

Although some women, such as Victoria, were drawn in as perpetrators, the political, social-economic, and personal disintegration due to conflict in Timor Leste must be seen as driven by men of all political persuasions and in that sense, no men won as a result of the conflict.

Without the stories of women to balance those of men, whatever political integration may exist for Timor Leste will not be total. The truth will remain distorted and reconciliation may only contribute to a future in which men's friendly relations allow the violation of women's human rights to continue. Reconciliation in Timor Leste must seek to make individuals, communities, and the nation whole.

After years of so much fragmentation this is not easy, but it must be done for shattered lives and communities cannot be swept away like glass. Some women began piecing together fragments when they spoke of gender-based violence at this public hearing.

The process remains a fragile, yet beautiful one. Listening to these women tell what they know was at once a painful and strengthening experience that helped me to better understand how such a small country could survive such a history of pain.

If the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, then Timor Leste's future promises to be a great one as long as the women's parts are told, reconciled, and integrated.