Each
morning over the past week I have watched large groups of women
and children walk past my house, carrying bed mats or small plastic
bags of clothes, either heading home from a
safer bed or towards a church compound for food after another night of fear.

To
many of the Timorese people holed up in their homes or in the
increasing number of camps across Dili, frustration at the failure of
the political leadership to act is mounting. But the consequences of
the continuing political impasse are not being felt by the leadership,
most of whom seem immune or blind to the crisis around them. How else
to describe the ability to continually talk while so many thousands of
people are being killed or injured or displaced – their homes burnt to the ground or attacked by mobs of (mainly young) men?

The victims of all this are
primarily women and children – East Timor is a very
young country, with the highest fertility rate in the world (more than
seven births per woman) and more than 50% of people aged under 18 years. Under incredibly difficult circumstances,
the women have to continue to care for their families, do the cooking
and manage appalling sanitation conditions. Two days ago I visited a
woman who was the third to give birth in her camp; her baby is now four
days old. With a diet of basically rice and water, she’s trying her
best to breastfeed. Yesterday when I saw her, she was the focus of a
BBC film crew.

Today,
the women and children have responded to
the actions of the men in power and the men on the streets. At 9
o’clock this morning, some 150 Timorese women and children started
gathering outside the prime minister’s office to start a three-day
peace rally. The women were dressed predominantly in white (to
symbolise peace) or black (to mark their grieving), while the children
sang and chanted slogans.

The peace rally has been organised by
a group of non-governmental organisations, led by the Peace and
Democracy Foundation (established by Dr Ramos Horta from his Nobel
Peace Prize funds), along with Alola Foundation, Fokupers, Rede Feto
(Timorese women’s NGOs), and some nuns from the Catholic Diocese of
Dili. Australian troops are providing security.

The
people
involved in this “Peace Rally of Women and Children of Timor-Leste” are
saying they will not cooperate with leaders who lack the capacity to
govern, and will actively advocate a vote against political candidates
who do not listen to them. The rally is expected to demand that an
international independent commission investigate the recent violence,
including the “bad attitude” of some leaders, and that the government
rebuild the houses that have been destroyed.

The children are
calling for an end to the sound of weapons and an end to blood being spilled “in our homes, in our neighbourhood, on the
streets”. And to be able to go back to school.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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