The Newest Country on Earth: East Timor After 30 Years of Civil War

East Timor19

Originally Published in November 2003

It never occurred to me that there was a real possibility of getting shot here. I was on assignment to write a story on what has happened since East Timor gained its independence from Indonesia just one year ago. Nationhood had proven to be a difficult birth. There had been a brutal 23-year struggle between the Timorese freedom fighters (known as the Falintil) and the Indonesian regular army. Finally, on May 20, 2002, East Timor emerged as the world’s newest country in the family of Pacific island nations.

From the very first day of my arrival at Comoro Airport in the capital city of Dili, I felt a little edgy. I saw heavily armed soldiers from the UN multinational peacekeeping force amble along an otherwise peaceful looking section of beachside near my room. Years of living in my home state of Hawai‘i had taught me to enjoy the serenity of waves lapping tenderly onto the shoreline. In East Timor, a false sense of tranquility could prove to be an illusion that might get you killed.

The East Timorese have not been free for over 500 years. Back in the 16th century, Portugal and the Netherlands divided a tiny, cigar-shaped volcanic islet and made the people to the west a part of the Dutch East Indies (now known as Indonesia). The eastern portion of the island became the Portuguese colony known as Timor Leste and remained a colonial outpost until November 18, 1975. But a mere nine days after decolonization by Portugal, Indonesia invaded East Timor.