Timor-Leste: Scars, Trauma and the Road to Independence

The birth pangs of the region’s youngest nation were more painful than most, and they continue to resonate as Timor-Leste follows the path of freedom

A relatively young country, Timor-Leste is also a fiercely proud one. Its recent history is traumatic in the extreme: upon gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, it fell under Indonesian rule until 2002.

This period proved an unhappy one for the fledgeling nation. As the new overlords conducted a campaign of pacification, resulting in an enormous loss of life, Timor found itself slowly smothered. Outside help failed to materialise as authority slowly, but inexorably, ceded to the Indonesian administration. Rebellious sentiment fostered and fermented: in 1999, a UN-backed referendum saw Timor-Leste vote to claim independence.

Dili harbour

Read more: Escape to the coast at Watabo’o Beach

The resulting chaos left a profound mark on the country, a scar which continues to heal. Bands of brigands, opposed to the vote and backed by Indonesian forces, ran roughshod over the country, bringing the country to its knees as civil war raged. The conflict tore Timor torn asunder, leaving thousands massacred and the country’s infrastructure decimated. Banks, hospitals, power stations, schools: the departing Indonesians destroyed them all to leave the young nation clinging to survival. A dense black pall soon descended.

Recovery has been sure, but slow; the post-conflict period has been a traumatic one as Timor tries to find its feet. There have been wobbles, and the inescapable feeling of being observed and exploited by more developed nations has never vanished. But still, Timor continues to grow and escape the shackles of its history, a proud nation attempting to forge its path into the future.

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