Report – By Meagan Weymes in Dili
Night times during the Indonesian occupation meant staying indoors for Franchilina ‘Anche’ Cabral — she was too scared of the military to do anything else.
Now, 13 years after East Timor voted for independence, its fastest female cyclist and more than 300 others have cycled across the border into Indonesia on the Tour de Timor as a gesture of friendship between the two nations.
This year is the fourth Tour de Timor, but the first time the six-day mountain bike race has crossed international borders, weaving through Indonesian West Timor into the mountainous enclave of Oecusse.
“In 1999 it was really hard because of the Indonesian army,” said Cabral, who last year claimed victory in the women’s category of the race.
“We were afraid to go out at night so we’d just stay home. We felt there was no freedom,” she said.
Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and occupied the small half-island nation for 24 years, during which more than 183,000 people died from fighting, disease and starvation.
In 1999, East Timor voted for independence in a UN-sponsored referendum, but after the vote militias went on a campaign of violence, destroying much of the nation’s infrastructure.
“Everybody knows Timor and Indonesia had problems before, but this race is an opportunity for us to rebuild our relationship, so we can be good neighbors,” 27-year-old Cabral said, after finishing the fourth phase of the six-stage race, that began Monday and ends Saturday.
“It was really great to see so many Indonesians lined up along the route and cheering us on when we rode through,” Cabral said.
The Tour de Timor was originally an initiative of Nobel laureate and former president Jose Ramos-Horta to promote peace in East Timor.
“If Timor-Leste can host a successful Tour de Timor, a bike race that engages hundreds of participants, locals and internationals, then it must mean that the country is peaceful,” he said, using the country’s formal name.
Ramos-Horta says he discussed the tour crossing the border with Indonesian President Susilio Bambang Yudhoyono last May.
“He immediately understood and grasped the symbolic importance of the Tour de Timor crossing into Indonesian Territory on the way to Oecusse and back.”
‘We need to forget about the past’
It has been a busy year for East Timor, one of the Asia-Pacific region’s poorest countries that celebrated a decade of formal independence in May and also held presidential and parliamentary elections that were largely peaceful.
By the end of this year it will bid farewell to UN peacekeepers, the present contingent here since 2006 after a political crisis in which dozens were killed and tens of thousands displaced.
The only major violence since then was a failed assassination attempt in 2008 on Ramos-Horta, who has remained steadfast in calling for forgiveness and reconciliation over the occupation.
Tour de Timor volunteer Helio Miguel Araujo crossed the border from East Timor into Indonesia for the first time in 1999, fleeing to a refugee camp in Kupung.
The now 22-year-old left East Timor for six months, but in that time lost family members in the violence.
“After six months I felt I had to go back home, and we decided to go back but had to hide from the Indonesian government.”
Despite losing many family members and friends, Araujo is adamant about the need to forgive and forget the past.
Focus on development
“If we just think about the past then what will happen to our future? We need to forget about the past and focus on our development.”
Despite offshore oil and gas fields, East Timor’s abject poverty is visible everywhere. There are few paved roads anywhere in the country, in the villages children walk barefoot and eat from the bare ground in slums, and even in Dili neighborhoods routinely flood during the rainy seasons.
In the tour, while some riders have full support teams, others sleep on cardboard boxes, a sign of the poverty that affects an estimated half the 1.1 million population.
Malaysian cyclist Sharin Amir was in the lead four days into the race, when two days of grueling cycling still remained.
Those racing on the 555-km Tour de Timor include professional riders through to novices, with 96 riders registered from East Timor.
The tour finishes in Dili at the weekend, with the winners sharing a prize pool of more than $100,000.