Of course the prision can't help but look nice from the outside in a tropical country

When I decided to take my own advice and re-visit Timor-Leste, I didn’t expect to find myself in a dark suffocating prison. Travel is not just about beaches, bars and mountain tops; its also about learning the history of the country and its people. I am sure the 13 odd government employees I brought with me to learn about post-conflict land administration and conflict management were hoping for the former. I can’t name where the officials are from as elements of their own government might not be happy we discussed ethnic reconciliation. If you know me well, I am sure you can guess.

The Indonesian era prison is actually home to a permanent exhibit on the Reconciliation process that occurred in Timor after independence, called the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR). It is tricky business getting people together to admit to crimes they committed against their neighbors, but it’s an exercise that’s vital to forgiving and moving on to a more peaceful society. With war raging in Afghanistan, and post-war countries like Iraq trying to move on, examples like the process in Timor are a great way for travelers to gain a greater appreciation for the difficulties so many countries face around the world.

The family greets you as you enter the mildew soaked buildings

If you are planning a trip to Timor-Leste I recommend a visit to the exhibition, but if you can’t get away just yet here is short tour from my visit.

Community meetings and reconciliation

The CAVR was asked to investigate less serious crimes and bring victims and persecutors together to reconcile. Most people wanted reconciliation, but also rehabilitation for victims, engagement with refugees, and grassroots reconciliation based on both traditional methods and involving the Church.

About 1,371 reconciliations were facilitated by CAVR between perpetrators and victims of less serious crimes.

Before the (CRP) I felt ashamed to walk around the village. Now when I walk around, I feel freer. People didn’t talk to me sometimes before. Now I feel that people are more open. Before I felt a weight on me when I went to work in the fields.

As you walk though the prison various rooms are set up with displays showing the history of not only the CAVR but also a history of Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence from Indonesia.

Presentation by one of the members of the CAVR and director of the exhibit

Description of the Isolation Cell

As you move through the exhibit it is impossible not to be moved by the pain and suffering experienced by the Timorese people. And yet amid all of this suffering there is a message of hope, justice and peace. Nothing can become  so bad as to be beyond redemption as there is also an equal ability of forgiveness by human beings.

Of course this does not make it any easier and some of the images are graphic and disturbing. Such as the one below (scroll fast if you do not want to see).

Inside the prison cells

At the end of the tour you are brought to a small garden to discuss what you have seen, share your feelings and work through what is at once a shame for human beings but also a model of triumph and forgiveness. As the humid breeze  brushes your hair, the palm trees groan under the weight of gigantic coconuts, and the twittering of birds fill your ears you are reminded that nature has a capacity to revert to its original self, as do we humans after tragedy has stuck. The final message the tour has for you is not one of the past, but of the present. On the wall leading out is a question, scrolled in illuminating moss and algae: “What will you do for human rights now?”

Its a good question. Hopefully more travelers take it to heart and leave something positive wherever they go.

The CAVR exhibition is open to the public each working day on Balide Rd in Dili. Tour guides are available in English and Tetun. Bookings and further information are available at: tel 3310315, email chegatours@gmail.com

Have a strong feeling about the CARV? What do you think about a traveler’s responsibilities? Leave a comment below.

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3 Responses to “Reconciliation and Human Rights in Timor-Leste (East Timor): more to travel than just beaches and beer”

  1. Just found your blog – love it!

  2. JesseNo Gravatar says:

    I see your vision there as Timor is still getting started for a new humane civilization, the rehabilitation of the social conflict is a quest to focus on.

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hi Jesse, I was really surprised at how much progress Timor has made since I left in 2006. Nice to see, although there is still more work to be done. On the plus side it is a beautiful country and still one of the few “wild” places left to visit.

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