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Passionate for change
in Timor-Leste

A former refugee and advocate for ordinary people, Isabel Gutterres now leads the Timor Leste Red Cross Society. This is the world’s youngest country, a land that is struggling to find peace.

INSECURITY has been a part of life in Timor-Leste for decades. Conflict marked the long, traumatic birth of this tiny South-East Asian nation in May 1999, when it won independence from Indonesia. In April 2006, trouble again flared and international peacekeepers were sent in to quell looting and violence that killed at least 30 people and forced 150,000 of the country’s 1 million inhabitants to flee their homes.

In late 2006, sporadic fighting continues and tens of thousands of people remain displaced.

The challenges are enormous for the country and for the National Society, says Isabel Gutterres, secretary general of the Timor Leste Red Cross Society, or Cruz Vermelha de Timor-Leste, which was officially admitted to the International Federation in November 2005. “The violence has affected us all, even within the National Society,” she says as she steers her car along the coast of Dili, where the Savu Sea washes against the shore, to the office of the National Society.

During the violent clashes in 2006, the Timor Leste Red Cross’s 200 active volunteers worked with the ICRC and the International Federation to distribute food and water to 14,000 displaced people at six temporary shelters. The National Society’s 15 experienced water technicians, who had proved themselves in Indonesia in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, the society’s first overseas mission, again went to work. However, the unrest disrupted many of the normal programmes such as disaster management, including avian influenza preparedness, community-based first aid, water and sanitation, and health. And it made it more difficult for staff and volunteers to help thousands of farmers whose crops and homes were destroyed by strong winds and flash floods in January.

Timor-Leste, formerly known as East Timor, is Asia’s poorest country, with 40 per cent of people living below the poverty line. Occupying the eastern side of Timor Island, which lies between Indonesia and Australia, Timor-Leste is the fastest-growing country in the world, with a fertility rate of 7.6 children per woman, but many children do not survive as access to health care and safe drinking water is poor.

Decreasing people’s vulnerability is one of Gutterres’s primary goals. Central to this will be giving women more of a voice, says the tiny, energetic secretary general, who took up her post on 1 February 2006.

“In the past, our society was dominated by men, but now there is a room for women to participate. I believe women have important contributions to make to bring about change for the better.”


Isabel Gutterres has never been afraid of lending her voice to causes she believes are just. In 1986, she was involved in the student protest movement, but fear for her life made her leave East Timor. “It was either the jungle or abroad — there was no other choice.” She spent 13 years as a refugee in Australia, where she graduated as a nurse.

In 1999 she returned to Timor-Leste, which was now an independent nation. She quickly took up a position as a registered nurse with the Jesuit Refugee Service, mainly caring for former combatants. Helping people in need gave her great satisfaction, she says, and she started speaking out on their behalf at inter-agency meetings. People listened to her.

Gutterres was one of seven people appointed in 2002 to the newly established Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, a body set up to enquire into human rights violations during the struggle for independence from Indonesia between 1974 and 1999.

Haunting voices

“I was on the commission for three years and we were all struck by the humble nature of what most survivors seek,” she recalls. “Overwhelmingly, they asked for some kind of accountability and assistance to participate on an even footing in the new democratic Timor-Leste.

“Yet, for many, this participation was difficult, due to the hardship and suffering inflicted on them.”

Many witness accounts haunt her. A woman told of rushing to the aid of her husband, who had been shot along with some other men in the centre of a town in the early 1990s. Unlike the other men, who were dead, the woman’s husband had survived with serious injuries. She pleaded for her husband’s life but the commander rejected her plea.

The woman clung to her husband, who told her, “You must be brave and take care of the children. But you must also remember to tell my story.”

Then they were pulled apart. The woman watched as her husband was buried alive. Her last sight of him was his hands reaching for her.

“Those are witness accounts you never forget,” says Isabel Gutterres slowly. “But on the other hand, in the name of the victims, we shouldn’t try to forget.”

Timor-Leste’s traumatic past — and the unrest in 2006 — has left its scars on people.

“Even though there has been very little actual violence this year, people are fearful and traumatized. Thisprevents them from returning home,” she says.

“It’s important to move on and rebuild confidence in the communities. People must be able to heal and to trust each other again.”

Her hope is that a strong Timor Leste Red Cross, which now has 10,000 members, will help rebuild the country.

“The Cruz Vermelha de Timor-Leste has an important role to play in helping heal the wounds of the unrest, through its activities, its volunteers and the seven Fundamental Principles.

“I have always worked with people. Now it’s also about helping my country. To me, nothing could be more important.”



Isabel Gutterres was welcomed into Timor Leste Red Cross Society in a year in which international peacekeepers were called in to quell violence that forced thousands of families to flee.


















East Timorese women carry their belongings as they are being moved to an evacuation centre after clashes between supporters and opponents of ousted Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri in Dili 28 June, 2006.


Maude Froberg
Maude Froberg is International Federation information delegate in South-East Asia.



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