Michael and Cheree: Michael & Cheree Flanagan’s CommUNITY News no. 3

Children at CER Community participate in Open Hands Day
Just over fourteen months ago we arrived in East Timor all ready to embrace our two-year Palms placement at Ahisaun, in Dili. Everything was unfamiliar to us. The culture, language, way of life and people were very different to what we had known before. As the months passed, a deep fondness began to grow in us for the country and its people. We started to come to know the Ahisaun community and plant seeds within our work. Strong friendships and bonds were formed with the young people and volunteers. We then began noticing the seeds of our work beginning to germinate, when a strong gust of wind and black storm began to loom. When we closed our eyes to stop the dust going in we found ourselves back in Australia. This was a great comfort and relief to family and friends but to us it was clouded with great sadness and disillusion.

With this in mind, it seems surreal to be writing our first newsletter for 2006 back in Australia, while our new friends in East Timor are displaced and struggling more than ever. The pain we feel is not for ourselves but for the remarkable and resilient people we have left behind.

We had begun some positive relationships with other organisations that would benefit Ahisaun.

The start of the year had been very positive. After the Christmas – New Year period, we got back into our work and things were moving along. One of our big projects was getting our Board set up, and we had our first meeting in February, which was a great step forward. In addition, we had begun some positive relationships with other organisations that we felt were going to be beneficial for Ahisaun. These included Arte Moris, an art group who, with backing from a government department, were in the process of setting up an income-generating art project for Ahisaun. We had also received some positive feedback about one of our proposals for our new premises.

Mic, Cheree and Barry on Atauro Island
On April 28 a protest held in Dili in response to the dismissal of 600 Timorese soldiers turned violent. This marked the beginning of uncertain times for the tiny island, East Timor. It was shortly after this event that our Timorese host, Mario, also the Director of Ahisaun and owner of our rented house, told us that it was unsafe to stay in Dili. He and the Ahisaun community were organising to leave Dili and stay elsewhere until the situation calmed. We then made arrangements to stay with the Christian Brothers Community (CER) who are based in a village community outside of the capital, Dili. We stayed two weeks with CER helping them out with their ministry in teaching English, women’s sewing classes and running art and games activities with the local kids. At the same time we kept on high alert with the regular ABC news updates and information from the locals about the situation. This wonderful two weeks was clouded with worry about the fate of our new love, East Timor.

We came back to Dili for one night before boarding a ferry to Atauro Island. We decided to take up an invitation from Barry, another Palms Volunteer, who was working on an Eco-Lodge on Atauro Island, just 3 hours north of Dili. The island that we had long desired to see was absolute paradise. We stayed in a traditional hut right opposite the ocean. It was a perfect spot for reading, relaxing, swimming and snorkelling. We spent many hours on the balcony sharing time with Barry and with the family he lived with. Barry allowed us into the pain of the loss of his eight-month pregnant wife, Nema just 2 1/2 months earlier. We were privileged to listen to his thoughts, feelings, insights and love of Nema over the course of the two weeks. We were welcomed by Barry and his family with open arms and open hearts.

Our homecoming to Australia has been one of great support and love. We want to extend our deep thanks and appreciation for this.

Things turned violent again in Dili, and on Wednesday 24 May we got word from Palms that an evacuation flight had been organised to depart from Dili the following day. As we were able to get safe passage to Dili and get to the meeting spot, Hotel Turismo, we left on a charter boat the following morning for Dili. It again seemed surreal that the situation in Dili had deteriorated so much that an evacuation was required. Even though we had our passports on hand for a month, we didn’t really imagine having to use them. May 25, 2006 is a day that we will never forget. We spent seven hours waiting at the checkpoint for our shuttle bus to transport us to Dili airport. As gunfire and grenades went off around us and roads to the airport blocked it seemed unlikely that we would be able to board our evacuation flight. But at 4.30pm somehow with many blessings on our side we made it safely to the airport and within no time were safely in the air on our way to Townsville. With just a small backpack we arrived in Townsville, via Darwin, for a debrief before waiting to see what would happen next. Within a few days of being in Townsville it became clear that we wouldn’t be returning back to East Timor in a hurry, as we first thought. With helplessness we watched the media coverage of East Timor and saw with disbelief many buildings and streets familiar to us. The magnitude of the situation became real and our sadness began to deepen.

Our homecoming to Australia has been one of great support and love. We have had amazing support from the people around us and want to extend our deep thanks and appreciation for this. It is our hope to return to Dili and Ahisaun once the situation stabilises and when daily life resumes. When that may be is anyone’s guess. In the meantime we continue to pray for the special people of East Timor and for an end to their suffering and pain.

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There is both a moral and social responsibility attaching to these experiences of foreign cultures,
and if nothing awakens in our own soul, making claims and demands upon us,
calling us to change the way we live, then we have been merely parasites and invaders. - David Tacey