Reprinted with permission from The New York Times, May 27, 2001.
Their land was brutally occupied by the Indonesian army for years, then ransacked and burned by Indonesian-backed militias less than two years ago. Many have seen their homes destroyed, their families dispersed and their possessions looted. They have no special training facilities, poor equipment, inadequate nutrition and little money. But less than a year after their emotional participation in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the athletes on the East Timorese national running team are rebuilding a program, empowering themselves and inspiring a future nation.
I went to East Timor in the beginning of May to interview the marathoner Aguida Amaral, whose performance in the Sydney Games inspired the world. Much of East Timor remains in shambles since Indonesian-supported militias rampaged the half-island east of the Indonesian archipelago in 1999 after a popular vote for independence in a United Nations-sponsored referendum. The process of rebuilding structures, institutions and lives is just beginning.
At the Taci-Tolu training grounds west of East Timor's capital, Dili, the runners wondered why a strange foreigner had appeared in the moonlit field for their 5:30 a.m. practice, but they offered a reassuringly warm greeting nonetheless. Amaral and her teammates were in the final stages of preparing for the Arafura Games, a biannual regional multisport competition in Darwin, Australia, which began May 19 and ended yesterday.
The Arafura Games are big news in East Timor; this would be the first time East Timorese athletes had competed under their own flag. But just two weeks before the games, the athletes were still uncertain which flag it would be ? the flag of the United Nations mission administering East Timor or the flag of the coordinated resistance movement from the Indonesian period.
We started the workout with 13 half-mile runs around the perimeter of the field, with a two-minute rest between each. As we ran, we passed the skeletal remains of burned homes and the site of a massacre by the Indonesian army following its bloody 1975 invasion of this former Portuguese colony. Discarded plastic bottles and scraps of cardboard make the grounds look more like a landfill than a training ground for elite athletes. Over the ensuing week of runs along the island-nation's sun- drenched coast, sharing water and meeting families, I learned more about Amaral and her remarkable teammates, who are helping to build a nation, step by step.
Amaral, 28, a powerful 4 feet 10 inches with a face-encompassing smile, has become a source of national pride following her 43rd-place finish in the Olympic marathon in a time of 3 hours 10 minutes 55 seconds. In the year before the Sydney Games, she had been forcibly separated from her husband and sent to a squalid refugee camp, where she and her three children slept beside a dirt road.
After the Australian-led military intervention in September 1999, she returned to a tearful reunion with her husband and began training. Pregnant with her fourth child, she ran barefoot in the smoldering capital city because her running shoes had been looted along with her other possessions. "I needed to keep going," she said. "Quitting was not an option."
Amaral, beaming, completed the final lap of the Olympic marathon to thunderous applause.
Because East Timor is not yet considered a fully independent country, but rather a United Nations protectorate, Amaral and the other three East Timorese Olympians ? a marathoner, a boxer and a weight lifter ? marched under the Olympic flag and competed in white uniforms as individual Olympic athletes. At home in poverty- stricken East Timor, anyone with access to a television ? many crammed into churches ? watched spellbound and often in tears as Amaral and the other East Timorese athletes introduced their newfound freedom to the world. Amaral returned from Sydney and began training for the Arafura Games, determined to top her best time.
While training with the runners at the Taci-Tolu grounds, I found that each of them had a similarly remarkable story.
Xavier Dorego, the 25-year-old team clown and prankster, had secretly joined the Falantil resistance movement before the 1999 referendum. He fled into the dense Timorese hills when violence broke out and became the runner for the terrified population hiding in the forest. He would race two miles to the nearby town of Dare to secretly bring back Timorese doctors to treat wounded patients too afraid to seek medical care in the Indonesian-controlled towns. Dorego later led Australian troops on a rescue of the weakened forest population. In Dili, he learned that his cousin and his uncle had been shot and killed by militias.
"I run to honor their memory," he said.
Mariana Dias Ximenes, a thoughtful and cherubic 19-year-old, returned from the hills after the Australian intervention and saw the Dili harbor filled with the bloated bodies of the dead. But as Ximenes watched her friends Amaral and Calisto Da Costa, the men's marathoner, running in the Olympics less than a year later, she vowed that she would make it to the 2004 Athens Games to "do my best for my country, East Timor."
She finishes each 13-mile training run with intense 200-meter sprints.
The shy middle-distance runner Elvibno Da Silva, 21, ran to join his uncle in the mountain town of Ossu when the violence broke out, only to see his uncle murdered by militias the day he arrived. Escaping back to militia-controlled Dili, he pretended to be an Indonesian supporter. Da Silva is still haunted by the memory of watching helplessly as a friend, the boxer Americo Thomas, was shot and killed in front of the Dili sports center. He runs with the quiet determination of a man who has seen the depths of despair, but who has chosen to follow the path of hope.
While I was there, the workout schedule was supplemented by four discussion sessions with Xanana Gusmao, the father of East Timorese independence.
"The Arafura Games are more than a sporting event," Gusmao told them. "They are a place where each of you can continue the struggle for East Timorese independence through your behavior."
Despite the painful recent history, he implored the athletes to treat the Indonesian competitors with respect. Gusmao then appealed to United Nations and foreign mission representatives who had joined the meeting for an emergency $6,000 worth of eggs and milk to feed the athletes during their time in Darwin.
The extra meetings put a strain on Amaral, now a mother of four. If she has to keep going to these meetings, she asked, who will cook for her children? She made it to the first meeting, but then asked me to take her to the local clinic because her baby had a painful respiratory infection. The clinic was crammed with crying babies and nervous mothers. The American volunteer doctor examined Amaral's child and wrote a prescription, and we raced back for another political session.
Despite these challenges, Amaral has found time to start a running club for local children, which meets daily for running, swimming and soccer. Each of the six young team members I interviewed told me they were running every day to be like Amaral, their hero.
Two days before the team was scheduled to leave for Darwin on May 14, the Australian mission called the East Timorese Sports Federation to report that Amaral's chest X-ray, a requirement for obtaining an Australian visa, had shown abnormalities and was being reviewed by doctors in Canberra. The sad yet still excited team ? which would be competing for the first time under the flag of the coordinated resistance movement ? had to leave without its most experienced runner, hoping the abnormality might prove inconsequential and a visa could be granted.
Doctors preliminarily found that Amaral had pneumonia, which she had probably contracted from sleeping on the floor of her small home, and she was denied a visa. Sitting home listening to radio reports of her teammates in Darwin, Amaral was sad about missing the games, but proud of what her colleagues were doing. Like many Timorese, she rejoiced when news came that Ximenes had won gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and the half marathon, and that Amaral's Olympic partner, Da Costa, had won golds in the 10,000 meters and the half marathon.
Despite the unexpected successes, the East Timorese team will take home relatively few medals from the Arafura Games. But in East Timor, competition is not about winning as much as it is about striving, about getting up and moving forward no matter how many times you are knocked down. The athletes have become symbols of a nation whose victory is occurring within their hearts. They have survived. They have overcome. And they are striding with every ounce of energy toward a difficult yet hopeful future.