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Redemption in East Timor

We’re sitting in the gardens of the Xanana Gusmao Reading Room in Dili, East Timor, and it’s about 33 steaming degrees in the shade. Even Dili’s ubiquitous crowing roosters sound weary of the heat. But Sister Michelle Reid is looking cool and relaxed in a pair of bright pink cotton pants. The colour of the pants exactly matches her shoulder bag, made by one of the convicted criminals she has been working with over the past four years in Dili’s notorious Becora Prison.

I find myself wondering about the man who has carefully sewn together the pink purse for his Australian teacher. Was he a member of the pro-Indonesian militia mobs who tortured and massacred thousands of East Timorese after the 1999 vote for independence? Or is he a convicted rapist, in this country where violence against women constitutes about 40 per cent of all criminal offences?

It’s quite possible that Michelle Reid doesn’t know what crime this man has committed. Since the first day she began visiting the prison to run workshops for the inmates, she has been far more interested in redemption than in sin.

‘I never made any inquiries about why they were there,’ she tells me. ‘I wanted to be able to meet the men as individuals, not to meet their crimes, so that a relationship could be established between us first. My idea was not to change them but to create a safe place within the prison where they could come and change themselves.’

I first met Michelle Reid by chance in a Dili café in June 2004, and it was some time into our conversation before she mentioned that she was a Catholic nun. At that first meeting, she had described to me how she sometimes had to trick the local taxi drivers into taking her to the jail, so fearsome was its reputation in the East Timorese capital.

When I interviewed her on my return visit in 2005, she laughed at the memory. ‘Yes, I used to have to say, “Just a little bit further up this street, not far now.” But I’ve never felt fearful for my own safety in the jail. People are amazed when they see a prisoner and a guard holding hands when they’re talking, but that’s quite normal. There are a lot of Timorese cultural attributes that are beneficial for a calm environment in the jail.’

Michelle Reid is a Good Samaritan Sister of the Order of St Benedict. She originally travelled from Sydney to East Timor in April 2000 to find out how her congregation might be able to help the newly independent but traumatised Timorese people. Michelle describes the destruction she found in Dili as ‘overwhelming’, but with the approval of her Australian-based order, she began conducting English classes in burnt-out buildings.

‘Sometimes I had 80 people in a class, everything from 50-year-old Falintil resistance fighters who’d come down from the mountains to 15-year-old kids. English was the main language of the UN personnel, so the Timorese saw it as a road into future employment.’

In 2001, with the country still under UN control, the Director of Prisons invited Sister Michelle to organise classes for the convicted prisoners in Becora. She began teaching English and art, but soon realised that the men had practical skills they could share with each other. There was a tailor who volunteered to teach sewing, and a carpenter who showed his fellow inmates how to make furniture. With a grant from the British Embassy, they renovated one of the prison buildings, which became their workshop centre.

‘The prisoners had a competition to name it, and they came up with From Darkness to Light, because it depicted their journey from the darkness of their crime into some form of new hope.’

Gradually a relationship of trust developed between the men and ‘Madre Michelle’, as they called her, and they began to volunteer their stories. Many had been involved in the major massacres of September 1999 in villages such as Los Palos in the east, and Suai in the south-west, where more than 100 people (including three Catholic priests) were murdered by pro-Indonesian militia in the Ava Maria church. One former militia member recounted how he had cut off a man’s ear and forced him to eat it. He had hoped that this would humiliate the victim enough to satisfy his commander, and that the mutilated man would then be released.

‘But then the militia commander said, “Now you must shoot him,” and so he did. Many of them were under threat, or their families were, so they’ve committed a crime under duress. But I never heard any of them say, “I’m innocent.” They accept their guilt, they know what they did, and why they’re there.’

Another prisoner had been convicted of murdering his brother. The man had lost several brothers and sisters, three of his children and his father, as a result of the violence and repression in East Timor in the late 1990s. When his mother died and he became distraught with grief, the man’s surviving brother told the local villagers that he was crazy and shouldn’t be allowed into their mother’s house. A fight ensued, and his brother was killed.

‘He suffered serious depression in jail,’ says Sr Michelle. ‘His family weren’t able to come and visit because of the cost and the distance involved. But eventually he was able to talk about what had happened, and he joined our art classes and found that he has a real talent. He is due for release in six months’ time, and he wants to join the Arte Moris art school in Dili when he gets out.’

Sr Michelle’s role in the prison grew to be much more than just a workshop facilitator. The men were worried about family members left behind in the villages, and whether they were suffering any retaliation as a result of their crimes.

‘We took photos of the men to send home to their families, and we worked with the Red Cross in getting travel funding for families who hadn’t been to visit the prison for two years. Our program enables the prisoners to earn some money from selling the things they make in the workshops, which they give to their families to pay for supplies or children’s school fees.’

Not even a prison break out could shake Sr Michelle’s faith in her protégés. In August 2002, while she was on a return visit to Australia, nearly 200 prisoners escaped from Becora Prison, including some of Michelle’s workshop participants. Some of them marched on Parliament, demanding improvements in prison conditions, and most voluntarily returned to Becora. One returned escapee was most anxious about having to tell Madre Michelle that someone had taken his library book while he was gone. ‘It’s simple—if they don’t return a book, they don’t get another one. But it showed me how high his motivation was in wanting to read, and to belong to the group.’

When I interviewed Sr Michelle in July 2005, she was preparing to leave East Timor. After four years at Becora Prison, she was handing over the workshop program to be continued under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). She was candid about the challenges facing the Catholic Church in this nation where poverty and unemployment are endemic, fewer Timorese are entering the priesthood than in the past, and many other denominational groups are coming into the country and ‘threatening their numbers game’.

With an average birth rate of eight children for every Timorese woman, and a small but growing AIDS problem, Sr Michelle says birth control is a ‘big issue’. She compares the Catholic Church in East Timor to Australia in the 1950s, and believes that recent demands from the Timorese bishops for the government to make prostitution illegal were ‘not positive for women in that industry, who are the victims’.

Michelle Reid was preparing to return to Australia with very mixed feelings. The prisoners have become her extended family, changing her life as much as she has helped them to change their own lives.

‘I remember two years ago, one of our Sisters asked me when I was coming home, and I said, “Not until I’ve learnt the lessons I’m supposed to learn.” The Timorese have completely changed my world view. We seem to spend our lives trying to be more efficient in order to save time in order to work more. The Timorese have a great gift of just sitting and being with each other, and they’re not consumed with the pursuit of material things.’

As we say our farewells at the library gate, Sr Michelle slings her pink bag over her shoulder and offers one final thought: ‘Working in the Becora Prison has changed how I operate with people, too. I’m more aware of not telling people how to do something, but rather trying to create an environment where something good happens. I probably thought I had too many answers, but now I’ve learnt to keep my mouth closed and see what emerges.’ 

Sister Michelle Reid returned to Australia in December 2005. Sian Prior is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist.


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