Nighttimes during the Indonesian occupation meant staying indoors for Franchilina “Anche” Cabral — she was too scared of the military to do anything else. Now, 13 years after East Timor voted for independence, its fastest female cyclist and more than 300 others have cycled across the border into Indonesia on the Tour de Timor as a gesture of cross-nation friendship.
This year is the fourth Tour de Timor, but the first time the six-day mountain bike race has crossed international borders, weaving through Indonesian West Timor into the mountainous enclave of Oecusse.
“In 1999 it was really hard because of the Indonesian army,” said Cabral, who won last year’s women’s category of the race. “We were afraid to go out at night so we’d just stay home. We felt there was no freedom.”
Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and occupied the small half-island nation for 24 years, during which more than 183,000 people died from fighting, disease and starvation.
In 1999 East Timor voted for independence in a UN-sponsored referendum, but after the vote militias went on a campaign of violence, destroying much of the nation’s infrastructure.
“Everybody knows Timor and Indonesia had problems before, but this race is an opportunity for us to rebuild our relationship, so we can be good neighbors,” 27-year-old Cabral said, after finishing the fourth phase of the six-stage race that began on Monday and was set to end yesterday.
“It was really great to see so many Indonesians lined up along the route and cheering us on when we rode through,” Cabral said.
The Tour de Timor was an initiative of former president Jose Ramos-Horta to promote peace in East Timor.
“If Timor-Leste can host a successful Tour de Timor, a bike race that engages hundreds of participants ... then it must mean that the country is peaceful,” he said.
It has been a busy year for East Timor, one of Asia’s poorest countries that celebrated a decade of formal independence in May and also held presidential and parliamentary elections that were largely peaceful.
By the end of this year it is to bid farewell to UN peacekeepers — the present contingent have been in the country since 2006 after a political crisis in which dozens were killed and tens of thousands displaced.
The only major violence since then was a failed assassination attempt in 2008 on Ramos-Horta, who has remained steadfast in calling for forgiveness and reconciliation over the Indonesian occupation.
Despite offshore oil and gas fields, East Timor’s abject poverty is visible everywhere. There are few paved roads and in the villages children walk barefoot and eat from the bare ground in slums. Even in the capital city Dili neighborhoods routinely flood during the rainy season.
In the tour, while some riders have full support teams, others sleep on cardboard boxes, a sign of the poverty that affects an estimated half the 1.1 million population.