By Len Garae in Port Vila
“I was fighting in the mountains and I heard your voice from across the ocean coming to support my people, to cherish the same freedom that you have struggled for and achieved for your people”.
Former Prime Minister Barak Sope says the former FRETILIN guerrilla fighter-turned President of Timor-Leste, Taur Matan Ruak, spoke with words to that effect when he awarded him with the Order of Timor-Leste last month.
It is the highest medal in the Asia-Pacific country to be awarded to a person.
Barak Sope was accompanied by his wife, Mildred Sope, on the invitation of the President where he received the award at the Presidential Palace in Dili on May 17 just three days before the presidential term ended.
Former President Taur Matan Ruak said the solidarity of so many activists like Barak Sope who believed in justice was decisive for the Timorese people realising their freedom and independence.
Ruak said supporters from all over the world, including Vanuatu, helped to expose the crimes of the occupation in Timor-Leste, especially by the Indonesian armed forces, the Vanuatu Daily Post was told.
After Portugal abandoned Timor-Leste in 1975, Indonesia invaded the country in December that year and occupied it illegally for 24 years. During the occupation more than 200,000 Timorese were killed by the Indonesian armed forces.
Indonesian crimes exposed
The exposure of the crimes of the Indonesian occupation on Timor-Leste was made during Barak Sope’s speech at the United Nations Millennium Summit in New York in September 2000.
Sope also exposed the killings of Timorese at the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana, Cuba, in May 2000.
In 1985, as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Roving Ambassador of Vanuatu, Barak Sope travelled to Africa to meet President Santos of Angola and all the foreign ministers of former Portuguese colonies to speak on behalf of the East Timorese people.
To the people of Timor-Leste today, Barak Sope, is their hero because when he was secretary-general for Vanua’aku Pati from 1974 to 1987, he worked closely with FRETILIN, the independence movement of Timor-Leste.
During that time, some FRETILIN members came to live with the Sope Family on Ifira Island and Sumalapa for three to five years.
When he was Prime Minister, Barak Sope signed the Agreement with the then Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Anan, for Vanuatu to take part in the UN Peacekeeping Force in May 2000.
In 2001, the prime minister did not only send the 50 ni-Vanuatu Police Peacekeeping Force to East Timor on their first overseas UN Mission, but he personally travelled with them to Australia where he saw them off to East Timor.
Vanuatu voted for independence
Since 1980, Vanuatu had always voted for Timor-Leste to gain independence at UN General Assembly and other international forums.
During the award ceremony, the citation of the Order of Timor-Leste was read to say that this medal was awarded to Barak T. Sope Mautamate for his “contribution towards the struggle for freedom, independence, peace and humanity for the Timorese people”.
“For your contribution, the 1.06 million Timorese people reiterate their heartfelt appreciation for all those who helped to give birth to Timor-Leste, from Vanuatu and other countries in the world,” President Ruak reportedly said.
Former President Ruak has been succeeded in office this month by FRETILIN leader President Francisco Guterres.