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February 10, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 10

Rev. Ageng Marwata, SJ, the first Center for Ignatian Spirituality visiting fellow: "For the last eight years, I was deprived of reading. You have a lot of books here, and so many other resources in the Jesuit Community."

'He Was a Hero...and He Still Is A Hero'

He helped save lives in East Timor, but Fr. Marwata says his work there isn't finished

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

Rev. Ageng Marwata, SJ, was almost sure he would be the next to die.

A school principal caught up in the violence plaguing East Timor, Fr. Marwata had witnessed militiamen shoot a 70-year-old Jesuit priest in the heart for trying to aid refugees. The priest had died in the arms of Fr. Marwata, who himself was sheltering some 5,000 people from the bloody confrontations in the wake of East Timor's efforts to win independence from Indonesia in 1999.

Other priests had also been killed, sometimes in brutal fashion, and the message was clear: Being a man of God did not guarantee your safety. The fact that Fr. Marwata was a native Indonesian hardly lessened the peril.

But these hard facts did not stop Fr. Marwata from risking his life for his students, their families and thousands of other citizens of the fledgling nation who sought his refuge. Most of them survived the traumatic conflict between East Timor and Indonesia because of his steadfast efforts and brave intercession.

Now, more than four years and 12,000 miles removed from the struggles of East Timor, Fr. Marwata is at Boston College as the first visiting fellow at the University's Center for Ignatian Spirituality. He is spending the academic year at BC reading, lecturing, auditing classes to better his pastoral skills, and preparing to resume his Jesuit ministry in East Timor, Indonesia and throughout the Far East.

CIS Director Julio Giulietti, SJ, had extended the invitation to Fr. Marwata during a visit to East Timor in 2002. It was an offer Fr. Marwata felt he had to take, for reasons that went beyond the scholarly.

"I had been there [East Timor] for eight years, and I needed a personal rest," Fr. Marwata said. "My first action here was to make reflections; to reflect on what is the meaning of my life and my ministry in East Timor.

"For the last eight years, I was deprived of reading. You have a lot of books here," he laughed, "and so many other resources in the Jesuit community. It is helpful that I can talk."

Fr. Giulietti - whose friendship with Fr. Marwata goes back to 1996, when the two collaborated on a project to provide academic and administrative assistance to recently opened East Timor University - is unstinting in his praise of the first CIS Visiting Fellow.

"He was a hero," said Fr. Giulietti. "And, he still is a hero."

The year before he met Fr. Giulietti, Fr. Marwata had been named principal of Jesuit-founded St. Joseph's High School in Dili, East Timor. He headed a faculty of three Jesuits, several young Jesuit Scholastics, occasional Franciscan nuns, and a cross-section of Indonesian Muslims, Balanese Hindus and East Timorese Christians.

St. Joseph's, which had approximately 350 boys and girls, mostly ages 15 through 18, was affiliated with a Jesuit-run agricultural center where a number of other young people sought both a vocation and a degree of protection from a rapidly-brewing conflict with Indonesia, which had occupied East Timor since 1975.

"We had an agreement with the police and the military at that time that the youths were under our protection," Fr. Marwata said. "Sometimes [Indonesian forces] would harass the students. Sometimes they would harass me. They would say to me, 'Father, you are Indonesian. Why are you doing this?'"

In August of 1999, the United Nations monitored a national referendum in East Timor in which 78 percent of the population voted for independence from Indonesia. "The results were announced on Sept. 4," recalled Fr. Marwata. "And then came the bloodshed."

A period of civil unrest and violence immediately followed the vote for independence. More than 5,000 people sought refuge in the school and another 25,000 moved onto the grounds of the agricultural center.


Rev. Ageng Marwata, SJ, (third from left) with faculty members of the St. Joseph's High School in Dili, East Timor, of which he is principal. During East Timor's war with Indonesia, Fr. Marwata sheltered some 5,000 people in the school.
"The Indonesian Jesuits in East Timor always had the minds and hearts of the local people," said Fr. Giulietti. "Although they [the Jesuits] were citizens of the occupying power - the nation that had oppressed them since 1975 - the local East Timorese strongly felt that, 'These men are Jesuits and they love us. We trust them.'

"Ageng went to talk to the Indonesian military authorities," Fr. Giulietti said. "He had dealt with them in the past and had a working relationship with the military governor in the local district. When the horrible violence and the killing began, he went outside the safety of the St. Joseph's High School and went right to the Indonesian military authorities, saying 'I am an Indonesian citizen and I need to talk to the authority in charge.'

"He told them, 'We have 5,000 people in there. You have to call off the murdering militia. Their violence is an outrage to me, an Indonesian, and to Indonesians everywhere. The Indonesian army supports the militia who is killing our East Timorese brothers and sisters. You must stop the violence.'

"Ageng went right out in the streets in order to get to the military authorities," Fr. Giulietti said. "The militia knew Ageng. They hated him. They hated anyone who was pro-East Timor."

Even as Fr. Marwata was engaged in dialogue with the Indonesian military leaders, militiamen often staged nighttime attacks on the St. Joseph's sanctuary. One of these campus attacks killed 70-year-old Arby Alverich, SJ, the German-born director of Jesuit Refugee Services in East Timor. Another Jesuit, a Fr. Darwanto, who had been ordained only a month earlier, was hacked to death with a machete just south of the city. Two diocesean priests were also murdered by the militia, Fr. Marwata said.

UN forces were quickly summoned to the region and brokered a fragile peace. "Our country was burned down," recalled Fr. Marwata. "Eighty percent of the houses were burned down."

As the country struggled to revive, Fr. Marwata asked Fr. Giulietti to revisit the war-torn nation to work with the school's faculty and students. "I invited him to share our lives with these people and to listen for himself to some of the stories of those who were there and to help us learn how to manage the suffering, to cope with it and to understand and to look for ways to improve our lives there," he said.

Fr. Marwata will return to East Timor in August, but he is unsure what his exact assignment there will be. "More than 90 percent of the people are unemployed there and the people are very poor," he said. "There are needs beyond my capacity, but maybe we can share some things with the people at the school.

"We now have independence [in East Timor]," he said, "we have a constitution, but at the same time there is an absence of justice.

"There is lots to do."

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