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At a glance: Timor-Leste

Youth centre helps spread messages of peace in Dili, Timor-Leste

UNICEF Image: Timor’s culture is not war but peace
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2006/Francis
A boy writes ‘Timor’s culture is not war but peace’ on the walls of St. Joseph Minor Seminary in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste.

By Joanna Francis

DILI, Timor-Leste, 2 November 2006 – Elio Da Costa, 14, took a few steps back to study his handiwork and then moved forward again to add some finishing touches. He was busy painting messages of peace and non-violence on the walls of St. Joseph Minor Seminary here in the capital of Timor-Leste.

The wall is next to the camp where Elio has lived with his family for the last six months. The family is just one of thousands in Dili whose houses were damaged during the recent crisis.

Most of the schools in Dili re-opened for classes in September, but Elio has been too frightened to return. The tensions and gang wars in the city – still feeling the effects of civil unrest that erupted in April and May – have decreased his sense of security, forcing him and other children to stay away from school.

With no school activities to occupy him, Elio found himself hanging out at the Forum Comunicações Juventude (FCJ), a local non-governmental organization funded by UNICEF.

Outreach to street children

Located across from a camp for people displaced by the violence, where Elio lives, FCJ provides shelter, recreation and non-formal education, as well as outreach and family reunification services, for children living and working on the streets of Dili.

Since the current crisis began, the centre’s importance has been emphasized by its location near the Santa Cruz cemetery, where feuding youth gangs often clash. They sometimes use the centre’s grounds as a place to hide and rest during or after fighting.

UNICEF Image: Children line up along the wall of the St. Joseph Minor Seminary to paint messages of peace and non-violence.
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2006/Francis
Children line up along the wall of the St. Joseph Minor Seminary to paint messages of peace and non-violence. The messages are easily visible to passing cars and pedestrians.

“Young people make trouble and throw stones,” said FCJ Director Cipriano Oliveira. “We’re afraid of them but want to approach them. They’re also afraid or suspicious of us.”

Since 2001, UNICEF has been supporting FCJ’s outreach programme, which invites street children to visit the centre. The programme aims to protect them from possible violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation – goals that are even more crucial now that many young people have been manipulated into taking part in the street fighting.

Positive alternatives

And that is why FCJ staff recently came up with the idea of painting messages of peace and non-violence on the walls surrounding the centre – the same walls behind which youths would hide behind while hurling stones at others.

The idea was to engage the street children in a positive activity and help them understand that FCJ is a place of peace and reconciliation, not violence and division. It was also an opportunity to make sure young people like Elio would not join the groups involved in violence around Dili.

In October, the centre provided paints and brushes for the youths, and invited those from the nearby camp and neighbourhood to participate. In just a day, the walls were transformed into a collage of messages like ‘Stop Violence’ and ‘Timor’s culture is not war but peace’.

“I hope people see these messages and stop the fighting,” said Elio.

“Little by little, we have to engage these young people and give them alternatives to violence, and slowly we can build up trust and peace,” added Mr. Oliveira. “Then they can persuade their friends to come to our centre for peaceful activities.”

Bridgette See also contributed to this story.



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