Letters Archive
Spring 2001, Vol. 9, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)
  • Creating the Spanish American Literary Boom: The View From the U.S.
  • An Interview with Lucius Outlaw and Arnold Rampersad
  • William Styron's Robert Penn Warren Lecture on Southern Letters Rescheduled
  • Breakfast with José Ramos-Horta
  • John Clarke to Present Inaugural Goldberg Lecture
  • Religion and Public Life: Is America God's Country?
  • Breakfast with José Ramos-Horta

    On October 4, 2000, the College of Arts and Sciences hosted José Ramos-Horta, 1996 Nobel Peace Laureate. After addressing the Vanderbilt community on the subject of "Peacemaking: The Power of Nonviolence," Ramos-Horta was invited to the Warren Center the following day to have breakfast with a group of Vanderbilt undergraduates and to discuss the role that nonviolent strategies play in the protection and advancement of human rights. The following essay, written by Brent V. Savoie, presents one undergraduate's response to the experience. Mr. Savoie is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences.

    On December 7, 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor, initiating a mass killing that would claim the lives of over 200,000 East Timorese by 1979. As Indonesian troops spilled into East Timor, José Ramos-Horta was on a plane bound for New York, where he was to plead East Timor's case before the United Nations Security Council. He would remain in exile for the next twenty-four years struggling to gain support for the independence of East Timor. In 1996, in recognition of his efforts to achieve a just and peaceful resolution to the crisis in East Timor, José Ramos-Horta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, East Timor achieved its independence.
    The recognition of East Timor's independence has not stopped José Ramos-Horta's efforts to promote the interests of his people. Recognizing the intimate link between development and stability, Ramos-Horta continues to press for the global community's assistance in East Timor's economic and political development. Vanderbilt University was honored to take part in Ramos-Horta's efforts to promote East Timor's development to the American people. After speaking to a large audience at Langford Auditorium, the Nobel Laureate chose to speak to a small group of Vanderbilt students over breakfast the following day.
    When I received the invitation to attend the Warren Center's breakfast with José Ramos-Horta, I expected to learn more about his life and East Timor's struggle for independence. I did not expect to change my definition of a hero -- nor did I expect a personal challenge to lead a heroic life. Over coffee and bagels, José Ramos-Horta not only personalized East Timor's struggle, but also changed my understanding of heroism and its relevance to my life.
    I arrived early for breakfast. Across the small room, José Ramos-Horta stood in a black suit, his serious, dark eyes peering out from behind a pair of circular lenses. His stern visage and thin-rimmed glasses were familiar from photos in newspapers and web pages. As I paused in the doorway, the statistics from the articles that accompanied his photos sped through my mind: twenty four years of exile, 200,000 countrymen killed in civil war, four siblings killed by Indonesian military forces. These numbers took form in the set of serious eyes that stared at me.
    I entered the room, grabbed my nametag, and introduced myself to José Ramos-Horta with a trembling handshake. I stood humbled and awestruck in front of the small man in a black suit. Suddenly, all the questions I had wanted to ask vanished. Faced with the vacancy of my mind, I asked him how he liked Nashville. He made a few jokes about Elvis Presley and we laughed. In his chuckle I saw the humanity of a hero, and the wall I had built between heroes and humans began to crumble.
    As we continued our conversation, other students began to file into a conference room for breakfast. At breakfast, the small group of students listened intently while Ramos-Horta spoke about his twenty-four years in exile. At nine in the morning his words captured the full attention of the small group of tired college students. Bagels and cups of coffee lay untouched.
    Without a hint of self-pity he described the daunting obstacles that had faced him in his efforts to struggle for an independent East Timor. From indifferent bureaucrats who avoided him in the corridors of the United Nations to the hostility of Indonesian security agents, a host of adversaries confronted him in New York. Moreover, he faced the opposition of the most formidable of adversaries: the American government.
    America endorsed Indonesia's genocidal acts not only through its silence, but also through direct military support of the Suharto dictatorship. Despite the Carter administration's public claims that human rights were "the soul of our foreign policy," it arranged an immediate, large-scale arms package for Indonesia in the wake of its invasion of East Timor. Eleven OV-10 "Bronco" counter-insurgency aircraft, built by American hands, arrived in Jakarta within eight months of the Indonesian invasion. They expedited Indonesia's genocidal task, bombing the rural East Timorese strongholds. One of these pro-independence strongholds was Lakubar, José Ramos-Horta's hometown. In 1978, an American-made "Bronco" fired a salvo of rockets into a Lakubar neighborhood, killing José Ramos-Horta's sister, Mariazinha. She was the first of four of Jose Ramos-Horta's siblings killed by Indonesian military forces.
    During his twenty years of lobbying for East Timor in the United States, Indonesian security agents attempted to silence him through intimidation and bribes. He withstood the economic and psychological pressures to submit to their demands, even during the darkest times of East Timor's struggle for independence. His unwavering resistance to their temptations reveals the depth of his selflessness. Even when his cause seemed destined to failure, he resisted the promise of an easy life.
    Loyalty to the people of East Timor served as the foundation to his selfless devotion to his nation's struggle for independence. When a student asked if he ever considered giving up, he replied: "Never." He believed that giving up would have been equivalent to taking a bribe from the Indonesian government. Either way he would have betrayed the trust of the people of East Timor. Furthermore, he would have disgraced the memories of his brothers and sisters who died in their nation's struggle for independence.
    Despite his international recognition as a hero, José Ramos-Horta repeatedly denied his status as such. Rather, he pointed to the poor of East Timor as the true heroes of the nation's struggle for independence. He confronted those gathered for breakfast with his definition of heroism, based on character, not on accomplishments. For him the poor of East Timor embodied the defining characteristics of a hero: selflessness, sacrifice, loyalty, and humility. He simply strove to emulate their heroic stance in recognition of the tremendous sacrifices they had made for their nation.
    In recognizing the poor as the true heroes of East Timor's struggle for independence, Ramos-Horta called the students gathered for breakfast to a radical redefinition of heroism. His definition, based on virtue rather than achievement, forces one to took for the unrecognized heroes. Ramos-Horta's understanding of a hero demands that we support those who struggle nobly against the impossible in their daily lives.
    As I silently criticized the United Nations bureaucrats who failed to recognize Ramos-Horta's heroism, I came to question my own notion of heroism. Would I have considered him a hero had East Timor not achieved independence in his lifetime? Did I, like José Ramos-Horta, recognize the heroism of those who struggled without recognition or reward? Reflecting on the words of Ramos-Horta, I began to see that heroism is an attitude, not an accomplishment.
    All are called to this heroic attitude. While we cannot all win Nobel Peace Prizes or assist nations in their quest for independence, we can all chose to lead lives as ordinary heroes. José Ramos-Horta's definition of heroism gives us this choice and this challenge. We can all integrate loyalty, honesty, selflessness, and humility into our lives. We can all struggle against the impossible instead of living within the narrow confines of practicality.
    Ramos-Horta did not leave the students assembled for breakfast without means to reply to their revised understanding of heroism. He invited those gathered over bagels and coffee to leave the comfortable confines of their lives and join him in his struggle to build a new, dramatic nation. Several students approached him afterwards to get more information on how to help the development effort in East Timor. The sight of privileged college students contemplating volunteering in a war-torn land inspired me to approach him as well. He scribbled his e-mail address on the back of a business card and told me that if I wanted to teach English in East Timor I should write him. I slipped the thin card into my back pocket and shook his hand.
    In my black wallet, a battered business card with José Ramos-Horta's e-mail address lies wedged between my driver's license and my credit card. The thin card weighs heavy in my wallet. The call to heroism lies there, pressed between my license to drink and my ticket to the garden of consumerism. At least once a week it falls out, reminding me of the choice that lies before me, the only choice that matters: the choice to be a hero.

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