What I Learned ... Freeing East Timor 

With 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta.

More than 200 Mid-South high school students visited Rhodes College last weekend to give peace a chance at BRIDGES USA's annual PeaceJam Conference. The conference was hosted by Jose Ramos-Horta, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner for his nonviolent efforts to free the South Pacific island nation of East Timor from Indonesian oppression. After a 23-year struggle, East Timor, with a population of 600,000, gained its independence to become the world's newest functioning democracy. We asked the severely jet-lagged laureate -- who happens to be on the short list to replace Kofi Annan as secretary general of the U.N. -- to share five things he's learned in pursuit of peace.

How to decorate: "I have a big poster of Elvis Presley in my kitchen, and in my bathroom there are posters of the city of New Orleans."

Right will prevail: "I have learned not to give up in the face of difficulties no matter how great. ... I learned it is far too easy to fall into the trap of hating and that hate consumes your life. I learned by focusing on my goals without hatred or a sense of revenge -- with nothing but the certainty that I was right and the goal I was pursuing was just -- that I would prevail and I have prevailed."

Either Americans don't know geography or the East Timorese accent is difficult to understand: "Whenever I would tell someone I was from East Timor they would say, 'An Eskimo?' And I would say, 'No, I'm from East Timor,' and they would say, 'Oh, Istanbul. Have you seen the film Midnight Express?' So many people asked me if I'd seen Midnight Express that I finally watched the film, and I was shocked."

The importance of tolerance, inclusion, humility, and solidarity: "In my view, tolerance and humility go hand in hand. If you are humble, you accommodate and embrace everyone. You might be tolerant without being humble, but that means you are maybe just intellectually tolerant, not tolerant in your heart. You just rationalize that you have to be tolerant because it is the politically correct thing to do. If you strive to be humble, you are automatically tolerant of other faiths, religions, cultures, ethnicity, and social conditions."

Strange things happen: "My country was freed against all odds after the brutal occupation of a much larger power that was supported by every major power on this planet, including the United States, and successive administrations going back to Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bush Sr. This wasn't just verbal or political support. They were sending weapons and putting out the red carpet when the dictator would come to visit [Washington] D.C. ... Today, East Timor is 98 percent Catholic, but our prime minister [Mari Alkatiri] is a Muslim."

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