A song of freedom for East Timor

News Stories, 22 May 2002

© UNHCR/J.Morland
UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks with High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers in East Timor.

TACI TOLO, East Timor (UNHCR) As the United Nations flag was lowered for the last time in East Timor, one voice rang through the esplanade, silencing the 200,000-strong crowd that had gathered in Taci Tolo, outside the capital of Dili, to celebrate the territory's independence on May 20.

With her rendition of "O Freedom", American soprano Barbara Hendricks welcomed the birth of the youngest nation of the 21st century.

"I am here to celebrate the triumph of those East Timorese people who ended centuries of colonisation in a tremendous spirit of reconciliation and peace," said Hendricks, who is UNHCR's Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador.

Hendricks, the only non-indigenous performer that night, was there at the invitation of the Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General in East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate José Ramos-Horta.

But her interest in East Timor goes beyond Independence Day. At a meeting with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers and UNHCR staff, she discussed the refugee situation and the prospect of return for the 50,000 refugees still in Indonesian West Timor.

"The work being done for refugees by UNHCR is key to the future stability and dignity of the population at large," she said.

Nearly 208,000 East Timorese refugees have already returned. The country is riding high on a wave of enthusiasm and optimism for its future bolstered by the support and presence of so many international dignitaries, including UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former US President Bill Clinton and the leaders of Indonesia, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand.

However, many have warned that it will be many years before the nation is able to go it alone, without the crutch that is humanitarian assistance.

Hendricks told journalists, "This new chapter in their history is going to be very tough, but the spirit I feel here leaves me with no doubt they will make it."

The Goodwill Ambassador commended the High Commissioner and his staff for their good work, and wished them success in finding solutions for the remaining refugees. She also expressed her desire that one day, she can return to East Timor for a longer stay.

Hendricks' involvement with UNHCR goes back a long way. In 1987, she was named UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and this year, in recognition of more than 15 years of work with the agency, she was named Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador to UNHCR. She has travelled ceaselessly on behalf of refugees all over the world, with missions to Zambia, the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.

She has also travelled to Cambodian refugee sites on the border with Thailand, and the most renowned refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people, Pilau Bidong in Malaysia.

Jake Morland
UNHCR East Timor