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East Timor Vote Marks Dramatic Shift From Past Violence

Voters in East Timor cast ballots Thursday for a constituent assembly that is to draft a constitution paving the way to independence after 500 years of foreign domination. VOA Correspondent Scott Bobb traveled to the town of Liquica, 45 kilometers west of East Timor's capital, Dili, and spoke with voters after they cast their historic ballots.

Dawn broke quietly over this town of 40,000 people, nestled between a range of scrub covered mountains and the sea.

At the town church, parishioners said early morning mass, while up the street, voters waited for the polls to open at the town's main school. Two years ago, on April 6, this church in Liquica was the scene of one of the most violent incidents in East Timor's struggle for independence. Anti-independence militia hacked to death nearly 100 parishioners who had taken refuge in the church.

Patrick Burgess, chief of the human rights unit of the U.N. transitional authority in East Timor, was an aid worker in Liquica at the time. He witnessed the violence and was even a victim of it.

In a referendum later that year, East Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence. The militias returned and destroyed virtually every building in town. Most of these are still in ruins today. "The situation was absolutely terrible," Mr. Burgess recalled. "I came back to take over as the head of the district in December 1999 when there was not really a single building left standing in the whole district. The population was completely terrorized, completely traumatized. And today I see them smiling, calm, many hundreds of them lined up peacefully ready to take their first step to democracy."

In a converted classroom at the polling center, election officials are preparing to start the voting. Under the watchful eyes of observers from the political parties, the officials place seals on the ballot boxes and record each one's number.

It is an emotional moment as the voting begins.

One of the first voters to come out of the polling center is Erico de Santos. He reported that although the voting was late in starting, it was going smoothly. "I feel personally very happy because today," he said, "I can choose who will sit in the constituent assembly, who will build our constitution for the foundation of our new country."

Another voter, Januario Subaeto, said as he left the polling center that he feels he voted for the future. "I feel happy because I have been able to express my aspirations," he said.

Mr. Burgess lives in Liquica with his East Timorese wife, although both of them work in Dili. He said he is still amazed at how quickly the situation has improved. "It's quite an incredible thing to see the transition in just two years from a completely intimidated, terrorized population to one ready to take their first steps and already having established quite a lot," Mr. Burgess said.

Because of the years of domination and violence, many people worry that there are not enough skilled people to run the government and administer public services in an independent East Timor. Many comment on how far East Timor has to go to become a self-governing nation. What strikes people like Mr. Burgess is how far East Timor has already come.