We catch up with João Boavida, Executive Director of Interpeace local partner the Centre for Peace and Development (CEPAD). He shares with us how he was “hooked” into becoming a peacebuilder for his country, Timor-Leste, and why he remains committed to building lasting peace.
“I would walk down the street and listen to what people were saying. I was shocked – every third word coming from a young kid’s mouth was a swear word,” explains João. “This was not the Timor-Leste I had left in 1981. Life had changed beyond recognition. My country had become aggressive, and violence was constantly rising to the surface in every which way possible.”
Though he would never admit to it, João Boavida is one of Timor-Leste’s most renowned peacebuilders.
As a boy he was raised in Baucau, one of Timor-Leste’s 13 Districts. Nowadays, it is considered to be Timor-Leste’s most troublesome district. As a young boy he attended religious school like many of his generation. Then while helping out in the parish mission as a teacher he became a clandestine activist resisting the Indonesian occupation. He was arrested and deported to the island of Atauro. He fled the country and lived and worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Thailand before he left for Australia.
In Australia João was able to study politics at Melbourne University and eventually go on to study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, where he read Anthropology.
Following his studies he had a career with the United Nations (UN). Yet João admits: “It left me feeling like just a number. Privileges and worldwide travel were simply not doing it for me any longer,” shares João.
An opportunity came in 2007. “Interpeace was in town and talking to my former employer the UN, the international community, the government and the limited civil society that were operational in Timor-Leste at the time. They were looking for someone to champion their work. Apparently my name kept popping up. I had never imagined being a peacebuilder, but when I met the Interpeace team my thoughts changed,” confirms João.
“I wanted to stay in Timor-Leste and support the people of my own country. Interpeace helped me do that.”
João has now replaced his travels with a new thrill – the excitement of accompanying his society on a journey that he feels his fellow countrymen and women need to take in order to achieve lasting peace.
“We need to understand our history and the implications of what lies ahead as our new country gains stature. At the same time, we also need to be weary of the challenges on the horizon, knowing that the risk of politicizing issues, and the potential to be manipulated, remains a constant reality.” João adds: “Now that we’re more exposed to the outside world, like the TV and the internet, it’s all helping to change mentalities.”
Looking forward, João expresses a balance of what he believes to be Timor-Lestes’s needs and his own values: “What my country needs now is continuity. Peace is a process. Only with continuity will we achieve peace, as this is not something that will happen overnight. If the process is well conceived and well implemented only then will it possible.”
João opens up further, adding: “At the time I was asked to partner with Interpeace, I was also looking to establish some continuity in my own life. I am home now. I am with my family and relatives. My feet are back on the ground. That’s a good feeling.”
This balance is what drives João. Since joining the Interpeace team he has delivered a nationwide consultation project involving 900 Timorese. Through this citizens have been able to collectively decide what they see as obstacles to peace, as well as their vision for the future. In addition, he has four fully functioning Peace Houses up and running, with more on the way.
In recognition of everything he and his colleagues have accomplished and worked on thus far, CEPAD was awarded the Sergio Vieira de Mello Award in December 2011.
Reflecting on his work with Interpeace, João confesses: “I was hooked back then, I’m still hooked now. I have never looked back on my decision.”