After the Indonesian government dropped its long-standing ban against him, East Timorese independence leader Jose Ramos-Horta returned to Indonesia today for the first time in 24 years.
Ramos-Horta arrived on an afternoon flight from Singapore and was immediately whisked to an airport hotel where he and another prominent independence leader, Jose Xanana Gusmao, participated briefly in talks aimed at bringing peace to their troubled homeland.
Ramos-Horta made no statement to reporters on his arrival at Sukarno-Hatta International Airport, in keeping with his pledge to Indonesian authorities to keep a low profile. But en route from Singapore, he appeared to be overcome by emotion, saying that he most looked forward to reuniting with Gusmao, whom he remembered as "slim, elegant and conscious of his looks."
For nearly a quarter century, the two men waged a common struggle from different battlefields. Gusmao went to the mountains to become a guerrilla leader and, after his capture in 1992, a prisoner for his cause. Ramos-Horta fled abroad, where he walked the halls of Western capitals and eventually shared a Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless efforts.
The men have been in almost daily telephone contact for the past year, but were unable to meet because Gusmao is serving a 20-year sentence, commuted from life, in a form of "house arrest" and Ramos-Horta was barred from the country. That two men once considered subversives could be reunited in a Jakarta hotel today is further evidence of the changes underway since Indonesia jettisoned authoritarianism last year and began moving toward a more democratic, open society.
"I'm very proud to have Xanana as my leader and to serve under him," Ramos-Horta said of the guerrilla leader who was once a fledgling journalist and photographer. "He's an extraordinary individual." Asked what he would say to him, Ramos-Horta told an Australian reporter: "After a big hug, I hope I'll be man enough not to cry."
After meeting with Gusmao at the talks, Ramos-Horta said they exchanged "a big, warm embrace." He said, "I was speechless, not only in meeting him as a leader, but as a human being."
The two were to meet again this evening at the Jakarta bungalow where Gusmao has lived since he was removed from prison Feb. 10 to participate in negotiations on East Timor's future. He is only allowed out to attend meetings.
Their reunion came as their long-sought goal -- an independent East Timor -- appeared within reach. Ex-president Suharto, who engineered the December 1975 invasion of the former Portuguese colony, was toppled last year and his successor, B.J. Habibie, has agreed to let Timorese decide their future in a U.N.-sponsored referendum.
If that vote, now scheduled for late August, is free and fair -- considering the atmosphere of terror and intimidation in the province -- then most observers suspect Timorese will choose to sever ties with Indonesia and become an independent nation.
The run-up to the voting has been marred by widespread violence by militia groups operating with Indonesian military backing. The violence, as well as logistical concerns, prompted U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to delay the planned Aug. 8 referendum for at least two weeks.
In a report to the Security Council last Tuesday, Annan said "militia activities continue to have a constricting effect on political freedom, silencing pro-independence activists and their supporters and forcing them into hiding."
The militias favor East Timor's integration into Indonesia and have warned that if Timor chooses independence, there will be reprisals against the Timorese minority who supports Indonesian sovereignty over the province.
Ramos-Horta today tried to reassure pro-integrationists that they would not face reprisals, and, in a new offer, he said there would be a place for them in any future Timorese government.
"They can rest assured we would propose a government of national unity," Ramos-Horta said in one interview. "We cannot afford to exclude anybody." He also called for an end to the violence. "We must consolidate our pledge not to engage in violence," he said in one interview.
During his exile, Ramos-Horta was one of the Indonesian government's fiercest critics. The government tried to dismiss or ignore him, but that became more difficult after 1996, when Ramos-Horta and Bishop Carlos Belo won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to find a solution to the Timor conflict.
Now that he has returned to Indonesia, Ramos-Horta said his remaining personal goal is to return to Timor. Indonesian officials have said they would consider granting him a visa to go to Timor to see his family, but he must refrain from actively campaigning for independence.
"I can assure Indonesia that allowing me to return to East Timor, I will not engage in any public campaigning," he said. "I will be as discreet as they want me to be."
CAPTION: East Timorese independence activist Jose Ramos-Horta, center, arrives in Jakarta, ending 24 years in exile. En route, he seemed overcome by emotion.