In 1975, Timor-Leste was invaded and occupied by the Indonesian military. Bella Galhos was just 3 years old. She witnessed family and friends being killed. And she was sold for just $5.
Since then, Bella and her country, Timor-Leste, have fought for independence and worked towards rebuilding after a brutal occupation.
Asia Calling correspondent Teodosia dos Reis met Bella Galhos in the mountain village of Maubisse, Timor-Leste, and has this story.
Cool mountain air touches my skin. I’m looking out across a whole field of strawberries, more than I’ve ever seen before. If I turn, I face a big garden full of flowers.
I’m at Green School Leublora, in the village of Maubisse, four hours from Timor-Leste’s capital, Dili.
Bella Galhos built this school three years ago, determined to make a place where a healthy community could grow.
“I want to show the young men here that good work is not just done in the office, but in the garden too,” she explained.
The school is dedicated to the memory of her mother.
“Even though my mother has already passed away, this is how I show my appreciation of her,” Bella told me.
Her mother was born in Maubisse village, Timor Leste.
“I chose to return to the place my mother was born for my mother’s sake. When she was a teenager, she was the only girl in school.”
Bella and her mother haven’t had easy lives.
Throughout Bella’s childhood, Timor-Leste was occupied by the Indonesian military.
Their rule was brutal. Massacres, rape, and extrajudicial killings swept the country. Women were sterilised, children forcibly separated from their families.
When she was just a toddler, Bella’s father sold her to an Indonesian Military Captain, against the will of her mother.
“When I was three years old, my father sold me. One of the reasons he gave for that, was that he was embarrassed by me, because he thought I had a dominant, masculine personality.”
Bella’s mother desperately begged for her daughter back, and eventually brought her home.
But both Bella and her mother continued to experience violence at the hands of her father.
“My father also had a second wife, and he was physically violent towards all of us,” she recalled.
That’s until her mother finally left, when she was 6 years old.
At 16, Bella became involved in the resistance, fighting for freedom from Indonesian military rule.
Infiltrating the Indonesian military, she was sent to Canada. There, she defected, and agitated for her country’s independence.
Returning home in 1999, as Timor-Leste gained independence, Bella began work as an advisor in the Presidential Palace.
There she advocated for the rights of women and children. And even though it’s difficult, Bella started to speak out about her own experience.
How her life has been marked by violence from the military, and her own father.
“In Timor-Leste, normally women stay silent about violence they have experienced, because many women don’t want to bring shame on their family,” Bella explained. “I want to encourage all women to speak out about the bad things that they have experienced in family life.”
Bella is one of the first women in Timor Leste to openly speak about domestic violence.
Back at the Green School in Maubessi village, she’s nurturing social change.
The school gives kids the chance to learn about leadership, nonviolence, and the environment, in a country that is still recovering from the scars of violent occupation.
“Children are very important for us to teach, because they are the new generation,” she said. “We must teach them to love the natural environment and all of nature.”
More than 400 kids, aged 7 to 12, attend the school.
And Bella is encouraging her neighbours to help in the garden. While most of Timor-Leste’s food is imported, here they’re growing food and flowers themselves.
In acknowledgement of her tireless work rebuilding her country and society, Bella is to receive the Dalai Lama’s ‘Unsung Hero Award.’