As a guerilla fighter, 61-year-old Madalena Soares fought long and hard for the independence of Timor Leste, the tiny half-island nation that was formerly occupied by Indonesia.
And her bravery has not gone unnoticed.
Soares received a N-Peace Award from the United Nations Development Program in 2013, and has since become an inspiring role model for women in Timor Leste.
Reporter Teodosia dos Reis has this report.
I met Madalena in her village not far from the capital Dili.
The 61-year-old is also known by her codename ‘Kasian’. In the local language, Tetum, that means poor. But it had a double meaning for Madalena.
As a guerrilla fighter it referred both to how the Timorese were poorly equipped to fight against Indonesia, and also, ‘poor’ Madalena, who had to leave her family to go fight soldiers in the jungle.
During the fight for independence, Madalena was a soldier for FALINTIL, the military of Timor Leste.
“We were guerilla fighters with the men, with weapons in our hands,” she remembers.
“At night we tried to block off the enemy. When we fought against the Indonesian military, we women were ready. And when the Indonesian soldiers were shot, we would go and take their weapons.”
Madalena says she didn’t hesitate to join the guerilla fighters. She was one of about twenty Timorese women that took up arms to fight for independence.
“At the time I was with the male soldiers, I fought like the men because I did not want my life to be tortured by the Indonesian military,” Madalena explained.
But these days Madalena has picked a different fight.
After Timor Leste gained independence from Indonesia in 1999, Madalena decided to contribute to her new nation in a different way.
Over the years she built five kindergartens to help young Timorese children get an education.
More than 30 children under the age of six attend the kindergartens before they go to primary school.
Madalena says they kindergartens are part of an ongoing commitment to the country.
“The struggle for independence was more than 24 years ago now. But I intend to keep contributing to the development of the country. That’s why I founded the schools, so that in the future the young generation will remember our struggle for the country’s freedom and development.”
Madalena funds the kindergartens with her modest veteran’s pension.
Illiterate herself, education, she says, is the key to the country’s development.
And if she isn’t busy enough, Madalena also helps to create employment for women in Timor, through an organization called, Faluk Hadomi Timor, for the widows of former combatants.
They make and sell Tais, a traditional form of weaving in Timor that they turn into bags and wallets and other goods sold at the tourist markets.
“I founded the organization and involved my friends to produce the handicrafts in order to gain money for our daily needs. I always motivate them so they can do it on their own without being dependent to others.”
A national hero and an inspiring peace activist, Madalena has long been committed to Timor Leste.