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Commentary: How would-be assassin's bullets changed me

  • Story Highlights
  • East Timor president reflects on assassination attempt, his recovery
  • He remembers images of people "trying to force the remaining life from me"
  • President also remembers another voice: "Leave him alone"
  • Leader reaffirms commitment to aiding the poor, promoting peace
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By José Ramos-Horta
East Timor President
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Editor's note: José Ramos-Horta, the president of East Timor, survived an attempted assassination at his home on February 11, 2008. He is in Darwin, Australia, recovering from gunshot wounds.


José Ramos-Horta, the president of East Timor, says he believes he has been given a second chance at life.

(CNN) -- On February 11, a group of renegade soldiers invaded my home. As I walked toward my house, I was not aware that they had disarmed my guards and broken into the house, knocking down doors looking for me. But as I walked up the street -- ironically, Robert F. Kennedy Boulevard, named for one of my heroes -- I saw one of the renegades and knew that he was going to shoot me. As he aimed for my heart, I turned to run. Instead of the left side of my chest, he shot me twice in the right side of the back.

The shooter used "dum dum" bullets, illegal to manufacture and banned by the Geneva Convention because they expand and fragment inside the body, creating an explosion of shrapnel. One piece of shrapnel took a trajectory toward my spinal column. It stopped 2 mm short.

I was told later that between the moment that I was shot and the moment I arrived at the hospital, I lost 4 liters of blood -- 80 percent of the blood in my body. I was also later told that if I had arrived at the hospital five minutes later I would have, without question, been dead.

BIO: José Ramos-Horta

José Ramos-Horta, the president of East Timor, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for working "towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor."

Information on his anti-poverty initiatives is available at

Oddly, during that time, I was completely conscious. I remember speaking to my brother, who cared for me while we were waiting for an ambulance. I was not particularly concerned about myself. There were about 30 other people going through my mind -- soldiers, staff, some internally displaced Timorese, and relatives. I asked if anyone else in my compound had been wounded or killed. I was reassured that they had not.

I rode in a battered old ambulance from my home to the hospital. Hanging onto the seats of the ambulance because it had no seat belts, I was willing myself to stay alive. In these minutes, I felt that if I died, my country would explode into violence.

It was not until I was delivered into the hands of doctors that I lost consciousness. Even then, in that dream state between consciousness and unconsciousness, I had vivid images. I felt that I was surrounded by a group of people, people were trying to force the remaining life from me. I was trying to ask them why, what I had done to deserve this. "At least," I said, "tell me what I've done wrong."

A thundering voice interrupted them, saying: "Leave him alone. He's done nothing wrong." Suddenly the others left.

I am not one to try and explain such occurrences. But I believe that at that point, I returned to life. And I believe that, while the doctors in East Timor, and in Darwin, Australia, were unquestionably critical to saving my life, I was also blessed by God. It seems that I was given a second chance.

I have, at moments, been extremely saddened reflecting on the great men, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who did not escape an assassin's bullet. I reflect on the terrible loss the world experienced at their deaths, and I cannot help wondering why I, a much more flawed person and a lesser man, have been spared when they were not.

Since childhood, I have always been disturbed by the injustices in our world, a world with tens of millions malnourished or starved, with no access to clean water, while others live in mansions and spend tens of thousands of dollars on cars and jewelry without even thinking. I have seen both clearly. I lived in exile in the West, including Manhattan for 24 years during the occupation of East Timor. And I have returned home to my Timorese people, among the poorest in the world.

I have been asked more than once how the assassination attempt has changed me. I would say that it has, primarily, reaffirmed my personal conviction and my ambition to lift people out of extreme poverty. Today, I have no other goal or ambition. The recent events have only served to reaffirm my lifelong commitment to helping the poor.

I have always kept a stock of packaged new and used clothes in my house. When I would travel around the countryside, I'd often load up the back of a car with these packages. When we would drive through a village, the children would come running. I would get out and give away the clothes and soccer balls.

Other times, I would leave my security and entourage behind and take a minibus back into town. Like other developing countries, our minibuses are usually packed with 20-30 people. They would be surprised and happy to see me board the bus and ride with them. Often I have had the bus stop at a street café and I would buy everyone a meal for $1 apiece. Perhaps for other politicians these are photo opportunities. For me, they have been one of the deep pleasures of being home after being away for so long.

I am saddened by the fact that these pleasures may be gone for me now. No longer will my security guards listen when I tell them to stay outside a restaurant. I expect that I will no longer be able to travel without a convoy, or walk away from my security to distribute clothing at a village on the road. We have lost something. But we will find a way to remain close.

Our country will need to get to the bottom of these events to heal from them. An investigation has been ongoing, and there is increasing evidence pointing a finger at external elements that were supporting the renegade Alfredo Reinado. These are elements interested in destabilizing East Timor, plunging it into an endless civil war so it could be declared a failed state.

In fact they have achieved the opposite. I have survived them, and we have survived them. Instead of plunging into chaos, my people have united as never before. Our political leaders stepped up in the sudden absence of their president, showing political maturity beyond their years of experience.

Since the attempted assassination, there hasn't been a single violent incident. Even the rival youth and gang groups have stopped fighting. Almost all elements involved in the attacks surrendered peacefully. I expect that those remaining will follow shortly. Many of those who were internally displaced by the violence of 2006, sensing the change, have begun to return to their homes.

I am returning home in the next days, to do all I can to realize my dreams for East Timor -- to continue lifting the Timorese people out of poverty, and to create a Zone of Peace where all forms of violence are abandoned. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About East TimorJose Ramos Horta

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