East Timor in Indonesian stories

Issue 

Eyewitness: protest stories from Indonesia
By Seno Gumira Ajidarma
Translated by Jan Lingard with Bibi Langkar and Suzan Piper
Sydney: Inprint Books, 1995. 138 pp., $14.95
Reviewed by Michael Tardif The occupation of the Russian and Dutch embassies in Jakarta late last year, not only by East Timorese, but also by supportive Indonesians, reflects the growing consciousness inside Indonesia of the struggle for freedom in East Timor. Also reflecting this shift in consciousness is the growing body of Indonesian literature on East Timor, of which Eyewitness is at the forefront. The book was originally published in Indonesia as Saksi Mata and only recently translated by Jan Lingard and published in Australia. Its 13 stories are dominated by pain, suffering and a vivid use of symbolism. Opening with "Eyewitness", Ajidarma describes a court proceeding in which an eyeless witness describes an unnamed massacre in a cemetery. "The Rosary" deals with fear and humiliation. A young doctor is bemused by a patient who has suffered from stomach pains for 20 months only to eventually discover that tangled in his stomach were a set of rosary beads. How did they get there? "A soldier had forced him to swallow rosary beads in a cemetery, at the point of a blood-stained bayonet." Despite an often surreal nature to many of the stories, Ajidarma's graphic presentation of the Indonesian occupation in East Timor loses none of its potency. His style is dominated by a skilful use of symbolism. While he does not mention Timor or the Santa Cruz cemetery by name, the reader is left with no doubt about his topic. The book itself is a product of censorship. In 1991, as editor of the newspaper Jakarta, Ajidarma was amongst the first to publish reports inside Indonesia about the events in Dili. He and two other senior journalists were shortly afterwards dismissed from their posts and assigned to edit a weekly pop magazine. Ajidarma wrote the stories during this period of excommunication; all were first published individually in leading Indonesian newspapers. The irony of the Indonesian government's attempts to censor Ajidarma is that it has led to a more powerful opposition, not only to its policy in East Timor, but also to the suppression of free speech and democracy. East Timor's freedom is becoming more and more linked to democracy in Indonesia. And as this link becomes stronger, both struggles have a greater chance of success.

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