The plight of women in East Timor

January 29, 1997


By Alicia Cullen

A year ago, two East Timorese women, the first East Timorese women to do so, entered the Australian embassy in Jakarta, unsuccessfully seeking asylum in Australia.

When Odilia Victor and Maria Sarmento sought refuge, a third woman who had been with them did not make it into the embassy. While in the embassy, the women issued a statement outlining the situation faced by women in East Timor, but this was not released to the public in Australia until the women had travelled to Portugal, where they now live.

In July, Odilia was invited to speak in Japan by the Free East Timor Japan Coalition. Later in July, the coalition submitted a petition to the UN Decolonisation Committee in New York. This petition contained several testimonies of human rights abuses against women. One of these was made by Odilia Victor.

Odilia said that she fled East Timor fearing for her life. Her cousin had been arrested and tortured for two weeks, and Indonesian soldiers had told her cousin that they planned to capture and rape Odilia.

In her statement issued at the time of her asylum, she stated that she was present at the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre. Following this, she joined the Popular Organisation of Timorese Women (OPMT) and raised funds for the resistance. Her testimony to the UN detailed blatant cases of sexual slavery, "local wives" and "comfort women".

Her testimony also outlined the personal tragedy and abuses experienced by her sister, who had been forced to serve with three other Timorese women as a sex slave to Indonesian troops for about a year. They were kept at a house on Kakau Lidun Street in Dili, directly behind the headquarters of the riot police mobile brigades.

In 1977, she was forced to become the "local wife" to an Indonesian Air Force officer named Agus Korek. After his six months of service were completed, he returned to his wife in Indonesia. Odilia's sister later bore him a child which he took no responsibility for.

Prior to the invasion, the sister had been married to a Timorese man, and was pregnant at the time of the invasion. He fled to the bush and she was left behind. Although he later returned from the bush, he and Odilia's sister never lived together again as a result of the alienation from the community often experienced by Timorese women who have been forced to become "local wives" to Indonesians. Her sister's experience is not unique or even rare.

"Wives of guerilla leaders left behind in villages are frequently forced to live with Indonesians ... rape in East Timor is a systematic tactic of the occupying forces. Sometimes rapes take place in front of husbands. In the case of Lucas Bayasa, the husband became mentally unstable after witnessing the rape of his wife by military, and the wife later gave birth to the child of the rapist."

The testimonies presented to the UN Decolonisation Committee in July contained several such incidents, in some cases identifying Indonesian battalions. "The case of 'Miss H.' detailed a similar experience, conceiving twice after being raped by 2 soldiers from battalion 511 ... Joana Soares of Luwa village who was gang raped in the Onu Laran area, Burloli, then stabbed to death by soldiers of the 405th battalion after resisting being forced together with another young woman onto a soldiers' truck ... 'Miss C.' had been forced to serve as a sex slave to troops who came to her house since 1990. Soldiers told her if she refuses, they will take it she is cooperating with Fretilin."

Since 1975, many human rights abuses have been reported. Methods of torture include (as well as rape) the administration of electric shocks, submersion in water tanks and cigarette burns to various parts of the body, including the genitals.

In October, 1996, Monica Pereira, a Brazilian reporter who was in East Timor, was told that during the operation to capture Xanana Gusmao in 1992, one of the women detained was tortured with electric shocks and had a snake forced into her vagina.


Rosa Muki Bonaparte, who came to be affectionately known as "the petite revolutionary" and "Rosa Luxemburg", returned to East Timor from studies in Portugal in early 1975. Described as a person full of ideas, and partly because of her participation and contribution at the Decolonisation Commission in Dili in May 1975, she was made secretary of the OPMT (Popular Organisation of Timorese Women), which was formed on August 28, 1975.

The OPMT, together with the OPJT (Popular Youth Movement), worked alongside other organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Australian Council for Overseas Aid to deal with crisis and impoverishment. The OPMT and OPJT were phenomenally successful in community development work.

Their major projects were aimed at working with displaced persons, placing orphans in the care of local families, establishing creches for homeless children and establishing and maintaining literacy programs.

Although she survived the initial Indonesian invasion in December 1975, in January 1976, during an Indonesian paratrooper raid in the Dili suburb of Taibesbese, Rosa was one of many Timorese women being dragged by Indonesian soldiers to landing barges and warships. Her resistance to the soldiers was so fierce that they decided to shoot her on the wharf. Her body was thrown into the harbour.

Maria Gorete is considered by many to be symbolic of the struggle of Timorese women. Maria is remembered as intelligent, politically active, outspoken and beautiful. At the time of the invasion, she was a 17-year-old student. She was imprisoned, repeatedly tortured and raped by Indonesian soldiers, and eventually agreed to become the property of an Indonesian officer in order to save her life.

During this time, she spied for the Timorese resistance, supplying information she received from drunken Indonesian soldiers. She was released from prison and then rearrested as the Indonesians hoped that she would lead them to resistance fighters. Maria Gorete disappeared in 1979, and is believed to have been killed.

In October, a group of Timorese women from various parts of Melbourne trekked into the city, where they participated in the annual Reclaim the Night rally to protest against violence towards women. The women marched with Australian women supporters under an East Timor banner. One Timorese woman said to me, with the assistance of an interpreter, "It is wonderful that all of us women can come together to protest against this terrible violence which is experienced by so many".

Seventeen Australians (five women and 12 men) are awaiting hearings set for January 30 at Geelong on charges relating to trespassing on crown land when they climbed the wall of Fort Queenscliffe Military Base in Victoria in protest against Indonesian soldiers undergoing military training at the base. Earlier that morning, 500 protesters marched peacefully throughout the streets of Queenscliffe carrying black crosses and chanting "Stop training the killers, Australian government".
[This article may be reproduced; if doing so, please inform the author by writing to her at PO Box 838, Croydon Vic 3136.]

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