A story of East Timor's resilient women

Secrecy: The Key to Independence
Laura S. Abrantes & Beba Sequeira
Asia Pacific Support Collective Timor-Leste,
Dili 2012, 102 pp.

This is a book you should turn to whenever you think activism is too hard.

Twelve women from the remote areas of Timor-Leste (East Timor) tell how they fought for their nation's independence. In the 24-year war from 1975 to 1999, official estimates are that 18,600 people were killed by conflict and 84,200 died of hunger and disease.

Secrecy from the Indonesian military was the key necessity for waging guerrilla warfare and the operation of the clandestine movement. But without the work of countless and mostly unknown women, it would have been hopeless.

These women were barely teenagers when Indonesia invaded in 1975. They gave up their youth and with hardly any schooling or resources they organised food, health care, supported and fought alongside guerillas.

Most of all though, despite their youth, they motivated in others the desire for independence and the courage to support the struggle.

Anna Rosa Tilman said of her experience: “We gained the spirit of trying our best to learn how to carry weapons in order to fight for our land even though we did not know our ABC.”

It cost them dearly. Madelan Bi Dau Soares' group had to leave bodies of comrades behind, unburied, to escape the enemy.

She said: “We would say to each other that if we want to win our country, it will be with our flesh and dead bodies. If we make war with no commitment, we will never win our country”.

For Luciana da Costa, “the revolution for 24 years was not just ... a snapshot of a movie on TV, it was the reality of loss of life, loss of bodies and the thinking that it was better to die than live with other people ruling us with their ideologies”.

Indonesian interrogators were no match for them. When asked who her assistants were, Rita Ximenes drove them crazy, replying: “My assistants are the people who cannot read ... they clean and take care of the church and plant flowers.”

She recalls: “They started to scream, 'You are stupid! We ask you one thing but you answer something different.'”

Ximenes' story ends, like so many others in this book, with things that are not right in present day East Timor: “The people of Samalari [her area] need ... electricity and clean water.

“We don't want to beg ... but so far, not one of our leaders has been to visit us in order to understand the problems which are faced by the people of Samalari.”

They feel betrayed by the lack of recognition for women after independence. They sense a self-congratulatory hypocrisy amongst the emergent elite that explains the book's subtitle: “It's better to have no title than to have no nation”.

Natalia da Costa-Tali says: “We suffered for our country and it is still the same today ... all the things that the invaders did to me makes me feel very ashamed.

“Women who were forced to have children by the Indonesian forces get no attention from our leaders or our government. I share my secret so that other women can understand the reality I face.”

Balbina da Conceicao says: “The bitter experience that I had in the resistance included losing my child and my husband... The greatest experience in my life is that... the objective we wanted to achieve has been finally realised.”

But these women don't give up. Conceicao ends her story declaring: “In this era of independence ... my motto is 'There is not one day without working'.”

Their work is to realise the dream that should follow independence: of seeing recognition, justice and equality for themselves and their sisters. A similar combination of idealism and pragmatism led to the compilation of this book.

Compilers Laura Abrantes and Beba Sequeira had related their experiences of the war to Newcastle historian Jude Conway (published in Step by Step in 2010.

At the Newcastle launch of their book, Abrantes recalled telling Sequeira she had a dream of recording the stories of those women who were unknown because they were hard to reach and could not write down their own stories.

Sequeira replied, “I have friends in Australia who can help”. These friends were the Blue Mountains East Timor Sisters (BMETS), a network of volunteers who funded the work.

Gaining independence has been a giant step, but it is not enough to achieve equality.

This book marks the next step: to disclose secrets in plain words that motivate a desire for a deeper form of independence — one based on recognition, justice and equality.