With the Timorese guerillas: 'Independence or death!'

Wednesday, July 24, 1996


By Rebecca Winters

The atmosphere inside the room is tense. One candle throws a hazy glow upon the walls and the faces of three standing men, a woman sitting on a chair and four children sitting in front of me. The men are visibly nervous, speaking to one another in whispers, the woman calm and silent, watching me with steady eyes. Outside, a dog barks. Everyone stiffens.

The whole day has had an unreal quality. This morning, I met Paulo at a bus station. We began talking, both speaking in that cautious way common here in East Timor, where you can never be completely sure which side your acquaintance is on. Working for Indonesia, spies are everywhere, especially in the cities. Most are from Java or Bali; some, sadly, are Timorese themselves, usually from West Timor.

From my experience of speaking to people in the streets, buses and cafes, almost all East Timorese are either actually working in the clandestine front for independence or supporting a luta while struggling to support their families. In the mountains, the whole population is united in one design: from little children to parents to grandparents, all they say they want is independence for their country, Timor Leste. They want to be free to speak and be who they are — East Timorese, not "Indonesian".

I soon slipped into easy conversation with Paulo, who had checked that nobody could hear us talking, and was asking me if I knew any Timorese refugees in Australia. "Yes, many", I said. "I have many Timorese friends."

He gave me a piercing glance, and asked if I knew a certain Timorese activist who lived in my city. "Ah, yes", I admitted. "He is a very good friend of mine." I had been working with Timorese people in Australia for two years now, doing what I could to help them in their fight for independence.

In Australia, I have been asked: why get involved in another country's war?

My answer before I went to East Timor would have been: because Timorese people are every bit as human as Australians. People are people, and if I hear they are suffering, whether inside Australia or 500 kilometres away on a little island, I feel a responsibility to do something about it. When I saw the John Pilger film Death of a Nation two years ago, I felt compelled to try to better the situation of the East Timorese, which was obviously intolerable. Since then I have been working with the East Timor solidarity networks in Australia.

Since arriving in East Timor, I've spent weeks walking in the villages, sitting on buses chatting to women, walking with the children in the streets, dealing with the Javanese, Balinese and Kalimantan soldiers at each Indonesian military (ABRI) checkpoint, where passengers must show their Indonesian ID cards or be arrested. I've felt the tension of never being able to say the word "East Timor" in the local language, Tetun, or in Portuguese — for if I said "Timor Leste" out loud, I know I'd be deported, and any Timorese in my company would be arrested and tortured. To ABRI, "Timor Leste" is synonymous with ideas of "independence", or "anti-integration" .

In East Timor, I've seen the situation with my own eyes and heard people's stories first hand. I've been trusted and accepted by the Timorese people, so that I feel I'm almost Timorese myself. Now, I feel something of what it's like to live under a repressive military occupation. I have been not only with, but part of, the group of girls and children playing and telling stories in the park, when the local ABRI soldiers in plain clothes arrived, carrying their huge machine guns. Strolling casually, they cast a shadow of fear over the Sunday afternoon. All they wanted was to know what we were talking about, and maybe to chat up some of the girls; but we were filled with loathing.

Unlike the East Timorese, I had never seen guns used to shoot people; however, I shared their fear. This sort of intimidation is a part of daily life in East Timor. Luckily, there were no boys in the group, or the soldiers would have taken them away for questioning — which, from what I've been told by many, many East Timorese boys, is generally accompanied by torture. I've seen the scars and heard the descriptions of torture by burning with cigarettes, by putting chairs on the victim's legs and sitting on them, by electrocution of the tenderest parts of the body. Torture in East Timor is common.

I've also seen and felt the fear at the military checkpoints, and wherever an Indonesian officer is seen: he seems to have complete authority to order anyone to do anything at any time. I've seen the red-and-white-flagged forts built on the highest hills all the way along the highway from Dili to Los Palos, seen the huge military bases, seen Hino truckloads of soldiers on the highway. I've become accustomed to never being able to speak my mind, for the man speaking to me might be an Intel agent. These spies question me constantly, wanting to know my every movement so as to report the information to ABRI and be paid.

I've felt intimidated by the ABRI battalions marching through the streets of Dili singing Indonesian songs. I've seen Dili's graffiti mentioning words which can never be spoken out loud — "a luta continua!", "Independencia!", "Viva Timor Leste!" In April, in Dili, a boy pulled down an Indonesian flag and was shot dead.

I've seen scars from torture on faces, seen old bullet wounds in legs and arms. I've seen the look in the eyes of the East Timorese: the courage, the suffering, the determination not only to survive but to live proudly and fight Indonesia, the enemy, despite all odds. This is the reality of East Timor.

Paulo asked me why I travelled alone. "Alone, I speak more to the local people", I said.

"You're not afraid of the guerillas?", he asked.

"It's the military I'm afraid of, not the guerillas!" I said, smiling.

He hesitated, his eyes fixed on mine. "Would you like to meet with the guerillas — with Falintil?", he asked, in a low voice. A surge of excitement rushed through me. "As long as it's safe for them and for you", I breathed, hoping my intuition was right — that he wasn't a spy. "I'd love to, more than anything!"

Paulo held my gaze for a moment, seemed to weigh it up, and nodded.

Sitting separately in a bus, we travelled to a certain village. Walking, I followed him at a distance so that no-one would know we were together, to a small, bamboo, grass-thatched house. I was led inside and introduced in low tones to a husband and wife. Three dark-eyed children peered through a dark doorway, filled with awe but not afraid. The children approached after I had been kissed by their parents, and kissed my hand in the traditional manner. Paulo instructed me to stay quietly inside and left the house to arrange the meeting.

The woman served me coffee, apologising that there was no sugar. A faded Virgin Mary looked down from the peeling bamboo wall, the only decoration in the dirt-floored hut. The children sat on a grass mat, watching my face, so white compared to theirs. The woman and I smiled at each other. I could see how hard her life was and wished I could offer her some money, but already knew from my experiences with the poorer Timorese families that she would never accept it.

"How many children do you have?", I asked, indicating the children. She didn't speak Bahasa Indonesia, but explained in simple Tetun that she had eight, four already dead, she said. I didn't ask how they had died.

In the graveyards scattered through the hills, I had noted the huge number of infant graves. East Timorese people had told me they refuse to go to the Indonesian hospitals — not out of fear, but of loathing for the enemy. I had been told why children get sick and die: not enough food, bad water. There is nothing to be done. Australian's aid office in Dili recommends projects which would get water to the villages, but the Indonesian government does not allow the projects to go ahead because the villages are anti-integration. Only the areas with many trans-migrants are looked after by the government. Meanwhile, Indonesia builds monuments in every town and city in East Timor proclaiming the wonders of its family planning program.

Paulo returned. "We'll wait here until dark", he said. "Then I will take you to meet the local Falintil commandos." We sat, talking in whispers so that passers-by wouldn't hear us, and smoking cigarettes. Several other men arrived to meet me; they shook my hand warmly, gazing at me expectantly with dark, tense faces. Meat and rice were served. As I ate, I was painfully conscious of the hardship this family must go through to feed us meat, but knew they would do anything in their power to help a luta, the struggle for independence. The woman beckoned me into the back room, the one bedroom, and bade me rest, which I did gratefully. When I awoke and rejoined the men, it was already sunset.

Paulo checked his watch. "It's time", he said. "Come." As we walked out the back door into the night, he whispered, "If anything happens, if anyone stops us, I will have to run." I didn't know how I would explain my presence, but knew I would somehow handle the situation if it happened. After all, if I was caught, I would simply be questioned, and probably sent back to Australia. But if any Timorese were found in my company at night in a remote village, they would be arrested and tortured.

I pulled my hat down low over my eyes and wrapped my face in a scarf to conceal my foreign white skin and pulled my jumper sleeves down over my hands. My heart was bursting with tension as I followed Paulo along the country lane. Sometimes a person passed us, always on foot, as almost nobody in East Timor has a car. I walked close behind Paulo, turning my face away from passers-by, hoping not to meet a spy or soldier on the road.

Finally, we turned up a narrow goat-track which climbed up the dark hillside. I followed as quickly as I could. My guide tapped at a door and ushered me into a house. This is where I am now, awaiting the arrival of two commandos of the local Falintil force.

Suddenly there are whispers, the door opens, and a small man walks in and salutes me respectfully. We shake hands and exchange greetings. He is the secretary, he says; the commandos are on their way. The others in the room seem as excited as I, yet their movements are controlled — tense and listening.

I know how dangerous this meeting is for them and especially for the family whose house this is. If any one of us makes one false move, trusts someone who cannot be trusted, and these people are suspected of harbouring guerillas or guerilla sympathisers, they will be imprisoned, tortured and possibly killed.

Then the door opens, and in walks Deker, carrying a large automatic rifle. He salutes me, smiling broadly, takes my hand and kisses my cheeks in a brotherly fashion. Entering next is Lasudo. Serious and reserved, he shakes my hand and kisses my cheeks warmly. We speak in low voices for a few minutes with the other men and the woman, then Lasudo, Deker and I go into the next room to speak privately.

The commandos show me several photos taken in the jungle recently; two of the boys have since been killed in a clash with the Indonesian military. I take several photographs of the commandos. We talk quietly, heads bowed together in the light of a single candle. I speak more with Deker than with Lasudo, as I don't speak Tetun, and only Deker speaks Bahasa Indonesia. Deker translates everything I say for Lasudo.

I asked them what they are really fighting for: a referendum, or to get the military out of East Timor? "We want only one thing, which our people have been fighting for for hundreds of years, even before the Indonesian invasion", Deker said. "Independence!"

"What if the Indonesian government was persuaded to allow a referendum in East Timor? Would you stop fighting?", I ask.

"If it was a real referendum, that is, of all Timorese people, of course we would! Because a referendum would show that everybody (apart from the trans-migrants) wants East Timor to be an independent nation. The UN would have to be involved to make sure the referendum is a fair one.

"The problem is that if the referendum is not soon, the Indonesian government will succeed in flooding East Timor with trans-migrants from Sulawesi, Bali, Java, Kalimantan. At the same time, Timorese are being sent to Indonesia as part of the trans-migration program. This is Indonesia's campaign to create a majority of Indonesians in East Timor and to scatter the Timorese, thus dividing and ruling. When there is a referendum, these trans-migrants, these Indonesians living in our country, should not be included. Whether or not East Timor should be independent must be decided by the East Timorese people themselves."

"How do you think most people in East Timor feel about the struggle for independence?", I ask. "Do you think some of them have decided to accept Indonesian rule?"

Deker gives me a quizzical look and speaks to Lasudo. They both smile as if amused. "Speak to the people", Deker advises me. "I know the people like myself. They will never accept Indonesian rule and, like Falintil, will never stop fighting until they gain independence.

"Life is hard for the people; they survive as well as they can, which is difficult with all the harassment from ABRI soldiers and police. They look after guerillas, work in the clandestine front. Old and young, women and men and kids, they want only to be able to say the truth: look here, I am East Timorese, not Indonesian. And they can't do that while Indonesia occupies East Timor. The Indonesians have to get out, and East Timor has to be independent. There is no other solution to our problem."

"Actually, I've already talked to hundreds of people, especially in the villages where there aren't so many police and military", I admit. "The answer I got from everyone was the same: we want only one thing — to be independent!"

"It's the truth", Deker shrugs. "Our people are honest and simple. And as courageous as lions. We do what we must. We are not afraid of death."

I talk with the commandos late into the night, learning about their activities and telling them about the solidarity movement in Australia and internationally. Once, we hear the dogs bark, and our conversation stops abruptly. Someone taps on the door and whispers that tentara — Indonesian soldiers — have been heard walking outside. We sit silently for a while, until there is another soft tap on the door to signify the all clear. We resume our conversation.

"The local ABRI soldiers are always snooping around these villages", Deker says. "Not to mention their spies listening at walls and doorways. One can never be absolutely safe. We can only be as careful as possible."

It is almost time for the guerillas to leave. I ask them what Australians can do to help them. "We have very few guns, and no money to buy them; most of us have to fight with our bare hands", says Deker. "Only some of us have boots; the rest go barefoot. We need medicines badly — chloroquine for malaria; often we suffer from fever and cough; and we don't have antibiotics, or anything to treat wounds. If we had a little money and some medicine, life would be a lot easier. Perhaps Australians could help in this way.

"But the best thing you can do from Australia is to keep campaigning, keep making publicity about East Timor", Deker continues. "Let your government know you care. If there is more international pressure, if the UN resolutions are implemented — not just recommended — East Timor will be freed, the people will stop being taken away and tortured all the time, and we guerillas can leave the jungle and go back to our families. Falintil and the clandestine front continue to fight, and will never give up; but without help from outside, we can never hope to defeat Indonesia."

"What if international help isn't given?", I ask. "What if the UN resolutions are never enforced, if the United States continues to give huge amounts of 'aid' and sell weapons to Indonesia, if Australia continues to train Indonesian troops and participate in joint military exercises with them in Australia: what will you do?"

Both commandos look me in the eye. "We will fight until we die", Deker says.

A tap at the door; it is time for the men to leave. They put on their boots. We shake hands warmly and kiss each other's cheeks, Deker with a valiant smile, Lasudo looking into my eyes intently as he says "Thank you very much", in an emotional voice. As they pick up their guns, they become cat-like in their movements, alert and totally self-aware — preparing their wits for the dangerous journey back to the jungle. Without a word or a backward look, the commandos slip out of the room, and I am left alone in the flickering candlelight, praying that they get back to their camp safely, and praying that when I leave this house, and when I leave East Timor, the people who have made this meeting possible will not suffer as a result.