Timorese women’s step to freedom

East Timorese refugee return home after internal displacement, March 1. Photo: United Nations Photo/Flickr

Step by Step: Women of East Timor, Stories of Resistance and Survival
Edited by Jude Conway
Charles Darwin University Press, 2010
241 pages, $44

Review by Niko Leka

The title of Step by Step refers to how the Timorese gained their independence. The steps are told through the firsthand narratives of 13 women who grew up in East Timor.

When they were born it was a Portuguese colony, which in 1975 was invaded and occupied by Indonesia. It achieved victory in the quarter century-long struggle for independence in 1999.

Jude Conway’s introduction sets the scene well. In a few short pages she explains the country’s recent history and current issues, how she came to hear these stories, as well as a foretaste of the stories themselves.

Their stories are filled with suffering, struggle, sickness, sorrow, sadness — and stubbornness. These accounts are of a struggle for self-determination that extends from the political to the personal, or as one of the women, Dulce Vitor, puts it “from one struggle, to another struggle”.

Vitor found in the constitutional articles preparing a structure for the newly independent nation that “there was nothing about women”. She says: “Women participated in the clandestine, the armed struggle and the diplomatic front. What are they left out now?” She began a campaign that won a 30% quota of seats for women in the Constituent Assembly.

The women express a fierce consciousness, a visceral sense of right, accelerated by experience. For instance, when only 16 years old Domingas “Micato” Alves became secretary of a women’s political organisation in the resistance. This meant organising food production, health care, and teaching women to read and write. Twenty five years — and six children later — the experience gives her grounding and strength “to continue to struggle for equality between women and men”.

She writes: “Political participation for women is important, but more essential for our children to have a good future, is … a life with open discussion where we can criticise each other and identify what is fair and not fair.

“When we want to achieve something, most essential is our determination.”

There are moments when determination comes under fire from friend and foe alike. Carolina da Rosario tells how she helped some Australian women (including the editor Jude Conway) meet members of Falintil — the armed resistance movement to the Indonesian occupation. “We arrived at 11 o’clock at night … we had to crawl through the bush bleating like goats to alert the guards … We interviewed women guerrillas … And danced into the early hours.”

After she got home, her husband was so furious he shot at her (the bullet grazed her head).

Determination is also a matter of endurance, of doing whatever it takes, day by day. Rosario goes on to tell how her house was burnt, her family had no food or money but she found three bags of flour and made bread to sell.

A paragraph later, and she is sworn in as a Commissioner for the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.

Rosario ends her story saying: “We shouldn’t think with the old politics which was a strategy to put each other down.”

There is no time in this book to raise questions of justice. These stories are crowded with events, and wisdom spills out from them without theory, without pretence. Yet you can’t help but wonder what should be done about those who carried out acts of cruelty and murder.

Contrasted to many of the joyful photographs is Vitor’s photo of the cell where she was imprisoned for six months with 16 other women and a baby. Looking at it, you can’t help but wonder at the capacity of humans to be barbaric on the one hand, and on the other, to flourish in spite of it.

I wonder how the individual soldiers and militia members think about those times. Bloody as their hands may be, the real guilt must belong to those who orchestrated the colonisation, the occupation, the turmoil, those who provided the aircraft and the guns. Will they ever be called to account?

In spite of informers, torture, rape and death, of threats and violence carried out against their families, even in spite of criticism from their own families, these women stayed human and hopeful.

Step by Step invites a sequel. The women throughout refer to the importance of learning. Mica Soares says “every one of us, even the president and the prime minister, is going through a learning process”.

It would be very interesting to hear more of these women’s measured reflections on their experiences, and their implications for the present and future East Timor.