>Jude Conway, whose book Step by Step: Women of East Timor, Stories of Resistance and Survival has just been released by Charles Darwin University Press, gave the Andrew McNaughton Memorial Lecture at Gleebooks, Sydney on February 12. McNaughtan was a Sydney medical practitioner and a leading East Timor activist who died in late 2003. The following is abridged from Conway’s speech.>Jude Conway, whose book Step by Step: Women of East Timor, Stories of Resistance and Survival has just been released by Charles Darwin University Press, gave the Andrew McNaughton Memorial Lecture at Gleebooks, Sydney on February 12. McNaughtan was a Sydney medical practitioner and a leading East Timor activist who died in late 2003. The following is abridged from Conway's speech.
How did a woman from Newcastle like me get involved in the Timor cause and compile a book of Timorese women's stories?
It all started when I ran away from home in winter 1991, it was a mid-life crisis I guess. I reached Darwin, liked it and stayed for 15 years. I met a lot of activists at the Environment Centre and after the Santa Cruz massacre in November 1991, I was invited to a protest rally which morphed into a three-week, 24-hour-a-day protest at the Indonesian consulate.
Supporters set up Australians for a Free East Timor (AFFET), working with long-time activist Rob Wesley-Smith. Andy McNaughton came to town in 1993 and joined our rag-tag but highly motivated group.
I went on my first trip to East Timor in 1995 (it is only a one-hour flight from Darwin) and experienced their fear of the Indonesian military — no one out after dark, no talking to foreigners. I met a resistance leader to give him money and medicines in a shed surrounded by his guards and a guard dog.
When Andy moved back to Sydney in 1996, he asked me to run his Darwin house as an AFFET headquarters. Many actions were planned in that house, and some unforgettable parties.
In 1997 I was invited to work as the office manager at the East Timor International Support Center (ETISC) with Juan and Ceu Federer. Andy was our Sydney rep and information officer. As anyone who knew Andy knows, he could give out a lot of information.
It was the job of a lifetime. Besides doing office work at ETISC I also travelled to East and West Timor, Bali, Java and Thailand as a project officer.
I had some exciting jobs. I carried photos of military torture in Timor through Jakarta airport hidden in my pants so they could be distributed to activists groups.
I helped organise the escape of a Timorese man from Timor via Jakarta, to the Portuguese embassy in Bangkok. He had secretly passed Indonesian military staff figures to Andy that showed they were lying about how many troops they had in East Timor.
In June 1998, ETISC brought six Timorese activists to Darwin. All were recommended by Xanana Gusmao from his prison cell in Jakarta. The group included the charismatic Laura Abrantes, at the time working with Caritas Dili.
I had made a bibliography of publications on East Timorese struggle and realised that the voice of women, who were integral to the resistance, was rarely heard. Most Australians knew of Jose Ramos-Horta, Xanana and Bishop Belo but, even now, the most well-known woman from East Timor would be Xanana's Australian wife, Kirsty Sword Gusmao.
The Timorese women I met, like Laura Abrantes and Ceu Federer, were passionate, effective campaigners and I thought that they should be better known. I decided to collect stories to publish as a campaign tool.
I started by interviewing Ceu. I was an inexperienced interviewer and had to plug many gaps later on. However, I enjoyed hearing her anecdotes and even enjoyed transcribing and typing the story into the computer. Her story was put on the ETISC website. This was the genesis of the book.
In November 1998, I went to Dili to attend a conference organised by women students. For the first time in Timor, women spoke publicly about their horrendous experiences at the hands of the military. A woman told how she had been forced at gunpoint to watch her daughter raped.
Fellow Darwin activist Sally Anne Watson was there and she decided to collect accounts of abuse that were published in 1999 in Buibere: Voice of East Timorese Women. I contributed an interview, photos and editing advice, under the name Judy Jonas.
Sometimes, when I told people I was collecting Timorese women's stories, they would say "hasn't that already been done in Buibere?" — as though there could only be one book of women's stories.
Actually, every Timorese has a story to tell.
This book, Step by Step, is quite different. It has life stories of 13 outspoken women, strong women, which describe their daily life and beliefs, as well as the stresses and horrors of the occupation and the aftermath of the referendum.
While I was in Dili I started recording Laura's story and she also arranged for Domingas Alves, or Micato, the founder of women's NGO Fokupers, to tell me her story, which she did — non-stop for three hours in Portuguese! I don't know any Portuguese and it wasn't until I read the translation that I knew what she'd said.
After Indonesian president Habibie announced in January 1999 that the Timorese people could choose between Indonesia and independence, my life became totally involved in the struggle, working at ETISC, attending protests, housing journalists, activists and students on their way to and from Dili.
There was no time to collect stories. I helped Sally Anne finish off Buibere, and compiled A Chronology of Indonesian Military-Sponsored Militia Atrocities in East Timor up to May 1999, published by ETISC to counteract media reports of a civil war. My name wasn't on it so I could continue to travel to Timor.
There was no time for the book while I was in Timor for the referendum from July to early September, 1999. Andy, Sally-Anne and I were charged with "political activities while on a tourist visa" for having unused legal sample ballot papers on the floor of our car on voting day.
We were deported to Kupang and had the bizarre experience of being in a cafe in Kupang with Indonesian intelligence officers when the result of the referendum was announced on TV.
I saw the look of shock on their faces. They had believed their own propaganda.
With other activists I set up an NGO in East Timor in early 2000 assisting local NGOs get established in the new United Nations environment. Our phones did not stop ringing for two-and-a-half years.
After independence, I based myself in Darwin and returned to the idea of collecting stories. But to be able to meet with the women when I was in Timor was always a challenge because all the women were super busy with family and work commitments, trips overseas etc.
This was symptomatic of the kind of women they are and the needs of a new developing nation. It is easy to say "yes I will tell my story", but then not have the hours to give.