Another bloody Roman Catholic clergy led hell-hole. One you may not have heard of. A South-East Asian N.Ireland, with Indonesia playing the role of the Brits.


May/June 1994

page 214


Indifference, public apathy and arms sales have enabled Indonesia to get away with murder and genocide in East Timor

East Timor is back in the news, and not before time. The crimes of genocide committed on this small, remote half-island at the eastern extremity of the Indonesian archipelago have been documented often enough by Index on Censorship, but they have gone largely ignored by the world community for nearly a generation. Ever since Indonesian paratroopers drifted out of the dawn on the morning of 7 December 1975, East Timor has suffered not ,only the agony of a bloody occupation but also the torment of international indifference. From time to time the fate of the islanders becomes news. Then silence descends once more.

But now, in 1994, change is in the air. There is pressure in print and on British television. The Clinton administration has acknowledged—as yet, not more—the gravity of the issue. The UN is examining violations of human rights. The British Foreign Office is reportedly nervous about the increased attention focused on East Timor, as well it might be.

The British government is the number one seller of arms to Jakarta. The question remains: how have the East Timorese survived nearly a generation of neglect and indifference? They have lost, in the course of the last 20-odd years, at least 200,000 people (out of an estimated population of 700,000). They live from day to day under constant surveillance and the threat of intimidation, imprisonment and torture. Yet they have not given up. Journalists cannot visit East Timor, so I and photographer Julio Etchart went as tourists. We found an extraordinary and moving determination by the people of East Timor to resist the Indonesian invader.

215 In particular, the East Timorese are sustained by the Roman Catholic church, led by Bishop Carlos Ximines Belo. The Bishop has to walk a diplomatic ecclesiastical tightrope. His priests are less constrained. They are, almost without exception, more or less actively in the East Timor liberation struggle.

Among several Roman Catholic missions we visited in the course of our stay, there was one—at a location it would be dangerous to disclose—that seemed to epitomise the courage and tenacity of the church and its faithful congregation, and their determination to pursue a path of stubborn opposition to Indonesian oppression, often in the face of great hostility.

The mission is far from the capital, Dili, and takes nearly a day to reach by bus or motorbike. It is situated on the edge of an extensive forest region occupied by members of the small, fragmented and ill-equipped resistance movement. It is in these remote parts that the real battle for East Timors independence is being fought out.

When we arrived, we were obliged to register with the local police garrison, after which we made our way across a stretch of waste ground, into the mission compound and, as we had been advised in the capital, asked to speak to the priest, whom I shall call Father Rodolpho da Costa.

Father Rodolpho is 40 years old. He was born in the north of the island and came here about seven years ago. He has an air of quiet certainty, a strong sense of humour, and a shyness that vanishes when he stands before his congregation. In this parish, over 90% of the population is registered as Roman Catholic, and Father Rodolpho takes pride in the increasing attendances at Mass.


The mission and its church are at once a school, a surgery, a place of recreation, a refuge, a social centre, and a source of inspiration. Throughout the island there is a sense that the church is the administration.

Beyond the walls of the mission there are spies, policemen, informers — the army of occupation. Inside, there is teaching, prayer and song. Father Rodolpho said he would try to arrange for us to make contact with members of the armed struggle. He said it might take some time. So we settled down to wait.

It's a simple life at the mission. There's no running water, fitful electricity and a basic diet of rice and stewed lamb. Father Rodolpho rises at five. At six, school starts, and will go on, in different parts of the mission compound, all day. Portuguese is spoken freely here. 'Buonas dias', said Father Rodolpho, coming in for breakfast at eight. By midday it's swelteringly hot.

At about four in the afternoon, Father Rodolpho celebrates Mass. The church is always crowded. There is nothing routine about these prayers. I saw many people kneeling in tears. Some will also make their confession.

On that first day, in the lull before supper, Father Rodolpho talked about his life and work here. We also spoke of politics. He is not afraid to address political questions in his church. 'When I speak of corruption and injustice,’ he says, 'the military don't like it.'

Then we talked about the struggle for independence. Father Rodolpho made the comparison with Yugoslavia.

[ East Timor being like Croatia .... JP ]

He remarked that President Suharto could be seen as a kind of South-East Asian Tito, holding together a loose confederation with a combination of military muscle and massive economic expansion (GDP has expanded by a staggering annual 7% for the past several years). Indonesia is made up of about 13,500 separate islands, many with aspirations to independence, and there's no doubt that the violence meted out to East Timor is intended as a deterrent to others in Aceh and Irian Jaya. After Suharto, what next?

said Father Rodolpho.

Another day passed. There were many comings and goings. An officer from the local Indonesian battalion paid a visit. He asked,

Later, he told us that a new, crack battalion had just arrived from Java to strengthen the campaign against the guerrillas. Indonesian propaganda claims a reduction in troop levels. We saw no evidence of this.


After our siesta on the second day, Julio and I paid a visit to a local notable, Antonio Anastasio da Costa Soares. As his name suggests, this fine old gentleman has a family pedigree that can be traced back to the days of Portuguese rule. He is a great survivor. He has lived through the Japanese invasion, has seen the return of Portuguese rule, then the brief declaration of Timorese independence in 1975 and then, finally, the Indonesian invasion. Unlike many of his age, he had survived the occupation unharmed. He insisted that, despite everything, his country was still, as he put it 'the same Timor.'

Late on Saturday we were joined by a man who agreed to be identified only by his first name, Jose. He is the local organist and he had come to practise for Sunday Mass, but he's no ordinary musician. Jose is 25 and is under permanent detention at the local barracks. When the Pope visited Dili in 1989, Jose organised the student protest, and was arrested. He is still in detention, but at least he has survived. His plight is known to Bishop Belo and to the International Red Cross. He has no idea when he will be released. He has no books, no newspapers, no radio nor TV—his weekly visit to the mission is his only contact with the outside world.

After Mass on Sunday, we drove out with Father Rodolpho to a remote village in the forest. It was a sobering journey, full of first-hand evidence of the attempted extermination of the East Timorese. In this cul-de-sac 50 people were machine-gunned. Under that palm tree is a mass grave. Over there, on that hillside, is a well-known killing field. Finally we reached our destination, a 'new' village of about 1,100 people. Before the massacres of the 1970s and 1980s and before relocation it numbered some 4,900. Here, as everywhere in East Timor, you see children, teenagers and young adults—but no 30- or 40-year-olds. They have all been killed.


There was also a platoon of Indonesian troops and the usual complement of informers in residence. We found a group of young people watching a boxing match on the village television. I wanted to ask questions, but no one would talk. Father Rodolpho spoke to the village leader who became edgy and nervous. His eyes darted this way and that. He was evidently afraid. He knew he was being watched. He would not speak

This is a society whose language has been doubly terrorised. First there is the fear of torture or death. Everyone has lost a sibling or a parent or a grandparent, often in circumstances of the most appalling cruelty. As in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge, the people are in a state of shock. Then there is the language terrorism, more subtle, but just as brutal. The older generation grew up speaking Portuguese. After the invasion, this became associated with the resistance movement, and now it is only used in murmurs behind closed doors. The official state language is Bahasa Indonesia. For the rest, the local language, Tetum, is the speech of everyday life, but deprived of the freedom to express the basic desire for independence and justice.

On the afternoon of the third day, still waiting to make contact with the guerrillas, we walked a little way out of the town, and found ourselves being directed by the local people to the scene of a cock-fight. A large crowd of young men and boys had collected around a small, wire-fenced arena. Almost everyone was chewing 'mascar', a kind of betel, and their reddened lips and teeth contributed to the blood-thirsty atmosphere. As we arrived, the excitement was mounting. Razor-blades were being strapped onto the claws of two fighting-cocks. In another corner there was furious betting. The cocks are held, beak to beak, to arouse hostility. Suddenly, they are released and there's a flurry of feathers and squawking. Then a shout goes up. One of the birds has been slashed. Bright red blood drips onto the earth. The winning bird is snatched up by its owner and held proudly aloft. The other bird is gasping in a corner, a dirty heap of plumage.


In a few minutes it will be dead. In the area around the cockpit, several other cocks are tethered waiting to fight. Some owners parade their birds for the inspection of the punters. Another round of betting. Another fight. Another death. For a people who have endured what the Timorese have endured, a few dead birds must seem insignificant.

Night fell. We had been told to be ready for a meeting with a member of 'the armed struggle'. The hours ticked by. Finally we met a young man from the resistance movement, and learned of the desperate situation now facing the freedom fighters of East Timor.

The guerrilla I spoke to, Joaquim Guterres (not his real name), had been close to the guerrilla leader, 'Xanana' Gusmao, who is currently in prison serving a 20-year sentence. In his opinion Gusmao had allowed himself to be arrested and made a political prisoner to dramatise the plight of the East Timor resistance movement to the world: Gusmao could (and did) attract the attention of the world's press.


There was no question of Gusmao's continuing psychological presence among the guerrillas, however 'He is our Nelson Mandela,' said Joaquim Guterres.

Gusmao has been replaced, in the field, by a young leader named Konis Santana, but the armed struggle remains in dire straits, short of arms, supplies and new recruits. There are, perhaps, no more than 1,000 men sustaining the clandestine movement, of whom less than half carry weapons. I asked how, in these circumstances, the resistance could ever hope to succeed? The young man opposite shook his head fiercely. He had no real answers, only a desperate faith in his cause. 'Indonesian troops are killing our people every day, but I am 100% certain we shall succeed. We shall always have the support of the people and we love our freedom. We shall never give up.'

We talked on. Joaquim Guterres described the activities of his fellow guerrillas, their Maubere code-names (Lan-Wai, Fuluk, Loro-Talin, Ular Rihyk) and their day-to-day living conditions. He admitted a frustration at the isolation of the Timorese people. 'The world refuses to pay attention, no matter what we sacrifice, families, homes, lives.... We have been given many fine words, but we are still dying, every day we are still dying.'

Sometime after midnight Guterres said he had to return to the forest, and handed over messages for fellow resistance workers who have somehow managed to flee abroad. Then he disappeared silently into the dark.

Next morning, we bade farewell to Father Rodolpho and walked with our rucksacks out of the mission, back into the town. The bell was tolling for Mass. People were hurrying towards the church as usual. Across the street, local informers watched our progress from their mopeds. Now, writing this in the security of the West, I worry, as any journalist must worry, about the safety of those I have described. I had discussed this point with Father Rodolpho who remained impressively calm.