Life in Dili

The Anarchives (
Mon, 5 Aug 1996 16:28:42 -0400

/* Written 4:39 AM Jul 31, 1996 by in
igc:reg.easttimor */
/* ---------- "Life in Dili Part One" ---------- */
From: cesarina rocha <>

The following article my be used/edited/published as readers
see fit. Contact Brian Kelly on:


by Brian Kelly

(The following is written from notes taken during my travels in East Timor
in June 1996. Although the events are described as accurately as possible,
although conversations in Indonesian have been translated into English and
names have been changed.)

It is twilight. I am sitting in an outdoor restaurant in Becora, Dili,
with several East Timorese youths, listening to local songs played by one
of the teenage boys. The neighbouring children sit cross-legged in the
grass around us, singing along with the guitar. They sing traditional
Timorese songs in Tetun. Not knowing the words, I beat the table and cups
with a spoon, as if playing drums. Engrossed in the music, I gaze at the
trees by the roadside, only half-aware of the passing mini-buses and taxis
a nd their blaring horns. Children play soccer on the footpath. The heat
of the day over, pedestrians stroll along the side of the road, the women
arm in arm.

Suddenly, the the evening is shattered by a piercing shriek. The crowd on
the road and path suddenly thickens. I hear a shrill, nightmare-ish
scream: "Jesus Maria; Jesus Maria", over and over again - a woman's
scream. The teenaged boy in our group throws down the guitar and rushes up
to the road. The children run after him. I stand up, but am paralysed, as
if caught in a dream.

All afternoon there has been tension in the air. One of the boys told me
this morning that a US Senator is visiting Dili and that the students want
to stage a demonstratio. He said the US Senator is staying at the Hotel
Turismo, which is owned by the Indo nesian military and called "Intel
base" by local East Timorese because it is staffed by secret intelligence
spies. Now it feels as if the tension is about to explode. And if
something "explodes" in East Timor, by way of riots or public protest, it
seems t hat it is always the East Timorese who end up in prison, tortured,
or killed - many still in their teens, like the boys who have just leapt
up to join the crowd on the road.

This afternoon, I discussed the Senator's visit with Manuel, who works in
the clandestine front, and who I sometimes meet in secret. Manuel, aged
22, has already been arrested three times. Each time, he has been
imprisoned for several months and repeatedl y tortured by the Indonesian
military to try to force him to provide information about the clandestine
or guerilla fronts of the Resistance. He has shown me the knife wounds on
his head and the cigarette and candle burns on his skin, testimony to his
most recent spell in prison.

Manuel explained to me this afternoon that it would be almost suicidal for
the students to demonstrate at Hotel Turismo, because it faces the sea and
is backed by a huge ABRI (Indonesian military) area at the rear;
therefore, there are no escape routes. The main road could be easily cut
off by security forces on both ends and then protestors arrested - or
identified by secret intelligence spies and arrested at night, as usually
happens after demonstrations. Although most of the boys want to
demonstrate, Manuel said he and the other leaders have been trying to
persuade them to conserve their energy. "It's just not worth it, losing
our best youths for the sake of one demonstration," he told me. "When each
demonstration means arrests and sometimes deaths, l eaping up and
protesting every time you're excited just isn't practical. We have to act
responsibly. It's a long struggle."

Now, as I stare through the fading light at the gathering crowd on the
road, the excitement has changed to anger; which I can almost feel
swelling and growing as I watch. I don't know what is the cause of this
anger, or where it might lead. I am in a stra nge country - at this
moment, very obviously a country at war. I don't know what might happen
next. I am afraid; but find myself walking towards the road to find out
what's going on.

I pause not far from the edges of the crowd of young, shouting boys and
girls and wailing women. The centre of attention is a Javanese man in his
twenties sitting on a motorbike; he is being cursed, pushed and shoved by
youths. Some people stand, watching , stunned; others scream out abuse at
the man. The Indonesian appears to be trying to drive the motorbike away,
but is blocked by several angry young boys. Now he is pulled off the bike.
I see a confusion of kicks and flying punches. I see the fury take c
ontrol, as the boys who begin to beat the man badly. At that moment, I
almost expect them to kill him. I spot one of the children I know by name,
Jovita, in the crowd, and - as if waking from a sleep - call her. She runs
to me and holds my hand protective ly, as if she is the adult and I the
child. Indeed, she is the more experienced.

"What happened?" I ask.

"Javanese ran over Paulina's little sister, the baby." She holds out her
hand at waist height to indicate the small size of the child. Paulina is
one of the children who sometimes chat with me, helping me learn Bahasa
Indonesia and Tetun. "There was blood ... at her mouth, her ears, her
head. Family took her to hospital already." Now I see the Indonesian tear
himself away from the youths and race to a nearby taxi, which has stopped
because of the crowd. The teenage boy who had been playing the guitar and
singing ten minutes ago is viciously punching the man through the open car
window. Part of my mind is afraid the boys will kill the Indonesian.
Another part is filled with dread that at any minute the police or
military might turn up - which would almost definitely result in many East
Timorese being arrested; or that all this fury might not burn itself out,
but grow; now I can almost understand how easily riots begin. And I have
been told that when there are riots in East T! imor, there are inevitably
militar y crackdowns, with large numbers of East Timorese being arrested
and sometimes shot. Visions of the Dili Massacre scenes I have seen on
television flash before my eyes.

I hope the taxi will take the man away, but the vehicle doesn't move. I
suppose the driver has refused to help the man escape, perhaps because he
is East Timorese and wants the Javanese to be beaten up, or perhaps
because he is afraid of retaliation from the crowd. After a moment, the
Indonesian leaps out, ducking to avoid the blows and kicks which land on
his back and head as he runs away. The boys let him go, as if the most
explosive part of their anger is spent.

To my relief, the military does not arrive. The boys who had been beating
the Indonesian kick the Indonesian's motorbike a few times in disgust,
then melt away - perhaps wisely, for if the military does arrive, they
will be the first to be arrested. The crowd remains milling about the road
for a couple hours - large groups of boys and girls talking, children
crying, women wailing. Everyone knows the baby is seriously hurt and might
die; and that if it does, there is nothing anyone can do about it. "Alway
s the Javanese!" a woman moans bitterly to another. Another cry, "A
Timorese would have been more careful!" echoes my own thoughts, however
unfair, as I reflect on the riots in East Timor during last couple of
years, most of which have been caused by an Indonesian causing a fight or
defacing or destroying Catholic statues.

"Treating us like dogs," says someone in a group of boys; and the
cautious, clandestine whisper, "Resistencia" - the Resistance - catches my

I go back to the restaurant, which is candlelit because of a power
black-out - common in Dili. I smoke cigarettes, think about the injured
baby, and worry that high emotions of the people might cause the students
to riot or demonstrate, which will inevita bly lead to bloodshed. I know
it is important to demonstrate, otherwise the world might forget about
East Timor's war with Indonesia; and without international intervention,
the East Timorese will never gain the independence they are all fighting
for. But I can't bear the thought of boys and girls whom I regard as my
friends being tortured.

Maria, who works in the restaurant, throws some light on why the people
are so angry. She tells me that when there is an accident between Timorese
people, both families get together afterwards and sort out the problems,
determining who is at fault and who is to pay the hospital bills - which
is terribly important here, as most families don't earn enough money to
live on. Of course, the East Timorese would never call the police, she
says; for the police, government and military are all together, on the Ind
onesian side - that is, they are all the "Enemy".

But when the accident isn't between East Timorese, Maria says, there are
problems. One is the fact that the offender is Javanese, regarded as the
"Enemy", and therefore detested. Another is that when an Indonesian
injures an East Timorese, it is a reminde r of the bad treatment the
Timorese have to put up with from the Indonesians constantly; especially
from soldiers, who don't have to obey any laws. Another problem with
today's accident is that because the offender is Javanese, the two parties
involved ca nnot talk about the problem in the customary way, for the
Javanese don't trust the Timorese and vice versa. Therefore, the family
whose baby has been injured will not be given any financial assistance and
might not be able to afford treatment. In East Tim or, if people cannot
afford medical treatment for their children, the children die.

Maria is convinced that any approach made to the police with a complaint
about the Javanese driver would result in nothing but more suffering for
the East Timorese family concerned. I also get the impression that she
regards the accident as no accident at all, but deliberate - just another
example of Indonesia's ongoing repression and attack of the East Timorese

Although this might be an exaggeration, I have witnessed enough in East
Timor to know that most of what Maria says is true. Having spent several
weeks here, I have noticed that the people seem to fear the police as much
as they fear the military; in fact, although many shops are owned by
trans-migrants, the East Timorese try to avoid contact with Indonesians in
general. I have noticed the way in which Indonesian officials and military
officers order the Timorese about; which, especially when they are hold
ing machine guns, is very intimidating.

I eat my evening meal and return to my hotel. Here, I meet Marcos, who
often comes to see me to practice his English and to tell me what is
happening in Dili. Marcos is still a high school student, only 15, yet -
like many other students - already involve d in the Resistance. As there
is no-one else in the room, he tells me the demonstration this weekend has
been cancelled because a larger delegation of US Senators is scheduled to
visit Dili soon. "We could have demonstrated, but our "chief" said not
to," he explains, looking a little disappointed. "However, next time...!"
he adds, and there is a dangerous glint in his eye. The other day, he
confided to me he wants to go to the mountains and fight with the
guerillas, but his father has insisted he stay in the city and complete
his schooling, and the "chief" says he is needed here to support the
clandestine movement.

Marcos is typical of the young East Timorese I have met: he has been
educated by the Indonesian government, speaks fluent Bahasa Indonesia, and
has been taught all his life that East Timor is the 27th province of
Indonesia, yet insists that he is East Tim orese - that he never has been
and never will be Indonesian. He tells me he will never give up fighting
until East Timor is free. At 15, Marcos is prepared to die for his
country. If he continues to be involved in demonstrations, odds are he
will end up d oing just that.

Although Indonesia has tried to win the hearts of the East Timorese by
force, it seems to have failed. It has tried to eradicate the guerilla
force, Falintil, and the clandestine front of the Resistance, but has
failed. Despite an Indonesian education sys tem, it has failed to convince
the Timorese that they are Indonesians - in fact, Marcos' generation of
East Timorese are Indonesia's worst enemies, because they are now educated
as well as determined to achieve independence. When these youths are
arrested and tortured, or killed, there are always others to take their
place; for they are not fighting for some political ideal that they might
grow out of, or fighting for someone else. Marcos and his friends are
fighting for their lives and the lives of thei r families, and for them to
do otherwise would be to betray their own people.

The courage I have seen in Marcos' eyes and in the eyes of so many
children, boys and girls, men and women in East Timor leaves me convinced
that the only way for the Indonesians to stop the East Timorese from
fighting for their independence is to kill t hem all. However, it is more
difficult nowadays for the Indonesian government to get away with
massacres. With hundreds of NGOs and millions of eyes watching Indonesia,
a shudder goes through the world each time new violations in East Timor
are reported. Public protests against western governments still reluctant
to criticize Indonesia's human rights record are increasing, and those
governments are beginning to speak out. With increasing international
awareness of Indonesia's ongoing violations in East Ti mor, it is only a
matter of time before Indonesia is forced to allow a referendum so that
the East Timorese people can determine for themselves whether they wish to
be part of Indonesia, or an independent East Timor.


The next day I was told that the teenage guitar player who had beaten the
Javanese had gone away to "stay with relations". But later I heard from
his friends that he had to leave because he was afraid that a spy who had
been present at the scene of the accident would report him to the
military. There was no riot and the youths didn't demonstrate - this
weekend, at least, as far as I knew, there were no arrests in Dili.

However, there was one death, and one anguished family; for the injured
baby, Paulina's little sister, died on her way to hospital.