“East Timor is a very dangerous place. The farther you go to the east, the more you will likely be shot. There was a helicopter flying over the eastern region and it was attacked by automatic rifles from the forest below.”
I recall being a kid listening to such stories from East Timor told by one of my father’s colleagues. At school I learned that East Timor – or Timor Timur in Bahasa Indonesia – was the 27th province of Indonesia, bordering East Nusa Tenggara with West Timor belonging to the latter province.
When I was much younger I didn’t understand what was happening in that particular region, not that I didn’t watch news but more because there were no real news from that region to begin with. Under the Suharto regime practically all media outlets were censored, and those who decided to be vocal towards the government were forced to shut down.
What was taught to me at school was rather government propaganda, emphasizing the fact – concocted by the ruling regime – that it was the East Timorese, with the exception of Fretilin members, who asked Indonesia to incorporate the former Portuguese colony into the Republic.
And I believed it.
On our second day in Dili we meet Johnny, our young and energetic tour guide for exploring Baucau and Venilale. It doesn’t take long before Johnny engages us in long conversation as it is in his nature to talk to people. A son of a guerrilla fighter whose father was once captured and tortured by the Indonesian military during the occupation, Johnny tells us terrifying stories from that time, whether experienced firsthand or told by his father.
“When the Portuguese leave their colonies they don’t destroy everything,” Johnny says. Looking out to the window, he adds, “but when the Indonesians left they destroyed everything.”
Filled with optimism and great pride for his country, Johnny keeps telling us stories from the Indonesian time – as he refers to that turbulent period. As our driver – who is from Atambua, in Indonesian West Timor – drives through hilly countryside of East Timor, Johnny points his finger to a hill sparsely dotted with eucalyptus trees.
“If you see eucalyptus in Darwin, Australia, they are big. But here they are young because the Indonesians used to burn all forests as those were where the guerrilla fighters hid.”
The more we go to the east, the more Johnny tells us stories about his father and his fellow guerrilla fighters. In the past many guerrillas had code names in neither Portuguese nor Bahasa Indonesia so that the Indonesian military would never know what they meant. Names like ‘the one who killed nine enemies with one bullet’ and ‘the one who killed enemies in three trucks’ sound as though they were created based on fantasy rather than reality. But if I were a little boy I would have been amazed and inspired by those names and the stories behind them.
Upon explaining about what happened in East Timor after the Portuguese left, Johnny tells us that when the new country was engulfed in civil unrest, two political factions – UDT and Apodeti – invited Indonesia to come to mediate the conflict and help East Timor build its people’s capacity. Johnny adds that in doing so they only invited Indonesia to stay in the country for a few years until East Timor was able to properly run its civilian government.
However history proves that it was not the case.
As we drive by the town of Laleia, roughly halfway between Dili and Baucau, Johnny asks our driver to stop and park the car where a beautiful landscape of lush forests and a river stretches as far as the eye can see. “This could be somewhere in North America,” James recalls.
According to Johnny, Kairui, the location where we stop, was one of the most volatile spots in East Timor during the Indonesian time. In this area guerrillas often ambushed Indonesian military convoys every time they wanted to reach Baucau by land. Johnny points out forested hills beyond the road. “That’s where the guerrillas hid,” he says. “Whenever the guerrillas won, the Indonesians would not proceed to Baucau. Otherwise they would.”
Roughly three hours after leaving Dili we finally arrive in Baucau. The country’s second biggest city is divided into two main parts: Kota Lama (or Antiga Vila in Portuguese) where Portuguese colonial buildings are in abundance; and Kota Baru (Vilanova) where the Indonesian administration was centered. Baucau, which means “mother of rocks” in the local Fatuk Laran dialect, is situated more than 300m above sea level, making the climate slightly more comfortable than in Dili.
As a landmark of Baucau, the Pousada de Baucau’s pink Portuguese building stands elegantly overlooking the Banda Sea. Its upscale restaurant serves authentic Portuguese and fusion dishes. I go for Singa de Camarão – a Portuguese pilaf with prawns and onions; while James opts for Filetes do Mar de Baucau – a fusion dish of fried fish, mashed taro and fried banana.
However the history of Baucau is not always as appealing as our first impressions of the city. Prior to the trip to Timor-Leste I watched an eye-opening documentary by an Al Jazeera corespondent, Step Vaessen, who reported from the country during ‘Operation Scorched Earth’, launched by the Indonesian military and pro-Indonesian militia to burn and destroy many vital facilities in East Timor. It happened in 1999, the year when most Indonesians were focused on getting a grip on the country’s failing economy following the Asian Financial Crisis when the rupiah – Indonesia’s currency – fell by more than 600%, the economy shrank drastically and many banks collapsed. East Timor was unintentionally forgotten by many Indonesians at that time.
The documentary describes the movements of the last battalion of the Indonesian military who left the country by land. In doing so they burned everything they saw and killed everyone they met. The story itself and the brutal killings really brought me to tears as I had never really understood the scale of the atrocities until I saw it. Watching the documentary encouraged me to make a reconciliatory effort, albeit very minuscule, on my trip to Timor-Leste.
But this was never realized as I decided not to reveal my identity as an Indonesian to Johnny, leaving him to assume that I was also from Hong Kong, like James. Had I decided to tell him the truth, he may not have told us all those stories on the East Timorese struggle to gain independence from Indonesia.
We walk towards a big church in the center of Kota Lama where Johnny explains, “This church was built by the Indonesians, and they didn’t burn churches after the referendum.”
Like other conflicts around the globe, there are always different perspectives on what happened and why they did. Our last stop at the small town of Venilale, less than an hour’s drive south of Baucau, will complete the puzzle and give me a better comprehension of East Timor and its troubled history.