Twenty years later, Timorese Australians look back on the fight for independence | East Timor
This week, Timor-Leste celebrates 20 years of independence. On May 20, 2002, the United Nations officially handed over power to the new Timorese government and, therefore, to its people.
It ended a struggle often described as spanning the 24 years from the Indonesian invasion in 1975 to the UN referendum in 1999. But before Indonesia’s bloody and brutal occupation, there was had four centuries of Portuguese colonial rule.
A government report estimated that more than 102,000 people died during Indonesia’s rule, while Amnesty International put the figure at 200,000. Most died of starvation and disease, but tens of thousands were killed or disappeared, and one researcher estimates that 15% of the civilian population of Timor-Leste, then known as East Timor, was killed between 1975 and 1980.
Alex Soares is a Timorese-Australian photographer living in Perth. To mark the anniversary, Soares photographed and interviewed three cousins: survivors of the occupation who now live in Australia.
They spoke of fleeing to the mountains, secretly aiding independence fighters Falintil (the military wing of the independence party Fretilin), torture, starvation and the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, where Indonesian forces shot dead at least 250 pro-independence protesters.
Soares says, “Every participant I interviewed recounted first-hand experiences of having endured torture and starvation, of having family and friends murdered, raped and made to disappear, and of having everything lost during the war. Their stories are also full of hope, love and resilience.
These interviews have been edited for clarity.
Agau, born in 1967
Before Indonesia invaded our country, East Timor, we had such a wonderful life. My village, Fattubessi, was famous for the best coffee. We had a simple life. But we were very happy. We knew everyone and had work. All friends and family together. Very peaceful. Every day I played with all the other children.
I didn’t have a childhood after 1975. When I was a child and adults first talked about war, I didn’t know what a war was. But suddenly we understood that it was about bombs, deaths and fights.
My father always said, “No matter what, we keep fighting until we get freedom. So during all this time, we traveled with Falintil and Fretilin for four years in the mountains. We went down into the hills, hidden in the bush, we went down to Maliana, Bobonaro, the big towns that border West Timor.
We would move on to the next bush, the mountain. During the day we sat and rested, and at night we moved, crossed rivers, passed through another village. All the boys would be sent to walk 5-10 km to see if we can find food. We would give half to ourselves and the other half to Falintil.
I lost my older brother while we were traveling near the border. We sat and had lunch with Falintil and suddenly we were ambushed by Indonesian soldiers. They started shooting at us. We kept running. And then they just opened fire. They shot my brother. My father and my other sisters tried to help her. They dug a small hole about half a meter deep. But then Falintil walked past them and said, “We can’t wait, or they’ll kill you all.” So my father and my mother had to leave my brother. No burial.
I was already on the mountain. After two weeks of solitude, I found my family and they told me: my brother had been killed.
In 1979, we were captured by the Indonesian army. We were in Liquiça and were ambushed. I was hit by a soldier in the lower back. I tried to hide, but we were captured. It was in October or November.
Now it was my mom, my dad, and my three siblings. Four siblings had died, two brothers and two sisters. three of them fell ill because there was no food or drinking water.
My father, who was really sick, was interrogated and tortured. He died shortly thereafter.
We moved in with our uncles and started a new life in Dili. It was the first time I went to school. We started getting to know young people from my area in Dili. Some of us become estafeta [clandestine couriers who sent messages to the resistance]. We would make contact with Falintil in the bush and organize the resistance. From 1983 to 1993, my role as a young student was to help fight for independence.
In 1993, I left Timor because the situation was getting worse. I was one of the lucky ones because our family was sponsored by a family that had already escaped. We bribed our way to Bali and then to Australia.
A few days after my arrival in Perth, I joined the East Timorese community in Perth to organize protests. We celebrated Mass, prayed for Timor, prayed for the victims, prayed for the family. We have developed wider community solidarity with Australians, Christian charities. We would send funds to Falintil. In the last protest we had in 1999, there was broad support from the aboriginal community. During the demonstrations, we sang and shouted in front of the embassy.
Mitu, born in 1969
One day, very early in the morning, we woke up and went with all the young Timorese to mass at Motael church, the oldest in Dili.
Once the mass was over, I joined all the young people to walk along the road towards the cemetery of Santa Cruz. We made a great demonstration. We were singing, “Viva East Timor, Viva Sebastian Gomes!” [A Timorese student who had been killed by Indonesian forces a few weeks earlier.]
I was somewhere in the middle of the group. We arrived at the cemetery and entered. There were a lot of soldiers around but no problem at this point. They were just watching us along the road. We continued to sing louder. And then suddenly they started shooting at us. The demonstrators ran inside the cemetery.
I saw people die around me. I was lying on the ground. Soldiers came and hit me with the butts of their rifles. They hit my chest, my head. I was 21 years old.
After beating us in the cemetery, they threw us into an army vehicle. They took us to Comoros [a suburb of Dili]. They electrocuted us: me and three friends. They tortured us. Three months after the massacre, my best fried died of his injuries.
That night, my family thought I had been killed. My whole face was black and bleeding and swollen. They couldn’t believe when I got home. My mom was just crying and hugging me. She thanked God saying, “my eldest son is still alive.”
Three years later, in 1994, a family sponsored us to come to Australia. Before we left in 1994, things got worse. Indonesia was so angry with the Santa Cruz protests because they made headlines around the world.
On the way to Australia, we stayed in Bali for two or three days. An aunt met us in Bali and she helped bring us to Australia. Starting in Australia was a fresh start. Everything was different. Perth was a big city for us and I really missed Timor. We left a sister and another family there. And good friends.
I have to go to Australia and start a new life. I have a good job now. I now have a family, but I could have died then. I returned four times to Timor. But I can’t be happy because good friends are missing. I still remember a lot of trauma.
Joãozinho, born in 1970
I was a small child at that time but I remember seeing the paratroopers coming down from the sky. My friends and I thought people were playing kite or something like that. But then my parents said, “No, it’s not kites, it’s parachutists and we’re overrun.
We stayed in the hills of Dare, 20 km from Dili, for three months, living with other Timorese families also fleeing violence. And after Indonesia took over the city, they started looking for a Timorese electrician to come back to town to restore power to the capital. We came back to Dili and my father went back to work as an electrician.
In 1980 there was a plan for guerrilla fighters to launch an assault on the Indonesian army in Dili. It was my father’s job to sabotage the electrical system. So night came, my father cut off all the electricity in Dili but the plan had been discovered and the Falintil attack was stopped before they got to Dili. Most of the Falintil involved were killed.
The next morning, my father was picked up by the Indonesian army. They dragged him out of our house. They took him to a torture house. They beat him, gave him electric shocks and starved him. After torturing him many times over the next few years, he stopped working. We fought at that time for everything.
The clandestine movement is organized very secretly. It was the order of the guerrillas. You can only have one person in charge, to know limited information. So I was just getting a message and then passing it on. I didn’t know the full picture or why.
After the invasion, we were forced to speak Bahasa Indonesian. We had no choice. Tetum [Timor-Leste’s lingua franca] was banned. If they caught you talking Tetum, you’d be in big trouble. Even when going to work, they would stop you and interrogate you. “What are you doing?” Everyone was suspicious. What can you do? You are young, it is the army.
We started to get involved in a youth movement with friends from the region. We started to organize things. We did a lot of demonstrations. As young Timorese all we wanted was to be independent, we didn’t want Indonesian domination. We waited for the right moment, for example when politicians or the UN came to Dili, and we protested. We wanted to show the world what was happening in Timor.
We left Timor in 1994 because my father was really sick. He went to Australia for treatment, sponsored by his family and the Timorese independence movement in Australia.
This month, May 20, marks the 20th anniversary of Timor-Leste’s independence. We always expect leaders to run the country the way we think it should be. So that all Timorese have a good quality of life. This is what we fought for. For the freedom of the country. And the freedom of our people.