I hopped on a MI-8MTV-5 Russian helicopter on Thursday to return to East Timor. Well, technically, for the past day I had been in East Timor, just in its extremely isolated enclave Oecussi. Sitting next to me was an extremely friendly South Korean peacekeeper who said “whoaa, we are taught how to shoot these down! These are the enemy’s!”
I could not help but expose myself as a hopeless tourist, with the digital camera, trying to shoot photos out of its round, porthole like windows.
My mission on this trip to Oecussi had been to observe the workings of the CAVR, the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. One of the main functions of the Commission is to promote “community reconciliation” via hearings and agreements conducted in the traditional way at the community level for lesser crimes committed in 1999. “Crimes of blood” and rapes are to be sent to the Serious Crimes Tribunal run by the UN.
My interest, in the hearing to be conducted in Sakato, a hungry coastal community just east of the largest town in Oecusse, was to see how a juvenile offender would be processed. One of the 11 deponents was under 18 in 1999. I knew only this.
When I arrived to Sakato, with members of the Commission, the women were banging gongs and drums (babadok in Tetum). The men were stomping around with these beautiful silver anklebells, which are made of “osan mutin,” or Mexican silver pieces which mysteriously ended up in Timor at the turn of the century. Some of the deponents were surrounded by a group of community members and having animated discussions. Others sat in the shade, near this bizarre sacred totem formed with a eucalyptus trunk and a large palm frond. Traditional cloth, or tais, was wrapped around the totem, and a sword was hanging from it. I think the intent was anthropomorphic.
I was introduced to the “labarik,” the child, who was now 19 years old. He was extremely shy, probably had never met a white woman before. He looked down at the ground bashfully as I explained why I was there, to see if people consider his case special because he was a child. He had a very young-looking face. The Commission member interpreted into Vaiqueno, because the boy could not speak Tetum. He answered that he is a fisherman now, and does not go to school. In 1999, he stole four chickens from a neighboring town. He was clearly there just to clear his name.
A little before noon, the ceremony started. All 11 deponents gave their statements or confessions from a stage made of trees limbs and palm thatch. (The Commission provided wireless microphones.) The “panel” of respected community members sat behind and played the role of inquisitors at times, asking for more detail and information from the deponents.
Then the victims were called up to explain how they were hurt by the deponents. The most amazing speech came from this little man named Agus. He could have been 28 or 58, I could not tell. His voice shook, his hands shook, as he described nearly being beaten to death by the Sakunar militia. He escaped Oecussi and then came back, when he was beaten again by exiting militia.
“I hurt again so much, I took more medicine. I thought soon I would die. I went crazy, crazy, crazy with pain. I am still sick today. I wake up in the middle of the night from shock… I am still very sick inside. I am a stupid, simple man, I do not understand politics. But when they looked at me they did not see a man.”
He named three names, and said the others he could not identify. I was not clear whether any of the names corresponded to those of the deponents.
The community was riveted by this testimony, as none of the deponents had been very emotional or graphic in their confessions. The other victims were only victims of harrassment, theft and minor assault. At about 3:30pm, we broke for lunch, the VIP members of the community invited to eat buffalo. We had to pass the sacred totem, where there was a basket full of rice and buffalo meat. Everybody was supposed to pick up a handful of rice and meat and eat it while passing, they called it traditional “communion.” I pretended to follow along.
The women were furiously serving up various forms of buffalo meat in a covered structure on the beach. There were no vegetables in sight. (I found out later that at ritual events, vegetables are not to be served.) So, as I have done before, I broke my vegetarianism for cultural reasons. It was unbelievable how many people could eat from only one buffalo.
It turned out, that while we were eating, the victims and the deponents both sent representatives up on stage to sit on the mat the “biti boot” and negotiate the prices of the crimes. I was told in advance that Oecussi customary law is more oriented towards material restoration, and not symbol restoration. In fact, our sad Agus had asked for 6 juta (6 million rupiah) or just under $600. Big money in Timor. So the negotiations continued intensely throughout lunch, with the “panel” mediating.
After lunch, the deponents presented their offerings to the victims. Most were tua sabu, or highly refined palm wine which is up to 60% alcohol. Tais were also presented, as well as small sums like $2. I never understood what happened to Agus’ request for $600. The boy I talked to earlier paid two bottles of tua sabu to the elders of the town where he stole the chickens.
Then the crowd formed around the sacred totem. And the traditional priests began chanting in this extremely rhythmic, beautiful ritual speech, which cannot and should not be translated. I just listened to the sounds, very percussive and melodic at the same time. Then they splashed water over the deponents, who were absolved. The priests then cut open a goat’s heart, which had been hanging from the totem. Blood spurted all over the totem.
The band started playing happy songs, and the deponents went around the area shaking hands of the VIPs and the victims. There was a palpable feeling of relief. From everyone, for we had been sitting there for 6 hours straight.
I soon realized that I was to be the white guest of honor at the villages’ all-night party. I said I would go back to the town, freshen up and think about coming back. Probably. (Yeah right.) Coming back would mean having to waltz until three in the morning with people I cannot even communicate with. Plus I had already spent the whole day there.
I stayed with the American head of Oxfam and his wife who is Yale Forestry PhD student. They were very gracious hosts, and we able to tell me all about the isolated, bizarre and twisted history and politics of Oecussi. It turns out I had met the king of Oecussi that morning without knowing it. Oecussi is the only district where the “petty kings” or liurai (or in Vaiqueno “najuf”) respond to a higher authority, the King of Oecussi.
I don’t want to bore with the early colonial history of the place, so I’ll cut straight to the modern day polygamy and succession struggle. The man I met, in neat flip-flops and shorts, still a “child” as he is unmarried at age 33, Antonio da Costa, is considered the defacto King of Oecussi. His father, a man who had so many women people lost count, died in 1999. He married no woman under the church, partly because his two “best” wives were sisters, and he could not bear to choose between them. In fact they all lived together. There seems to be no one contesting that Antonio da Costa is the heir to his father.
Yet there is another figure who claims to be the King of Ambeno. A native of Oecussi, untainted by relations with the Portuguese and neighboring islands. He apparently lives in a dark hut near the point where the Portuguese first landed in Timor, called Lifau.
Oecussi society apparently cares about three things: trade across the border with Indonesia, keeping the Sakunar militia out, and the King. So this new debate over whether to restore the King of Ambeno as the leader of all of the petty kings is quite an important one. Moreover, local government will not do anything I MEAN ANYTHING without the consent of the King.
There is much more. I will have to write a part two.