Terror as the norm

After reading in Xanana’s autobiography that he repeated intervened to save the “pro-Indonesia” or “1959” liurais in 1977, I decided to risk it and put some effort into understand the aftermath of this “mountain” period.

I spent the day comparing data from three lists of those killed in Uatolari-Uatocarbau in 1978-79. This period followed the rendição, the surrender from Mount Matebian, where the majority of the civilian population had lived for over a year. Many died of thirst, poor health and bombings with fighter planes sold to Indonesia by the Carter Administration. Some civilians snuck out of Fretilin controlled areas on the Mountain when the suffering became too great.

But most stayed until Falintil gave the order for a civilian surrender on November 23, 1978. When people passed through the military cordon, my informants say there were already Timorese collaborators pulling out Fretilin sympathizers from the crowd of civilians. People over the age of about 12 had their hands checked for gun powder or residue of munitions.

Once “down” in the villages and towns, those who saw themselves as victimized by Fretilin power on the Mountain seized their chance for revenge, mostly by working with Indonesia to hunt down Fretilin sympathizers.

The three lists I have are all public: from the CAVR or Truth, Reception and Reconciliation Commission (the final list for posterity), one from an activist group in London’s human rights reporting documents, dated 1979, and one from the “Konis Santana” archive. (The latter two are held by the newly open Archive of the Resistence, which was organized by one of Portugal’s most noted historians – a medievalist – José Mattoso.)

I have a total of about 130 people killed from the subdistricts of Uatolari and Uatocarbau from the three lists. The most “complete” list is the CAVR list, but it has many repeated names and gaping holes in its information. The Activist list dated 1979 has that very “human rights”-y feel about it, with age, profession and details of death, not in any apparent order. It is handwritten. The third list has a more “local” feel in that it is merely a list of dead, with village and suco carefully noted. Neither of the other lists contains consistent village information. (This last list contains very interesting annotations on the back, indicating the involvement of some pro-Indonesia Timorese in the killings.)

I suppose the thing that struck me, reading off this list, is how such bare names, dates, “facts” can be both terrifying and “normal” at the same time. I began to forget that I was looking at the names of those who were violently killed, and who will eventually be forgotten. Some of them didn’t even go by Christian names, so they were Lequi and Cai Mau. Or if they did, they didn’t have a family name. So there were 3 “Manuel”s and a number of “Luis”. I wonder what a “political” threat men like this could have been to Indonesian power.

I remember taking a slight comfort in seeing people that were executed together, realizing that it would have been very horrible to die alone. There was one 20 year old village head who was allegedly “tied up and burned alive” by the Indonesian special forces. A number of women appeared on the lists. Two were young women who appear to have been taken to the district headquarters and killed long after the majority of men. I pushed the thought out of my head of what they must have gone through in captivity.

It is easy, even for those who study recent history on a daily basis, to forget the impact of these stories on people here in Timor.

We can quibble all day about the way people here or “there” in the first world relate to trauma and loss differently, or the total number killed violently during the occupation. But for the majority of people over 30, these abuses cut so close to their own life stories.

They lie under the surface of perception, memory and feeling. People’s ability to trust each other, to trust the unknown, to trust in political and societal change has been formed by the disappearances, the torture, the murders, the cycle of revenge and stealing.

I had hoped to refrain from using the word “evil” but it is not possible. When you see humanity’s capacity for unspeakable evil up close, it must be hard to live in the stable, crystalline world that we grew up in.

I got back late in the evening and talked with Gonçalo, the security guard who is deeply religious. I could see that “look” in his eye, this disquiet. He said when he got back from choir practice today, he learned that one of his good friends was seriously wounded in violence in Kolmera last night. Gonçalo wanted to go to the hospital to visit his friend. But even the man’s own brothers are too scared to go to the hospital, because they believe they will be ambushed by the same people who attacked their brother.


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