Catching katuas

So for three days I waited and walked across rice paddies in search of katuas. I began to think finding katuas was like looking for exotic wild birds. Silly me, I had assumed that the old men would be sitting at home smoking, relaxing in their golden years. No, instead, most were constantly mobile. Herding buffalo from dawn to sunset, or walking hours from home to the rice field, or to the markets on either side of the valley.

At last on Sunday evening, towards dark, Pedro’s brother-in-law came back. He sat down next to the kitchen, exhausted, pulling out his betel nut paraphanelia. He began chewing immediately presumably to tide him over til bedtime. He did not complain. But he did say it is time for him to stop herding buffalo. He has been herding two weeks on two weeks off for the past two years he said. He is old and tired. He has a flesh wound on his foot which is not healing. He asked for pencillin and first aid supplies to dress it.

A soothing, cool breeze blows under the house where we sat together for dinner. A fifth bottle with improvised wick full of kerosene provided light. 

We sat down to a lovely dinner of the pinkish-brown Timorese organic rice, with beans and greens, instant noodles and some kind of nice tuna-fish dish. The ai-manas they make there has a very tasty ginger root in it. The food tasted great for me after hours of walking. I could only imagine how it tasted to the old man, Pedro’s brother-in-law, who probably only ate a couple of boiled tubers, smoked and chewed betel nut during the day.

The “interview” (which it was not supposed to be) started rather abruptly. The old man just launched into the “war” of 1959. I had asked him when he had become part of the Portuguese militia. Instead he went right into their attack on Baguia. I guess he had told the story many times before, and it was kind of automatic. 

Then I insisted on knowing when he joined the segunda linha. He said in 1959, literally months before the rebellion. He had been called to Viqueque town for “inspection” and possible recruitment. There only those with elementary school education were chosen to be professional soldiers, the other healthy guys were recommended to the segunda linha which was a native militia.

What was most interesting was coming to understand the old folks’ understanding of their “place” – that is, how feudal Timor was still in 1959. According to them, there was no freewill, room for decision or hesitation when they were asked by their masters, the liurai, to do something. The threat of physical punishment and violence loomed over them at all times. They never had any contact with their colonizers, but feared their liurais more than I had imagined.

Then, there was the reino and the liurais: the serfs and the lords. The reino was a resource available to the Portuguese, but mostly to their native lords.

They told me amazing details about life in the 1950s, including about the yearly “census,” and the way in which feudal arrangements allowed for the hostilities of 1959.

I had the exhilarating feeling of understanding their fear. Feeling their fear. The old man told me he preferred not to be named as an informant. He still feared his superiors. I asked Pedro to convey that I would not quote him if he did not want to be quoted, but Pedro was busy trying to “convince” him of the merits of telling the truth. I think maybe the truth commission got to Pedro’s head. 

The next day, we were going down to new Uatocarbau.

I had to convince myself that I was not being swindled into paying for a comfortable trip for the pengunsi (and falsely registered refugees) to go down and collect their food rations. In any case, I opted to go with the flow. Pedro thought it a good idea that I introduced myself to the Subdistrict Administrator, who was predictably his own cousin. He was quiet, polite and genuine in his offer to fo dalan, open the way. Next we looked for a katuas who had been in the primeira linha, the professional forces. With him was a katuas who was a refugee from Dili who knew a lot about early political and military structures. 

He was a goldmine of information, and very easily to interview, listening carefully to questions and provided spot-on answers.

This katuas told us of the importance that the Portuguese gave to certain liurais in a certain region, to whom they bestowed the title “Dom.” In what is today Uatolari and Uatocarbau, there existed a Dom in each, Vessoro and Irabin separately. These were like chief liurais who the Portuguese consulted on border issues. The other minor liurai were only asked to supply manpower to the Portuguese administration, and never consulted on political matters. 

Irabin, it turns out, is the site of old military posto Tualo, the one before Afaloicai up on the mountain. Before the Republic in Portugal, it seems, the colonial structure preferred to work through the powerful coastal kingdoms of Vessoro and Irabin.

Tualo was conveniently situated in Irabin overlooking a large rice paddy. There, apparently, in the early twentieth century, a Timorese commander was the only guy stationed there. He is remembered as “Round Foot” because he wore shoes. “Round foot” was the only representative of the Portuguese empire in that corner of Timor. 

But with the Republic, the posto was moved up into the mountain, seemingly an attempt to curb the power of the rich coastal kingdoms and control the interior. I had yet to confirm the existence of Tualo, the old posto. But our informed refugee katuas told us that it was close by, not hard to get to.

After lunch, it was really hot. My head was nodding as we drove west of Uatocarbau. Before Kapuasa, with some help from locals, we were able to find the right hill and scramble our way up it. There were lots of eager kids allow in flip-flops. I was having a tough time with the loose scree in my tennis shoes. The kids and Pedro beat me up to a three meter thick walled compound at the top of the hill overlooking the ocean. It was not visible from the main road. 

There was a 4x4m foundation of a room inside the fort. It must have been a pretty humble dwelling, but a strong fortification. Pedro and I remarked to the kids that this would have been built with the forced labor of their ancestors. It was as solid, or more so, than the still standing tranqueira (fort) in Baguia. Pedro said he wanted to include this on future (and we are talking way in the future) tourist excursions.

I was too hot to piece together the information from my two precious katuas with this discovery. Later, on the walk and drive out of the Matebian Valley the next day, I began to feel that the gaps in my understanding were becoming manageable, and that I was beginning to have a coherent picture of the rebellion and the processes of colonization that led up to it and followed it.

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