I wasn’t going to write this post for a while. But the nasty appearance of rumors on the web surrounding the shooting death of four Timorese in Same, specifically that Australian forces mutilated the bodies, brings me to this: the death-space.
I would not give the time of day to these rumors if I did not think they represent something quite important and often misunderstood about contemporary Timor.
First of all, as a starting point, it’s critical to note the importance of burial rituals for the Timorese even for death of natural causes. But the souls of those killed violently are particularly restless, as they are considered mate mehan literally “the red dead.” At least in the area I recently visited, people told me these souls do not enter the clan house or join the ancestors. But they should remain close by, or else they can haunt the community.
Bodies sent for autopsy to Dili have always provoked distrust and consternation. I noticed, for example, in the March 4 press conference, a journalist (who I presume to be Timorese) asked about the whereabouts of the bodies. STL, the Timorese daily, showed a pronounced interest in the bodies, mate isin, from the Same attack. (Often families hide victims of crime, burying them secretly, to avoid losing the bodies.)
I believe World War II finalized the disintegration of norms and practices “traditionally” structuring violence in Timor. When I mean “traditional” I mean specifically the century prior to 1912, as many believe “head-hunting” was alien to many parts of Timor until invasions from other islands in the pre-modern era.
Anthropologists are (sickly) fascinated with head-hunting, and those who reached any kind of useful conclusions mostly emphasize how regulated and structured the practice normally was supposed to be. In this sense, ceremonies and practices related to head-hunting were presented as ways of “controlling,” or isolating, the most uncontrollable acts of human violence. Timorese have described war of this period as “game-like” — and games have rules.
During the War, from 1941 to 1945, Timorese in certain areas were exposed to a level of multi-directional violence which fell entirely outside of their prior experience of war. Sadism, public torture and executions, sexual enslavement, and beatings “not to teach but to kill” were all entirely alien. Further breaking down pre-existing structures, the Timorese also participated in these acts, whether coersively or voluntarily. Timorese were killing Timorese, Japanese killing Australian, Japanese killing Timorese, Australian killing Japanese, Australian killing Timorese, Japanese killing Portuguese, people of Kissar killing people of Timor, people of West Timor killing those of East Timor… Everything moved too fast, the violence over these three years became the violent house of mirrors that Michael Taussig has called the “space of death” referring to colonial Congo and Colombia.
In this space, the lines between aggressor and victim blur, become refracted and distorted. It’s not a coincidence that one witness to the Australian War Crimes Tribunal reported that the Japanese were so extremely frightened of Timorese witchcraft that they executed those accused of sorcery. Structure, cause and effect, and “controlling” practices simply dissolve.
In this miasma of fear and mistrust, the restless dead begin to wield more power over the living.
Who is represented on this cover of Carlos Cal Brandão’s book (1953, 5th ed) Funu Guerra em Timor? The book is about the Portuguese experience of WWII. The figure is “yellow,” one supposes we are to think the figure is Japanese — but could it be a zombified Portuguese with pith helmet? Who turned this zombie into a zombie? The Japanese? The Timorese?
This death-space was resurrected during the Indonesian occupation, but not to the same multi-directional, dizzying extent.
What is Timor experiencing now? It is too early to tell how this violence is felt and interpreted, but the mate mehan and the sensitivity surrounding violence and burial must be understood in this deeper context.