Living without why


I am enjoying reading Richard Lloyd Parry’s In the Time of Madness, which is about Indonesia and East Timor in 1998-99. He has a simple, no-nonsense style with minimal ego. (Or at least not big as one might expect from hotshot correspondent.)

One passage in particular struck me. After a visit to the church in Liquiça in June 1999, the journalists and their fixer are told to leave by the sacred church attendants. The scars of the April massacre were visible in spite of the Indonesian whitewash. The town was full of refugees and red and white flags.

The passage reveals the power of living without why:

We climbed into the car and drove away from the church and towards the west. Within five minutes Liquisa was behind us, and we were back on the empty road in a landscape of scrubby grass and open-sided huts.

“No one will talk,” said Fernão. “The driver wants to go back.”

Then a man became visible on the road in front of us, silhouetted against the afternoon sky. He was walking towards Liquisa with the sun behind him, and a large and awkwardly shaped branch was balanced on his shoulders. He walked very slowly towards us and, as he passed the car, Fernão spoke to him through the open window. He looked ahead and behind him, but the road was empty. Carefully, he laid down his branch and climbed into the car.

He was from a village called Hatoguesi in the hills above Liquisa, and he had been here for two months with his wife, his five children and all his neighbors. The militia arrived in Hatoguesi one day and ordered them to leave. They burned a few houses, shot several cattle and buffaloes, and lamed a horse. There wasn’t much of an argument.

[He said], “[The militia] say ‘If you vote for independence then, when the Western people go back to their countries, we will come and finish you off.’ They say the Western people are only staying for two months, and when they are gone, we will be finished.”

“And what do you want? Independence or autonomy?”

“Independence,” he said. “We all do.”


Fernão mouthed to me we must go.

I said to the man, “Why do you support independence?”

Fernão translated, and the answer came immediately back. “He says ‘Yes, I support independence.'”

“Yes, but why does he support independence?”

Fernão put the question again, more elaborately.

“He says that all the people in the village support Falintil and support independence.”

“But why?”

Fernão began speaking again, a lengthy, patient explanation. The man nodded, but he was frowning and he kept interrupting, as if what Fernão was saying made no sense. Soon the interview had turned into a conversation, and the two were first smiling, then chuckling and finally laughing out loud. For the question was absurd. Why independence? There was no answer. It was like questioning a natural drive: why breathe, why eat, why marry? Without independence, Timorese were like men without air or rice or women.


One thought on “Living without why

  1. Comment from Dili:

    It is very nicely written piece, but I have to tell you, given what I have experienced, I disagree with the final passage.

    I’m not sure ‘why independence?’ is or was a similar question to ‘why breathe?’

    I am just really struggling to understand why anyone does, or wants anything here.

    This ongoing power struggle, or rather ego struggle is just ridiculous.

    I think that old man lived without WHY because he had never asked the question that way himself. That is what I mean, people think in completely different ways with out linear logic and demands for reasons and answers. WHY INDEPENDENCE and WHY VOTE FOR ANY PARTICULAR PARTY don’t mean the same things as they do for us.

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