Each line below represents the number of mentions in news stories about Timor of one of three people: José Ramos Horta, Alfredo Reinado and Xanana Gusmão. (Care of Silobreaker.) This is taken over a six month period.

I leave it to you to guess which one is which: who is the triumphant blue character, still in the public eye? Who is red: does not exist before December and spikes in February and March?

Joni Marques

Perhaps the fervor over the Rogerio pardon will obscure the fact that one of the most high-profile militia convicted by the UN in its Special Tribunal will have his sentence reduced by half with the Amnesty.

Joni Marques was the leader of the Tim Alfa militia, which among other things, viciously attacked a car full of nuns and priests in Lospalos. Marques terrorized the district with the help of the TNI. Geoffrey Robinson wrote in his authoritative report of the events on September 25, 1999:

Joni Marques then ordered his men to set up a roadblock by placing large stones on the road. Some militiamen were posted on a nearby hill as a lookout, and others took up positions in a ditch with their weapons aimed up the road. Some witnesses testified in court that they knew that there was a plan to ambush the clergy’s vehicle.

One witness recalled that after setting up the roadblock, Joni Marques had said: “Now we will wait for the Sisters who will be coming towards Baucau…and when they come we will kill them all.”

At about 2:30 p.m. the same day, a gray four-wheel drive vehicle came into sight from the direction of Lautem heading west toward Baucau. There were eight people in the vehicle, including two nuns, three Brothers/Priests, a journalist and two other lay persons. When the vehicle stopped at the roadblock, Joni Marques and two other militiamen opened fire on it with their automatic weapons, instantly killing the driver and some of the passengers.

As one of the surviving passengers tried to get out of the vehicle, a militiaman grabbed him and dragged him to the river where he was shot and killed. The same militiaman poured petrol over three other survivors and lit them on fire. One of the three ran from the car to the river, where Joni Marques and another man shot and killed him.

One of the nuns, Sister Erminia, got out of the vehicle and knelt down by the roadside to pray. As she prayed, a militiaman (Horacio) slashed her with a machete. Another militiamen (Pedro da Costa) testified that he had yelled “Don’t kill a Sister!” but that Joni Marques had replied “Kill them all! They are all CNRT!” A militiaman then picked up Sister Erminia and threw her in the river, before shooting her twice. At the trial, a witness testified:

“I noticed a nun sitting beside a [ditch]. There was a body beside the nun. I noticed the cap of the nun was on her shoulder. The nun talked to me in Tetum. I cannot remember all the words, but I remember she was saying ‘Oh! God!’”

At about this time, Joni Marques ordered his men to push the clergy’s vehicle into the river. Several witnesses testified that he shouted: “Come here and push the car, you mother fuckers!” The men did so, though one person was still inside the vehicle. When the person got out of the car, he was shot and killed.

I observed the trial for two weeks in 2001. It was the first crimes against humanity trial and did have obvious flaws from a legal and human rights perspective. But from a human perspective, I cannot forget witnesses, a number of them told of untold cruelty and inhumanity by Tim Alfa.

One of the most disturbing incidents was what happened after they pushed the car into the river, when they returned to a young man they had tied to a tree and mutilated his body.

Joni Marques and two co-defendants were handed 33 year and 4 month sentences in 2001 by the Special Tribunal, which were in effect life sentences. (Read JSMP’s report to understand the strange and perhaps illegal sentencing.)

JSMP argues that Marques could only legally serve a 20 year sentence under the penal code at the time he was convicted. Marques (and three co-defendants) were granted a reduction of their imprisonment to one-half by the Presidential Amnesty.

I will need help from a legal mind to conclude the full implications of this. But judging by the fact that he was imprisoned in 1999, it could suggest that he would be free after 10 years in prison, which would mean next year.

The colonial 16mm gaze

The Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical, or Institute of Scientific Tropical Research, is the home of a great deal of valuable archival material from colonial times.

Having worked in the Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino (Overseas Historical Archive) in Lisbon, and visited their other library in Belém, I’ve always been aware of the enormous responsibility the IICT has to divulge this material.

As with every institution of its kind, the Institute has had to make decisions about how to prioritize different materials. Yet one gets the idea that there was not a lot going on in terms of modernizing and increasing access in the 1980s and 1990s. There are indications that things have been changing.

With the age of Web2.0, and video on the web, it is really heartening to see the IICT beginning to put up never-before seen material from colonial “scientific” missions. Luckily, somebody at IICT has a pronounced interest in Timor, and António de Almeida, a colonial researcher who left a rich collection of what can only be considered a mixture of science and propaganda. I hope the lucky few in Timor may find the bandwidth to watch them.

Some of my informants in Timor remember these “missions”, the over-enthusiastic malais who often misinterpreted their descriptions of history and geography.

I’ve put links to the IICT’s new videos on the “PICTURES” section. Here are the individual links:


In English, being ‘transparent,’ on a personal level, means being shallow. Interestingly, when we are talking about our leaders, we want them to be transparent.

The word could mean so much more.

There is something so beautifully transparent, in a way that transcends the personal and the political, about Toby Gibson’s Timor work. Please visit his new site.

portrait by Toby Gibson

Luscious Black Label

‘If you were me, would you have stopped nibbling at that fruit, which tasted more luscious than sweetness itself? I never stopped plucking it. I picked one fruit after another. The sweet juice would spill out of the corners of my mouth before I learned to eat more discretely.’ — Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross

Perhaps I’ve been a little hard on Timor.

I’ve just returned from my third time in Mozambique in under a year. I’ve only been to Maputo and Niassa. The latter, while connected to the contiguous territory of Mozambique, is akin to Oecusse, in that its capital and most of the province is effectively cut off by land routes to the rest of the country. Only experienced truckers and brave motorists make the trip. But most fly.

The thing that I have most had to come to grips with is Leadership. Power. How it is exercised. There’s much cheap talk of “governance” by the donor governments and international institutions in Mozambique.

bar in middle of nowhere

People in Niassa fear and respect local authorities (régulos) in a way I did not expect. Some fear dated to before consolidation of colonialism — to a time of warfare, when leaders gained power through might and magic. After socialism and the civil war, with the advent of multi-party democracy, the ruling party opted to incorporate régulos into government structures. Since 2000, much of their power is in their official contact with the State. Then some were recognised as the legal representatives of their communities. They were given uniforms and certain other privileges by the Government. Now, when foreign investors roll into town, these are the first to sign away community lands for seemingly small rewards like bicycles.

At a provincial and national level, power exists in different and ‘newer’ forms. Aside from the quite powerful figure of the provincial Governor, there are the Directores, rather high-level civil servants who seem to be part of a large network of patronage. These are people who do not make enough money to live the way they do. They construct mansions west of Maputo, or wherever they may be stationed in the Provinces. They have a fleet of Japanese cars. They often have big bellies.

I mostly came into contact with this Power on airplanes. The flight between Niassa and Maputo is a learning experience, because these Directores have ample opportunity to kick back and relax. No pesky desk or meetings to get in the way. The flights have ample beer and whisky. On the stopovers (there are often two), these gentlemen rush across the tarmac and make it as quickly as possible to the bar, where they drink two double Black Labels on ice.

Even in the most remote provincial bar I noted the presence of whisky. A couple of places even had Black Label. It was a bit like the VIP lounge in a bottle.

Am I naïve to think that things have not gone this far in Timor? (Yet)