From slave to “beneficiary”

Imagine, for a moment, the German government “helping” Poland re-create a network of railways. Imagine that these train lines went to Auschwitz and various other prison camps. Imagine that these railways would be built by German engineers, contractors, and were supported by German army logisticians. Imagine that these railways would periodically have German emblems and flags commemorating the “gesture”, and that there would be ceremonies to inaugurate the lines with Polish head of state.


Well, imagine that the German government had never actually said “sorry” in the past 60 odd years. For anything.


When I read this on Timor email listservs this week, I began to imagine how the people who lived through Japan’s brutal occupation of Uatolari and Uatocarbau in East Timor must feel about this

Among others that accompanied the Prime Minister, Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão introduced the Ambassador of Japan, Iwao Kitahara to the population of the Uatocarbao sub-district. He reminded them that Japan was the country that, in the last seven years, has shown interest in providing support in the construction of bridges and roads.

In my work researching in the region in 2006, I met and heard from numbers of older people who still remembered the horrible years of the Japanese occupation. I dedicated a chapter to this period in my very raw and untamed dissertation

The traces of the war, which ended over 60 years ago, were not difficult to find. I ran across a number of older people in the Mount Matebian area who could speak simple Japanese, count to ten, and chant military phrases. Interlocutors explained the massive mobilization of civilians was to construct roads — within three years, three major roads across the mountain ridges of region were built. One suco [group of villages] would work for days at a time without a break, usually completing 400-500 meters of road before being relieved. Crews would level the earth and carry stones while Japanese would inspect their work. This regime broke up agricultural duties. Men not reporting to work crews were considered to be helping the Australians.

Women who did not report to work had no chance of saving themselves from the centers of “comfort women.” In the Uatocarbau-Uatolari region there were two of these locations. Chefe-de-suco [leaders] were required to provide women. If the women were too old or too “ugly” they were rejected. Single women were expected to go to these locations as their fathers could be executing for refusing. Antero Benedito da Silva (2004) interviewed a man who fled to Bina-Buraboo Mountain to hide “with dozens of young women who were his close relatives from the fear of being taken as Japanese army hostesses.” Another interlocutor of his reported that in the comfort women camp at Uato-Binaro there were roughly 25 women from Uatolari-Uatocarbau. In relation to the blatant Japanese invasion of the Timorese domestic sphere, an ex-civil servant from Baucau told me that he would rather have the Indonesian army occupy “for 10 years than the Japanese for 10 days.”

During these years, food was always running short, even for the Imperial Army, and the Japanese were particularly cruel in relation to desperate Timorese attempts to feed themselves. They required weaker Timorese, often children, to cultivate “foreign” cabbages and plants (daikon, haksai and ninji) that were essential to their diet, near the summit of Matebian. These Timorese laborers recruited for this “communal agriculture” were not paid, nor fed, and they were forced to work 16 days in a row, according to one liurai [local elite] interlocutor. […]

One interlocutor who spent time on the road crews remembers that the Japanese observed cooking fires, and noticed when they began to dwindle, meaning the food was almost ready. They would arrive, confiscate the food and put out the fire. Another interlocutor recalled his younger sister’s punishment for disobeying the Japanese was to have the ligaments between her fingers severed so that she could not dehusk rice.


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