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Tears in Timor: Pages from a Photographer’s Notebook


ISSUE:  Fall 2006

In the Comoro district of Dili, the capital of East Timor, a simple two-lane road is the dividing line. On one side are the Loro Sae—people from where the sun rises—the easterners; on the other, the Loro Mono—where the sun sets. Violence between Loro Sae and Loro Mono erupted in late March of this year when Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri sacked six hundred Loro Mono soldiers—nearly half of the country’s army of 1,400—for petitioning to end discrimination in the military by the Loro Sae.

Many of the senior commanding officers in the newly formed East Timorese Defense Force are easterners. Western soldiers are allegedly passed over for promotions. They went on strike when their petition was ignored, but were summarily dismissed by Alkatiri. A demonstration in the streets of Dili a month later turned bloody, when government soldiers, under orders from the prime minister, opened fire on the protesters. Before the day was over, at least five lay dead and many more were wounded. The petitioning soldiers retreated into the mountains to conduct periodic raids against the government forces.

The bloodbath split the country at the seams, divided according to long-standing east–west rivalries. Armed gangs roamed the streets of Dili, clashing with rivals and burning homes. Refugees numbering as many as 150,000 clogged the churches and airport while trying to escape the violence. The east–west divide also spilled over to the nation’s small police force, effectively surrendering the streets of Dili to the gangs. Foreign Minister José Ramos-Horta made an urgent plea for foreign peacekeepers to restore order—a call heeded by Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Portugal.

It isn’t an enviable task. The weapons of choice here are simple catapults (fashioned out of rubber bands), cloth slings, and an occasional bow and arrow. The most ubiquitous weapons are the unlimited number of rocks—easy to find and easy to discard when the military arrives and you want to profess your innocence.

My ride—a 4×4 Mitsubishi van emblazoned with ECO-DISCOVERY, LAND AND WATER TOURS—is the object of other journalists’ envy. In better times, my driver, Manny, takes groups of tourists to see the best that East Timor has to offer. These days, with only journalists and aid workers flying in and out, his job is taking me out looking for the shit.

It doesn’t take us long to find it.

It begins with taunts and obscene gestures out of rock-throwing range. A member of the Loro Mono steps ahead of his comrades and fans his hand, beckoning the enemy over. He flips them the bird. Insults them. Another plucks up his courage and steps forward. He pulls back his catapult and fires it in a high arc. I hear the stone plink harmlessly off the asphalt in front of the Loro Sae. More rocks follow. The Loro Mono are ready for a fight. From across the street, the Loro Sae are watchful.

Behind them is the market, behind that their homes—their wives, their children. A dozen or more men burst from the market and begin hurling rocks and pieces of metal debris. They pause only to take on more ammunition. Many of these men have seen their homes torched in recent weeks, and the fires still burn in their eyes. Rocks hail from the sky. The Loro Mono beat a hasty retreat, ducking as they go.

Rocks aimed at the fleeing Loro Mono rain down around me. I take off running, too—two cameras strapped over my shoulders, bouncing—and crouch behind a low wall out of the line of fire. In the distance, a row rumble grows louder. The ground shakes. The Australians in their armored personnel carriers have arrived. With their .50 caliber mounted machine guns, scoped assault rifles, and imposing physiques, the Australian soldiers are an impressive sight. Like an ink drop in water, the gangs dissolve into the back alleys and narrow side streets. Those left on the main road drop their rocks and hold their palms upturned in mock innocence. But one boy, dressed in red, bolts.

“Oi you, stop there!” one of the Australians shouts.

The boy keeps running. Three soldiers give chase. I give chase.

Down muddy pathways and back alleys. Past curious families peering from their windows and doorways. Past a wide-eyed girl backing herself against the wall as the soldiers, rifles at the ready, rush by. The hunt takes them deeper into the village, and it becomes clear that this chase is a lost cause. The soldiers stop.

“Ada orang pakai baju merah lari masuh sini?” one of the Australian soldiers asked a dumbfounded family who have come out to investigate the fracas. Is there someone wearing red who just ran in here?

No, no, they assure the soldiers. The Loro Sae protect their own. “Tidak, tidak,” they all say.

Back on the main Comoro road things are quiet. The Australians mill about—to remind everyone of their presence—before they must speed off again to the next hot spot. But as soon as the armored vehicles withdraw, the taunting and chest-thumping will begin again. Each side name-calling and shouting profanities, each calling the other evil.

I light a cigarette in the brief calm before the Australians leave—any minute now—and notice that my hands are shaking.

*  *  *  *  

East Timor (officially Timor-Leste) is a freshman in the school of self-governance. The entire island of Timor was a Hobbesian collection of feuding tribes when the Portuguese and Dutch arrived in the sixteenth century to begin trade and colonialization. For the next 300 years, the two colonial powers vied for control, culminating in the 1859 Treaty of Lisbon, which ceded the western half of the island to the Dutch and reserved the eastern half for the Portuguese.

Portugal’s jurisdiction over East Timor was briefly interrupted during the Second World War, when the Japanese invaded—killing an estimated 50,000 Timorese during the occupation. The world changed for colonial powers after the war. Though the Allies emerged victorious from the war, their initial setbacks suffered against Japan’s offensive shattered their facade of invincibility. The war had emptied many of their coffers and the price of administering colonies grew prohibitive. One after another, former colonies gained their independence, many through peaceful means, some through armed struggle. In 1949, Indonesia declared independence, and Dutch-administered West Timor fell under its sphere of influence. Despite economic difficulties at home and increasing unrest in her other colonies of Angola and Mozambique, Portugal hung on to East Timor until 1974 when Portugal’s relatively bloodless Carnation Revolution overthrew its dictatorial leadership. The Portuguese left East Timor in short order, creating a power vacuum—and civil war erupted.

Forces loyal to the left-leaning political group FRETILIN (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) prevailed, and on November 28, 1975, the Democratic Republic of East Timor was born. But their independence was short-lived. The presence of a perceived socialist regime deep in the heart of Australasia worried observers at the height of the Cold War, especially in Indonesia and Australia. On December 7, 1975, with tacit approval from the West, Indonesia invaded with an air and sea assault. Australian journalists covering the invasion were murdered and the incident covered up. FRETILIN troops resisted, but in the face of overwhelming Indonesian military superiority, they retreated to the mountains, from which they began a guerrilla war against the Indonesian garrison.

The occupation was brutally repressive; there were reports of genocide. The iron-hand rule was exemplified by the Santa Cruz cemetery massacre in 1991, when troops opened fire on a group of unarmed protestors rallying to commemorate the death of an independence activist. Hundreds were killed and many more arrested and “disappeared.” Journalists on the scene captured the incident on video and the tapes were smuggled out for international broadcast, but it did little to ease the plight of the East Timorese.

Ironically, East Timor experienced its greatest growth and development during the Indonesian era. The Portuguese had always regarded the island as a backwater colony and neglected it, but the Indonesians invested in building public infrastructure and roads. A twenty-seven-meter statue of Jesus Christ was erected at Cape Fatucama to honor the country’s strong ties to the Catholic Church—however, the statue’s height is a veiled reference to East Timor as Indonesia’s twenty-seventh state.

The occupation—and rebellion—showed no signs of respite until a financial crisis rippled through Asia in 1997. As the Indonesian economy spiraled downward, riots and looting engulfed the nation. The long-reigning President Suharto resigned and his vice president, B. J. Habibie, who was more receptive to the idea of an independent East Timor, was installed as the new president. A referendum was prepared in 1999, under United Nations observation, to permit either an autonomous or independent East Timor. The East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence.

Peace would still elude East Timor, for when the referendum results were announced, pro-Indonesia militia rampaged across the country. With the silent support of the Indonesian military, gangs roamed the streets and devastated the country’s infrastructure. Some 70 percent of Dili’s buildings were razed, and when the smoke settled an estimated 1,500 East Timorese lay dead. Only through United Nations peacekeeping intervention did the violence subside and many of the militia retreat to West Timor.

United Nations peacekeepers remained to ensure peace and stability in the country. Governmental administration was first overseen by unatet (United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor), before general elections in 2002 put the country’s reins into the hands of the people. The FRETILIN party won by a comfortable margin. Xanana Gusmao, charismatic and hugely popular head of FRETILIN, who had led the rebels on attacks against Indonesian ground forces until he was captured during a clandestine visit to Dili in 1992, was elected president by an overwhelming majority. After the 2002 general elections, José Ramos-Horta, one of FRETILIN’s founding members, who had served briefly as foreign minister before the Indonesians invaded and then spent the next two decades in exile raising awareness for East Timor—for which efforts he shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with the East Timorese head of the Catholic Church, Bishop Carlos Belo—was reinstated as foreign minister. Mari Alkatiri, also a founding member of FRETILIN, who was on a plane to Australia to garner support for the new nation when Indonesia invaded and spent the next twenty-four years in exile, became the most powerful man in the country when his party selected him to head the new nation as prime minister.

And the difficult task of governing East Timor began.

*  *  *  *  

“How old are you?” I ask them.

“Sixteen and a half,” says one. “Seventeen,” says another. “I’m eighteen!” shouts another, giggling as he proudly jabs a finger into his chest.

In another world, another time, these kids could have been blistering their fingertips on the controls of a PlayStation. They could have been kicking a ball around soccer field, their girlfriends cheering them on at the sidelines. They could have been hunched over college entrance examinations—their brows furrowed, pencils between their teeth—their futures at stake.

Here in Dili, the children of the Loro Mono stand before me with catapults and machetes in their hands. Some, hiding their identities from both the media and their enemy, have rags wrapped tightly around their heads, revealing only slits from which piercing eyes stare. Others have handkerchiefs to cover their noses and mouths like train robbers of the old Westerns. One, wearing a black hood with holes cut for the eyes and mouth, looks every bit the harbinger of death.

“The Loro Sae are communists! They have guns to kill us! All we have are these,” one tells me in Indonesian, thrusting his hand out to reveal a crudely assembled slingshot. They’re easy to build—a Y-shaped piece of wood, a handful of common household rubber bands, and a rectangular slice of leather to house the deadly projectile. A walnut sized rock is a favorite, although nails are sometimes used. Physics takes care of the rest.

An Australian patrol rumbles by, and the boy quickly retracts the weapon, concealing it behind his back while he follows the progress of the soldiers from the corner of his eye. They pass, and he relaxes. Another teenager cuts across the street. His fists balled, eyes narrowed, he glares at someone over my shoulder. I turn and see the subject of his anger—my driver Manny.

“Dia supir saya,” I say. He’s my driver. I try to keep the tone light, joking. If you kill him, I won’t have a vehicle.

The teen’s jaw unclenches and his tight lips slip into a smile. “Oh ya,” he laughs. “Saya kira dia Loro Sae.” I thought he was Loro Sae.

In Dili, the young learn to hate. They set up roadblocks of burning tires and terrorize anyone unfortunate enough to wander into the wrong neighborhood. They smash car windshields with rocks, pull drivers out of their cars, or off their motorcycles, to beat them. And these youths seem to be in infinite supply. With its high birthrate, due to deep-rooted Catholic attitudes toward contraception, East Timor’s population is slanted strongly toward the young. Many are swept up by the violence and looting with no true understanding of the politics behind it.

“They think with their hearts, not with their heads,” Manny tells me as we drive away.

*  *  *  *  

It is easy to find the fires in Dili. On a clear day, long trails of smoke snaking into the blue are visible from miles away. This morning our Mitsubishi zips past the lethargic Dili traffic as we track one particularly black plume of smoke. An occasional potbellied pig or herd of goats ventures onto the asphalt, to be shooed out of our way with a sharp tap on the horn. Idle vendors sit in shade at the roadside, waving $10 cell phone recharge cards as we pass. Manny leans forward periodically to scan the skies for the column of smoke.

Arson has become a common weapon of intimidation here. Burn the enemy out of their homes and they have nowhere to return to. Tracking this fire takes us, as expected, into a residential neighborhood in Comoro. We have learned to stick close to this area, for trouble is never far away. Tightly packed homes line both sides of the street. The asphalt gives way to dirt, and we stop.

The house in question is nondescript, an unassuming single-story concrete building like many others on this street. But it belongs to a Loro Sae family, and this neighborhood is predominantly Loro Mono. It smolders in the morning sun, the flames already fed and satisfied, leaving only heat-cracked walls and crackling wood.

I get out and start toward the house just as two photographers who have gotten here ahead of me come past. I recognize one of them, a French photographer whom I had met covering a street fight two days prior.

“Just another fire,” she says. “It’s all over now. Boring.”

She is right. A house burning on it own would not make much of a picture. Fires in Dili have become something of a national symbol. But I can’t help thinking that the perpetrators can’t be far off. They likely live on this street and know which of their neighbors hail from the east. I decide to break the cardinal rule for journalists working in conflict zones—never go anywhere alone—and venture deeper into the neighborhood.

That’s when I see them—a group of three darting in and out of houses up the road. Mere boys, some carrying loot. I follow, and I approach slowly.

They see my cameras and smile—ever friendly to the malai, the foreigner—but many are fearful of retribution should pictures of their misdeeds reach the local media, doubly so in a small country where word spreads fast and no one is anonymous. One raises his hands and gestures that he does not want to be photographed.

These photos are to be published overseas, I explain in halting Indonesian. Not in Timor. This line has worked before and it does now, too. They relax somewhat, though the nervous one shies to the periphery every time I raise my camera.

I follow one boy as he enters a home and begins torching a house with the methodical proficiency of an expert arsonist. He enters a bedroom and piles a stack of crushed paper on the bed. The pile is set ablaze with the flick of a lighter, and curtains are draped over the birthing flame for good measure. He repeats the process in a second bedroom. In the living room, the pile of crushed paper goes underneath a wooden table.

His job done, the youth exits the house and surveys his handiwork. The fire is not taking hold of fabric and wood as quickly as expected. He mutters a curse, then stomps inside again to finish the job. His persistence pays off. Tongues of orange soon come licking out the bedroom window. I stand entranced as the flames consume house with a voracious appetite, working from the window up to the roof. In a matter of minutes the entire house is engulfed. I stagger back, shielding my eyes from the heat.

The perpetrators do not stay, knowing the Australians make it a point to investigate every fire. The boys work their way down the street and melt back into the neighborhood. With clockwork precision, the whup-whup of an Australian Black Hawk begins to drown out the roar of the fire. The helicopter circles overhead, as a combat foot-patrol arrives and fans out into the side streets in search of the arsonists—to no avail.

The bombeiros, Dili’s own firefighters, arrive next, but with their antiquated equipment and skeleton-crew force, there’s nothing they can do. They spray down the smoking ashes and charred wood, more to prevent secondary fires than to save anything of the house.

There is nothing left to save.

*  *  *  *  

“These are ugly people who did this,” she tells me through betel-nut-stained teeth. “If they have already left their homes, then let it be. Why do they have to burn it down?”

I arrived to investigate another burning home in Dili. As I watched smoke bellow from under the zinc roof, a woman approached. She is thirty-nine years old, she will tell me later, but she looks aged beyond her years.

“If this house burns down, we won’t have any electricity,” she says, her finger tracing the electric cable that is perched on top of the smoking house. The cable line runs above the roof and into other homes in the area. Electricity remains a luxury in the capital. With furrowed brow she watches as the flames inch closer, no bombeiros in sight.

Her eyes narrow, as if she made up her mind about something. She trots to a faucet beside the house and begins filling a bucket with water. Then, armed with nothing but a simple plastic cup, she enters the house. I follow right behind, a bandanna wrapped around my face and a camera held my eye to keep out the stinging smoke. With workaday insouciance she scoops water onto the fire. She flings water onto walls, and the orange monster hisses and fizzles and then springs back to life. Undaunted, she leaves to gather more water. I’m right behind her.

“They used oil to start the fire,” she says.

I want to tell her to get away, to say it’s not worth it. But I can manage only, “Be careful,” blinking through the clouds of smoke as I scan the roof for rotted timber. The house looks like it could collapse any minute.

She ladles water methodically onto the flames. The floor soon becomes thick with a slippery muck of water, oil, and ash. With a loud hiss, the fire finally gives in and rises no more.

“Sudah,” she says—all done—and heaves a heavy sigh of relief. She tosses the ladle into the bucket and walks off, secure in the knowledge that her precious electricity is safe. I sling my cameras over my shoulder and remind myself not to go into a burning buildings.

*  *  *  *  

I make my way though the city of plastic tarps and makeshift tents. Cooking fires belch gray smoke, through which filter rays of the late afternoon sun. It is almost dinnertime at one of Dili’s many refugee camps. This one is close to the international airport—as close as possible to where aid supplies first arrive. Thousands of people stay here, I am told, people who left their homes in the wake of the recent violence. They are but a small portion of the refugees in East Timor struggling to survive. Many now call a dirty tarp stretched between trees their home.

I see a mother wash her naked children in plastic tubs. A teenager lazily strums his guitar and croons a Timorese folk song to his audience of friends. Barefoot children greet me with a cries of Malai! Malai!—smiles and waves when they see me. Many adults stare blankly ahead, retreated to another world. Or they sleep to pass the time.

A boy pushes a handcart on the main street that leads to the airport. I peer inside. Hunks of pink pork lay in the sweltering heat—for sale. “Fresh-killed today,” says the boy, which hardly makes it appetizing. Fat green-bodied flies, the kind that go for rotting flesh, foul the pork. Some refugees rise to their feet as the handcart pulls up.

Fifty cents for a chunk of meat, which may be their only luxury today.

*  *  *  *  

The mood at the ceremony is somber, as any commemoration of the dead should be. On May 25, police officers had been involved in a firefight with elements of the East Timorese Defense Force, at Dili’s main police station. After terms were negotiated for their surrender, twelve policemen were gunned down as they came out with their hands raised.

Now, clusters of flowers ringed by candles mark where they fell, blood yet staining the street beneath a layer of wax. A wife of one of the slain breaks down in banshee wails as she lays flowers for her husband. Between moments of composure, the wife cries out, in Indonesian, Mercy! Your children are still young, dear! You poor thing! Her daughter hugs close to her chest a large photo of her father—her blank stare mirrors her father’s in the picture.

A mother squats beside where her son fell, her knees drawn up to her chin. She gently caresses the asphalt where his blood was spilled, lost in a conversation with her dead as tears stream down her weathered face.

I have photographed grief many times, but it does not get easier. After the ceremony, I walk up to each woman; I put my hand to my heart and tell her I am sorry.

*  *  *  *  

From the shimmering heat of the afternoon sun, the first trucks emerge from the distance. Each is stopped and the passengers searched for weapons before they are allowed to enter Dili. In trucks, in vans, on motorcycles, they have come. From the mountains, they have come; from the nearby districts of Ermera and from more than twelve hours away. Thousands strong, the people of East Timor have endured grueling hours of treacherous mountain roads to come and be heard. They have come to demand the resignation of the prime minister.

When the convoy finally meanders toward us the sun is sitting low on the horizon. The motorcycles lead the convoy, gunning their engines as they approach. Behind them are the large trucks carrying a mass of humanity hanging off anything they can grab onto. As the convoy snakes through the city, drivers peer through arms and legs to see the road. Some unfurl red, yellow, and black Timorese flags and banners denouncing the prime minister. The people of Dili line the road to greet these pilgrims. Staggered within the convoy are Australian armored personnel carriers, soldiers watching every move.

The convoy stops in front of the Parliament Building—the main government building in Dili—to set up camp. A makeshift stage serves as a platform for community leaders who will speak of the events that have overtaken the country in recent months.

For days, Alkatiri will stand his ground and refuse to step down, but the rift between the president and prime minister will widen when evidence surfaces of a hit squad financed by Alkatiri; its targets, his political opponents. On June 21, President Gusmao delivers Mari Alkatiri an ultimatum—resign, or Gusmao will—knowing full well the reaction of the crowd assembled outside the Parliament. The strategy works; five days later, Prime Minister Alkatiri will step down and José Ramos-Horta will become acting prime minister, being officially sworn in as the second prime minister of East Timor on July 10.

For now, however, the crowd swells outside of parliament and seems to feed on its own fervor and the giddy power of its unified voice. People shout slogans in cadence, and as I listen closely, I begin to make out the words in Indonesian—Kalau Mari tidak turun, kita hancur! “If Mari does not step down, we will destroy!”—sung to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.”

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