Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2008
An East Timor Jungle Childhood
Ferments Zealous Indonesia Resistance
By Naldo Rei
For The Bali Times
September 5, 2008
DILI, East Timor ~ Early in the morning of December 7, 1975, white-winged angels are seen floating over Farol, a harborside suburb of Dili. People in the streets point upwards and exclaim in wonder, but from under the crumpling parachutes is launched a swarm of khaki killers who attack and shoot everyone as if they are helpless animals.
Mothers and girls are raped on the street in front of their families. Battered bodies drift like logs on the harbor surface, blood seeping into salt. Low-flying jets strafe the suburbs. The swarm spreads itself out to cover the country. The Indonesian army has invaded East Timor.
I am a baby, clinging to my mother’s shoulder as she rushes from our house to the protection of rainforest trees. I feel her heart beating under her ribs, and her panicked breaths are drums in my ears. Fear permeates like heat through her skin into my body. I hear my father’s voice, an urgent whip rounding up his scurrying children.
The military invasion completely changes our lives and that of the other Maubere people of East Timor because we can no longer live in our towns and villages. When my family escapes into the jungle for survival, I am six months old. In the rainforest I take my first steps and learn not only the faces of the other families hiding near us but also the meaning of the bird calls high up in the canopy, the smell of the wilderness, the shape of the rocks. My father teaches me which rocks are sacred and how to sit quietly there but not to play or make a noise. There are many rainforest giants but the huge ancient hama (fig) trees, my father says, are sacred too. I learn there are red ones, white ones and dark green. It is an ancient tradition for us to pray under their huge spreading arms. They mean protection and hope and I must never cut them down. The floor of the forest is damp on my bare feet as I listen, and covered in a thick carpet of rotting leaves that paste themselves to my soles. The undergrowth is dense and impenetrable, so our fathers have to slash paths for us. The protruding buttress roots of the trees become our pillows, the leaves our sleeping mats and the trunks a hiding place from the bursts of whistling bullets which pursue us from sea, air and land. Often I cry from the hunger pains in my belly but my parents cannot make the hunger go away.
Time passes slowly for a small child. I am confused because I see many of my friends killed or disappearing without a trace. My heart pounds when I hear the chopping sound of military helicopters hovering above the thick jungle and the static of their machineguns, or the whine of fast-flying jets flying low over the trees, spraying bullets from their tails. We seek protection in caves, huddled together, but many deaths and injuries come from the limestone rock shattering under the impact of bullets. The injured have to be left to die because no one can carry them through the dense jungle. They scream loudly and beg for help but this is not possible; so they die slowly from hunger and pain. When we pass this way again, we see their bare bones reproaching us and bury them in haste.
I am a very young child who cannot understand his world. The staccato voice of the guns I hear everyday—is that what is killing our people? Who is taking them away from their beloved families? One day I ask my parents why this is happening and why we have to live in the jungle. Is the jungle the only home that God gave to us? Isn’t the jungle just for wild animals? My parents look down at me with tears in their dark eyes and hug me in silence.
I gulp down my other questions because I feel I am breaking my parents’ hearts. I decide not to ask any more about my friends and family who are disappearing, one by one. As I trudge along jungle paths behind my parents, I cry when I see human skeletons, so still and voiceless. Often the skeletons are not whole but scattered over a wide area by an exploding bomb. We cannot recognize them but we know they are Maubere people and we try to bury the body parts swiftly as we pass by, so their spirits can be at peace. Under my breath I mutter that I do not understand the reason why the army takes so many thousands of lives. I ask myself, Did God teach us to kill each other? No, we live to love, not to destroy, and we should live in peace; that’s what my mother teaches me. But on this earth, I say to myself, What is happening is so confusing. And what can we do, in the face of this annihilation? Just accept it? Remember freedom as only belonging to the past? Or try to do something to resist?
I grow older and begin to understand what I see. At night, crouching around a cave fire, my parents teach us the history of the Maubere people. Though my parents are not literate they are skilled at telling stories of their experiences and remember every single tragedy since the beginning of the invasion. Also I learn that my family on my father’s side contains generations of traditional kings, the Liurai, and although my parents do not have formal education, they are respected by their own people. I learn that when my father replaced my grandfather as king in my area, he acted against the tradition of the king, who had always owned slaves, freeing all slaves and giving them land to farm. I learn that freedom means independence from any form of oppression.
With their stories my parents answer my questions, but I still cannot understand why we have to fight from the jungle, not openly. I ask my father about this because I want to know more. He tells me that we were living with our people in Iralafai village, in the Lospalos area on the eastern side of the country, when without warning the Indonesian forces burst into our world by air, sea and land, using their sophisticated weapons to kill us. They also used rape and torture to intimidate people. “That is why we all fled to the jungle, to hide from the bullets and to set up the resistance movement here.”
As we struggle to survive on rainforest food like yams, leaves, wild mangoes and other wild fruit, with no meat except for the occasional possum or fruit bat, the war becomes worse. We learn through our networks that hundreds of thousands of Maubere have been killed since the invasion three years ago. People who stay on in the towns are only a tiny number and are targeted by the army. The military never stops killing, which is a delicious food for it. People cannot breathe fresh air because of the smell of decaying bodies; they cannot live safely in their own homes, express their feelings or move around freely. Walking along a road amounts to a decision to give away your life.
“These things make us extremely angry and determined to resist the invaders.” My father’s voice is low but passionate in the firelight. “The spirit to defend the land is rising up strongly,” he instructs. “You kids may have to grow up in midst of a horrible war but, although lots of babies are born and die, some are being saved to become the vein of resistance.”
I am by myself, a little boy squatting outside the cave where we are in hiding, looking up at the surrounding hama trees, their roots fiercely grabbing the earth, their trunks as solid as the ancestors, their shadowy branches welcoming arms, their leaves a cloak protecting me from insects and the wind. I feel their embrace and their power flowing into my veins. When I look up at the blue sky, the clouds seem to be floating in blood. Later I understand the meaning: East Timor has become a land of martyrs and warriors, growing like hama trees in the soil of resistance, and the stones and earth are the shoulders on which we stand. I am proud of those who give their lives for our land and people, and fight to defend our rights, even though they have so little power. Can I become like them, I ask myself, and follow in their footsteps?
After a couple of years in the jungle I am comfortable in the wilderness. Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve have just passed with none of the celebrations that were usual in the village. I ask if we will ever become village citizens again, although I have no memory of village life if my wish should become real. Then at five o’clock, early in the morning of January 5, 1978, I am woken by screams and threatening voices. Soldiers surround us in the small cave where we are hiding. The cave is called Kuru He’e Henu and there are six families together here, including my mother’s parents and brother. I cling to my older sister and sob, my stomach tight. Recently the army killed many families who were hiding nearby and my family faces the same fate. Instead, at gunpoint, they force us all into a truck and take us to the Battalion 305 headquarters in Lospalos. The TBO (the local person forced to work for the army) has recognized my father and the army believes he can persuade his friends still in the jungle to surrender, if they can break him.
In Lospalos the army puts my parents and other adults straight into prison and keeps them there for three months. My mother is pregnant with my brother Bere. They lock us kids, close to 25 of us, in a big hall where they start to teach us reading and writing in Bahasa Indonesia because they need to control our young minds if the invasion is to be consolidated. I feel confused and distressed at this sudden change in my life and long for my parents, especially at night. I hold on to a brother or sister’s hand all the time and look to my eldest brother Alarico for security. After three months they reunite us with our parents and I cry as the familiar smell and bony strength of my mum’s arms close around me.
We are relocated to a small village called Fuiloro, 12 kilometers from Lospalos, where my brother is born. This village has a famous Catholic high school, Missao Don Bosco Fuiloro, which was established by the Portuguese; but for us it is an armed barracks where many other captured families are already confined. Maybe it is my new baby brother, maybe I am acting out my fears, maybe I am sick of being cooped up like a chicken about to have its throat cut, but I become a naughty boy and cannot stop myself from punching the other kids. We are interned there for six long months.
In January 1979 the commander of Battalion 305 orders all prisoners to go back to their original villages to live there under guard. This is a strategy to prevent the Maubere rejoining the resistance in the jungle. We are to return to Iralafai, the place where I was born, and I am excited because now I can be a village boy, not a captive or a wild animal. I remember what my mother has told me about our house. It is made of sandalwood with a high thatched roof and stands so high off the ground that it can only be entered by stairs. Inside is one big room, with a corner for the ancestors. I am so disappointed at what we find. “But it looks just like the jungle!” I complain to my father.
The whole area, houses and fields, has been taken over by dense vegetation and our house has disappeared under high plants and been eaten away by woodworm. We slash our way through to my grandfather’s house, which is still livable, and move in there. People set to work gathering coconut fronds to construct simple shelters and begin the hard work of clearing fields for crops. The army restricts where we can farm as well as our movements; so my father chooses a site next to the thickest jungle.
My father and his friends set up an organization to help the guerrilla fighters, Falintil (the East Timor National Liberation Army Force), who are based in the jungle. I am proud of my resolute father and he is the rock on which I build myself.
Naldo Rei, an author and a journalist, was born 32 years ago in Iralafai village, Lospalos, in the eastern part of East Timor. He worked inside the clandestine section of East Timorese resistance to Indonesian occupation of his country from an early age until he was 21 and became an asylum seeker in Australia. He will be appearing at the 2008 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, being held from October 14-19, 2008.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Bali Times of September 5, 2008