Subject: SMH: Timor's lost generation
Date: Sat, 20 Feb 1999 09:08:26 -0500
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Received from Joyo:

Sydney Morning Herald 20/02/99

*Timor's lost generation

The children of East Timor, far from being the hope for the future, may be the problem. LOUISE WILLIAMS travelled to a country suddenly on the verge of independence to find a generation schooled in violence.

ZAIMITO sits slouched on the edge of a rusty metal drum, a thick iron pole clutched tensely in his fist, a makeshift sign announcing his roadblock across one of the muddy lanes of the ramshackle outer suburbs of the East Timorese capital of Dili.

The weapons of his teenage friends are much the same: bits of wood, rusty bicycle chains, old harvesting knives, displayed with bravado as the black pigs and scruffy dogs wander in and out of the puddles. Under the punishing tropical sun, the earth steaming with the previous night's rain, members of Zaimito's gang are "securing the suburb" and spoiling for a fight.

Zaimito insists he wouldn't strike the first blow, but his friends are ready to face an attack. More than anything else he would like to go up into the jungles to join the Fretilin pro-independence guerillas and fight a real war against the Indonesians. But nowadays there are too many volunteers, so he has to be satisfied with his authority on the streets.

There is a funeral this morning and no-one is going to school. The day before, another gang attacked in the name of Indonesia, their thick-bladed harvesting knives festooned with red and white ribbons, the colours of the Indonesian flag. The police opened fire. His neighbour was shot dead through the head. A large handwritten sign hangs across the barricade, accusing the police; the walls behind are scrawled with graffiti, condemning Indonesia's rule of terror in East Timor.

Zaimito is 19, too young to remember the Indonesian invasion of 1975. He speaks Indonesian as well as his native Tetum, he likes Indonesian television, he acknowledges the new roads and the public services, he has stood many, many times to attention in front of the Indonesian flag. Yet he still hates the Indonesians.

The daily language of his peers is filled with frightening, violent Indonesian words which mean to wipe out, to annihilate, to destroy and to kill; not just to end a life but to inflict pain in the process. In this same suburb, Bairo Pite, five years ago 13- and 14-year-olds wrecked their school in a riot which took four days to quell. The mainly Muslim Indonesian teachers retaliated by burning their Catholic East Timorese students' rosary beads and wooden crosses.

Now, the tables have turned with Jakarta's announcement that independence may come as early as next year.

A Catholic priest says: "Students beat teachers, yes, that is true. Teachers are too scared to fail a student because there will be retaliation."

So scared are the Indonesian teachers that this week they were holding exams in the courtyard of a convent, seeking the protection of the Catholic Church from the students' displeasure if the tests were too hard. Many teachers are already fleeing and few will stay if independence is granted, leaving only a skeleton staff in the entire high school system.

To their own elders this new generation, which has grown up knowing only Indonesian rule, is now rebellious beyond reason, lacking the cultural brakes on violence they might have learnt if their identities as Timorese had been maintained.

At school they have learnt that success comes only through rote learning and obedience and subjugation to a false history of Indonesia's role as the saviour of the East Timorese. On the streets they have learnt only that there is no justice for their people, no punishment for the military abuses. And in the cities they have learnt there are only lowly jobs for the Timorese, no matter how hard they study. The Indonesian migrants run most of the businesses and will always employ their relatives first.

But, ironically, it is the generation which has suffered the least physical deprivation and which is too young to remember the worst bloodshed of the war, between 1975 and '79, that is now the most lost.

A Catholic teacher says: "Kids who don't know what is it like to be at war take a day off school to throw rocks at the military. The young people have learnt that you can get what you want if you are tough enough, even a diploma. Nowadays, you resolve everything with a machete."

Dr Benjamin Corte-Real, a linguistic and education expert from the University of East Timor, says that for the East Timorese political leaders who are trying to shape their vision of a tiny, independent nation, the lost generation is a "time bomb".

"We will have trouble dealing with the younger generation because they have learnt that by bullying they can even pass at school," he says. "They will demand things that are beyond our capacity and if they are not prepared to accept hardship in the first few years of independence then they may turn against their leaders."

Against this tide a small nucleus of student activists from East Timor's single university are working on their own political plans for reconciliation, not revenge, in the hope that they can pull East Timor's youth in the right direction.

And at a political level, all the players in the increasingly fractured political leadership are mouthing the right slogans: reconciliation, not civil war.

But on the street the language is violence. And, of course, there are two sides: there are those East Timorese who have benefited the most and want the Indonesians to stay. With the help of the Indonesian military armed civilian militia units are being formed in the villages to defend the status quo, swinging their knives and sticks at their own self-styled roadblocks, "arresting" those with long hair on suspicion of Fretilin activities.

And it is the angry youth who do not remember the terror of the first years of the war against Indonesia that will fight a new civil war now being stoked by the opponents of independence.

The official Indonesian Government statistics for East Timor tell a positive story of education and development. Unlike the former Portuguese colonial government, which restricted access to education to only a minority of local people from the upper echelons of the tribal hierarchy, Indonesia provided education for all.

Dr Corte-Real says: "There was an abrupt increase in the number of schools, they spread out everywhere, but the enthusiastic spirit which went along with the education drive carried with it an ideological ingredient: to turn the Timorese into Indonesians as quickly as possible and to make the Portuguese look bad."

Many of the teachers, says another expert, were poorly trained and poorly paid. To maintain the facade of success, the Indonesians passed the children year after year, even though some entrants into high school could not yet read or do simple maths.

In East Timor, as elsewhere, success meant obeying and memorising, not engaging in creative, challenging thought or analysis. In Timor, students suffered the added burden of being forced to acknowledge a false history about their own lives.

Outside the schools - with their new concrete-block classrooms and muddy parade grounds set around the flagpole - the war went on. By the mid-1980s the Fretilin forces had been reduced to perhaps a couple of hundred, tens of thousands of people had died and those suspected of stepping outside the rules disappeared or were arrested.

Parents, says Dr Corte-Real, didn't dare tell their children about the past in case they challenged the teacher at school and threw the entire family under the suspicion of the military intelligence officers who ruled even the smallest villages. Within the Indonesian curriculum was the official version of the military invasion, which told the children that the Indonesians had come to save the nation from chaos and the East Timorese people had invited them in.

"It was only when the children were old enough to trust that families started to talk, and then they only trusted their immediate family," Dr Corte-Real says.

AS A BOY, Antero Bendito da Silva lived in the jungle on Mate Bean, the mountain of death, forever homesick for his village in the foothills, forever hungry and frightened, forever exhausted by the day-long walk to the stream to fetch water.

One day, he says, he and his friends were leaning down over the water when the first bullet hit. When the body fell in they were horrified because the water ran red. So they quickly pulled the body out and waited for the blood to drain away and then took the precious water and scuttled off into the trees.

Antero spent three years of his childhood living like a fugitive, running with his family and hundreds of others from the Indonesian military, trapped on the mountain of death, which rises along the spine of East Timor. His mother died giving birth to his sister. His sister survived only to toddle off into a ravine. His father disappeared, and so his aged grandmother was left with the four surviving children. Antero and his friends carved make-believe guns out of wood and trained in their children's army for a battle they never fought.

When the starving family surrendered to the Indonesian forces, the other children taunted them as "grasshopper eaters" and "children of the Fretilin". Then, when he started school, Antero learnt a new reality: the official version of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 which belied the tragedy of his life. Quietly he progressed, making fifth grade by the age of 13, when most of the primary school children were teenagers because of the disruption of the war.

"In the jungle I went to the Fretilin school and learnt about how to continue the struggle and I belonged to the children's army; we never fought anyone, but it distracted us from the pain of our lives," he says. "What I remember most is always feeling this longing homesickness for our past life.

"But the situation in the jungle was really critical; we were starving, we were being bombed. I saw huge rocks explode and trees upturned with people under them; I saw one whole family buried alive and heard them crying for help but there was no way we could dig them out."

The families who lived in the jungle were eventually forced to surrender to the Indonesians in the village. "We were so scaredwhen we came down we did not even dare to look the Indonesians in the eye," Antero says. "We were just told to pass our exams and join the boy scouts. Little by little I realised how important it was to be secretive."

Antero is now the leader of East Timor's student movement, is fluent in English, Indonesian, Portuguese and Tetum, and is one of the few youth representatives invited to international political consultations on the future of the disputed province. Next month he will travel to Norway to receive the youth award equivalent to the junior Nobel Peace prize.

A big smile breaks across his face. He is 31, he says, and still an undergraduate, having started elementary school at the age of 12. "In East Timor, perhaps we will have to redefine what is youth," he laughs.

Eight months ago Antero led the first student demonstration into the local parliament. Now, the students have their own office, with a couple of plastic chairs and a phone. Up the hill the National Resistance Council for an Independent East Timor - dominated by Fretilin - has offices as well, after decades underground.

"In the past we didn't know who we could trust," Antero says. "I began to learn English and joined the English study club; it wasn't until much later I realised everyone belonged to the clandestine movement. I remember one discussion, exactly 10 years ago, about how one day Jakarta would be destroyed and so we had to prepare, to send out students to universities outside to get a higher education."

The room is full of tragic pasts. Siko, too, lived in the jungle, carried in his mother's arms as a new baby. His earliest memory, at the age of three, is holding an old white T-shirt out on a stick and surrendering to the Indonesians. His uncle and brother are now mad, he says, after being tortured with electric shocks. His own hand bears the scar of a bullet wound. At 13, he says, he worked at an abattoir from 1am until dawn so he could afford to go to school.

"At that time," he says in fluent English, "my friends were starting to earn a little money and they said, 'Why don't you give up school and buy clothes or a motorbike?' But we had lost everything in the past and I knew that education was something that could never be taken away from you."

TWO days, two funerals. Zaimito and perhaps 20,000 of the residents of Dili walk across the damp city this week to the Santa Cruz cemetery, site of the massacre of November 12, 1991, when Indonesian troops opened fire on mourners burying a supporter of the independence movement.

But on Tuesday there is only silence as the thousands bend their heads in prayer. Slowly a brilliant green praying mantis rocks its way up the cross at the head of the grave, gusts of breeze breaking through the heavy humidity that hangs over the pungent frangipanni trees, the tall, wild grass and the corn stalks pushing up between the crowded graves. Then the earth is scattered on the coffin, handful after handful, and those in the procession come with their candles, many weeping for a young victim of war they thought was ending.

In Maubara the next day the candles are burning around another body, another young man, aged 18. Maubara is the home of the Besi Merah Puti (the Iron Red and White), a new pro-Indonesian group which wants Jakarta to stay. The boy, they say, was stabbed by the Fretilin, calling us over to look at the wound first-hand. The Fretilin, they say, terrorise the village, demanding food and money.

The politicians in Dili say that this it not possible, that this is not Fretilin policy. But this is a war and there are abuses on both sides.

Around the youths are their weapons, a similarly ragged collection of knives and spears and chains. Zakeus, 19, says: "My elders have told me that when the Portuguese were here there was only education for the elite; when the Indonesians came we had schools." His leader reminds him to answer in Indonesian, not Tetum, as a matter of pride.

Today, they have a letter which claims to be a message from Fretilin: "We love you, join us in the forests. But if you don't we will come to the village and kill you and your family."

Zakeus says he is not afraid but he would like a gun, not just a spear. "If the Indonesians go, we will fight the Fretilin ourselves," he announces bravely to his friends.

And if the Indonesians do go abruptly, there will be no school at all for these teen-agers. About 90 per cent of the high schools are staffed by Indonesians. There is no agreement on what will happen next. The local Tetum language is oral, not written, and not sophisticated enough for education. Indonesian is already being rejected by one side for political reasons. Only the old remember Portuguese.

One Dili-based expert says: "Yes, there are problems with the Indonesian school system, but it is better than nothing; it is a structure. Under Portugal there was nothing. If the Indonesians go quickly it will be just another disaster for this generation who have already suffered enough."

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