Subject: JP: Exiled East Timorese youths long to go home

June 25, 2000


Exiled East Timorese youths long to go home

By Linawati Sidarto

LISBON (JP): "You can't imagine how happy we are to be speaking Indonesian again. It's been so long, and we miss it so much!" Nelson Miguel Soares Turquel de Jesus would probably not have uttered those words less than a year ago, but the referendum on Aug. 31, 1999 changed everything. Now that his homeland, East Timor, is an independent nation, Nelson can allow himself to express warm feelings towards the country which, prior to last year, was intensely loathed by many East Timorese.

"I, like most East Timorese, have nothing against the Indonesian people. It's Soeharto's regime that we hate," said Nelson, 26, sharing a Gudang Garam kretek clove cigarette with fellow Dili-native Americo Victor at a modest downtown Lisbon cafe.

"These, by the way," Nelson pointed to the cigarette, "are very hard to get here. If there were nobody else with us now, we'd be fighting over it," he laughed, brushing his waist-long dreadlocks away from his chocolate face.

Both men are among the estimated 2,000 East Timorese currently residing in Portugal, the former colonial ruler of the half-island, which had been much more than just a mere political "pebble in Indonesia's shoe," as former foreign minister Ali Alatas once said.

In the latter years of Indonesia's tempestuous 24-year rule of East Timor, scores of young East Timorese sought asylum in foreign embassies in Jakarta, and were subsequently sent to Portugal. Nelson was one of them: together with four others, he was in the first group of East Timorese to seek asylum at the British Embassy in Jakarta in September 1995.

A few months prior to that, Nelson had left Dili for Jakarta.

"The situation was getting dangerous. The Indonesian military at that time was intensifying its search for people who had ties with the underground freedom movement." The movement, he added, had members in "almost every district."

Nelson and his four friends finally decided to seek asylum at the British Embassy after indications that Indonesian military intelligence was closing in on their boarding house in Jakarta's Kramat Sentiong area.

"We wrote to Xanana (Gusmao) in Cipinang prison, asking him whether we should do it. He gave us his blessing," Nelson recalled.

Under the guise of needing information about British universities, the five managed to enter the compound. Once they were in, however, they were faced with the inevitable consequences of their actions.

"The embassy told us that the UK couldn't accept us, but that Portugal would. Only then did it really hit us: we were going to leave our home, our family, with no guarantees of when or whether we'd ever see them again," he said.

"It's very, very scary but what other choice did we have?" Nelson said, adding that tentative suggestions of staying in either Indonesia or East Timor were immediately dismissed "by the embassy and the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), who said that we'd surely be arrested by the Indonesian authorities."

Beyond the wall

Possessing nothing but the clothes they had on, Nelson said it was a "shock" to him and his friends to arrive and start a new life in a country where everything was foreign to them.

"We didn't speak a word of Portuguese, and people here are so different from Asians, much more individualistic. Things that are taken for granted here are offensive to us, like men and women making out in public," Nelson said, shaking his head.

"We were so sad and lonely during our first months here, we cried almost every day. We pined for our home, our loved ones," recalled Nelson, whose favorite musician is Iwan Fals.

One of the people in Nelson's group was Odilia Victor, who shortly after her arrival managed to get her parents and brother, with the help of the ICRC, to also flee to Portugal, and that's how Americo came to live in exile.

Americo agreed with Nelson that adjusting to life in Europe has been anything but easy, despite the fact that the Portuguese government took proper care of East Timorese exiles, providing language courses and a stipend enough for a modest life, "for which we are grateful."

"Portuguese is a very difficult language to learn, and weakness in the language subsequently leads to difficulty in school and work," said Americo, 25, whose teenage memories include ducking bullets at the infamous procession at Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery in November 1991. During the procession the Indonesian military is alleged to have killed up to 200 people, although the official death count was around 50.

In his five years in Portugal, mostly living in or around Lisbon, Nelson has remained busy, with activities ranging from photography and journalism classes to working as a mechanic. He also does whatever he can from so far away for East Timor's freedom movement, like participating in lobbies and campaigns.

"My goal is to go home, but I want to make sure I have skills to offer my country. That's why I want to finish my photo-journalism course first," he said.

One activity has soothed the young men's bruised lives: Nelson and Americo, who had played music together in Dili, picked up the thread in Lisbon. Earlier this year their band made a CD called Laloran Timor, sung in a combination of Portuguese and two ethnic Timorese languages: Tetum and Mambai.

Meanwhile, events in East Timor continue to directly impact its exiled sons, continents away: Nelson recalled how euphoria over the referendum last August degenerated into horror as news of death and destruction swiftly followed.

"I got word that my whole family was killed. I didn't hear anything about or from them for four months. I was such a mess, it was paralyzing," Nelson shuddered.

Fate turned out to be less cruel. In January this year, one of his sisters managed to call Portugal, and told him that the family was driven away by pro-integration militia to camps in West Timor, and had since returned to Dili.

Americo said that friends of his were less fortunate, a number of whom perished in the chaos following the referendum.

Helping hand

Luckily, people like Nelson and Americo don't struggle alone, as scores of Portuguese-based NGOs concern themselves with the fate of East Timor.

One of them is Olho Vivo, which since May 1999 started organizing courses for East Timorese, with subjects ranging from accounting and information technology to photojournalism.

The courses, held in a small, unassuming building on the outskirts of Lisbon, are enthusiastically attended by around 40 people.

While the curriculum at Olho Vivo is concerned with issues such as the environment and human rights, "it has always made East Timor one of its main concerns since it started in the late 1980s," said Maria Filomena de Canossa Henrique, who the students fondly call Lita.

Lita, who volunteers 35 hours a week for Olho Vivo's Cursos Professional, understands the students: in December 1975, Lita's mother managed to flee East Timor for Portugal with her infant daughter.

"My father stayed behind and fought with the guerrillas. I only met him again when I was eight years old, when he finally escaped to Portugal," said Lita, a fourth-year law student in Lisbon.

The courses are meant to give the East Timorese students practical skills, particularly to those who want to return to their home country.

"We know that it hasn't been easy for many exiles to acquire the skills they want, mainly because of the language barrier. But most of them are extremely motivated, and that's why they're here," explained Lita, sitting in her tiny office adorned by posters of Xanana Gusmao and Connie Santana.

One interesting course also offered by Olho Vivo is the theater class, "in which the students are trained to express themselves. Like other Asians, East Timorese aren't as assertive as Europeans, and they become even shier in a foreign environment."

During a break from their afternoon "theater" class, the 12 students, many having arrived in Portugal via various foreign embassies in Jakarta, express their longing to return to East Timor, even though most of them now have a modestly comfortable life in Portugal.

"We didn't come here to be comfortable. We had one purpose: fight for our country, and now we can do that by going home and helping to rebuild it again," said Mau-Udi, one of the students.

They agreed that much needs to be done in East Timor, not the least being to solve the country's current economic problems.

"However, I'm optimistic that one day my country will become beautiful again, and it's up to us East Timorese to make that happen," Nelson vowed, deeply inhaling the last of his kretek cigarette.

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