Subject: East Timor: A Traumatized Nation in Transition

Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Switzerland) October 18, 2000

East Timor - a Traumatized Nation in Transition

A Bloody Legacy Behind a Cheerful Façade

Urs Morf

On the surface, most East Timorese seem to have easily come to terms with the horrors suffered during the withdrawal of the Indonesian occupiers. A year after the calamity, the predominant mood in Dili, the East Timorese capital, is one of general cheerfulness. But that impression is deceptive; this is a seriously traumatized society.

Her luxuriant bush of curly black hair elegantly clasped in a barrette, attractively made up, long fingernails skillfully lacquered, dressed in a blue blouse and designer jeans, a cellphone at her belt: the pretty young woman, especially because she speaks a passable English, might easily be a receptionist at any service company in many parts of the world. If this were not Dili, the capital of East Timor, which was torched only a year ago by Indonesian military and pro-Indonesian militias, surely no one would suspect that Maria might be a war victim. Self-confident and always with a friendly smile on her face, she handles the reception desk at the Dili Sands Motel, provides room price information, shows potential guests the rooms, and checks the information filled in on registration forms. Often, she seems downright relaxed as she does her work.

Grisly Memories

Her face turns serious only when someone asks Maria how she experienced the outbreak of violence following the pro-independence outcome of the referendum. No wonder, for she has terrible things to tell. Her father and one of her two older brothers were shot to death at a roadblock. As known supporters of FALINTIL, the fighting arm of the independence movement, they belonged to that segment of the populace against which the militias and soldiers of the Indonesian army carried out a veritable manhunt after being defeated in the referendum. Her mother and sister missed their chance to flee and were surprised at home by the murderers; after raping them, the rampaging thugs hacked Maria's sister to death with machetes and hanged her mother from the roofbeam of their house.

Maria herself escaped with her life by sheer luck. When the violence erupted she was still in Surabaya, a port city on the Indonesian island of Java, where she was a boarding student at a secondary school. Just how planned and systematic the actions of Indonesian vengeance squads were may be gauged by a fact that was little noted in the shadow of the extensive atrocities in East Timor itself: after the referendum, East Timorese studying at schools and universities in Jakarta and other Indonesian cities were also persecuted by militia terrorists and more than a dozen of them were murdered. The same thing took place at Maria's boarding school: two of her girlfriends were killed by an angry mob that broke into the school at night and carried out a raid on East Timorese "traitors" in the dormitories. Maria herself was hidden just in time by friendly Indonesian students, who later obtained a ticket for her so she could catch a ship and return home.

Today Maria lives with her surviving brother and his family - who hid in the forested hills nearby for long weeks last autumn - in a former burnt-out ruin in the center of Dili, which she and her relatives rebuilt themselves with the help of materials supplied by the UN. Thanks to her knowledge of English, she was able to find a job at the Dili Sands Motel. Starting this October, when classes finally resume in the local schools, Maria plans to continue her secondary school education full-time during the day and work at the motel nights. She dreams of matriculating at Dili University after graduation, where she hopes to study economics.

A Swift Recovery

Maria tells her story with a stoical expression, without any tears. Her face begins to relax as she talks of her plans for the future, and soon her sadness is almost undetectable. In speaking of her dream of university studies, she is even able to smile again. But to assume from this that the young woman is either superficial or deficient in feeling would be doing her an injustice. Thanks to the material security provided by her hotel job, and the encouraging prospect of attending university, she may have had an easier time rising above the things she has suffered than many other East Timorese. But Maria is by no means an exception.

In the months before and after the plebiscite, literally every family in Dili - as well as in the other towns of East Timor - experienced horrors. Rare is the individual who has not suffered the loss of at least one close relative. Countless survivors were threatened or beaten by the militias and Indonesian soldiers, a great many were also raped, tortured, attacked with machetes and crippled, or shot at. Many had to hide in the bush for weeks, surviving under extremely harsh conditions, or else spent miserable months under the reign of terror of the militias in West Timorese refugee camps. And the former suffering is now often compounded by material need. A majority of East Timorese still do not have secure livelihoods, so that for many of them each day is a laborious hunt for pick-up work in order to earn a bit of money with which to buy food.

Despite it all, though, the good cheer demonstrated by Maria is in fact the predominant general mood in Dili. Just as it was a year ago, when the East Timorese prior to the independence referendum still believed that the presence of UN personnel and foreign media people would protect them from the vengeful acts of the Indonesian occupiers, foreign visitors today are again greeted on every hand by a friendly "Hello, Mister!" Some of the people on the streets are truly emaciated, their clothing is often utterly ragged, but none seem beside themselves or visibly affected by their experiences, no one goes around in mourning clothes. And when asked, many willingly relate the terrors they went through - like Maria, always calmly, soberly, without breaking into tears.

An Italian psychologist, however, who is working here on behalf of a Catholic aid group and brings with him experience treating traumatized war victims in the Balkans, has a different view of things. He has dealt with some East Timorese who, even with psychological treatment, are having trouble putting the pieces of their shattered lives back together again. But on the whole, he too is surprised at the ease with which most East Timorese have dealt with the terror, at least on the surface.

Collective Terror

The Italian explains this by citing a combination of several factors. He calls to mind that the violence experienced during and after the Indonesian withdrawal was nothing new for the locals; human rights organizations estimate that some 200,000 East Timorese had already lost their lives during the 23 years of Indonesian occupation, some as a result of famine and epidemics, but some directly as victims of repressive measures. Also important is the fact that the violence in fact impacted virtually all individuals severely. As a result, the terror become something no longer "out of the ordinary," but a "collective trauma" in the true sense of the term. That apparently makes it easier for the individual members of the traumatized community to bear the load and not fall apart.

The psychologist also points out that, because most East Timorese are faithful Catholics, they are especially able to "channel" their mourning and sadness. On memorial days for the dead, there is still open, intensive, communal crying, wailing and sobbing; afterward, the sense of mourning can be more readily suppressed from everyday life. Moreover, in the view of the Balkan veteran the East Timorese are helped by the consciousness of having actually won their freedom and national independence through their sacrifices - an awareness that is consistently and strongly encouraged by Xanana Gusmão and other East Timorese leaders of the independence movement in their public appearances. But the psychologist warns that the dominant mood in Dili should not be misunderstood. Despite the superficial cheerfulness in everyday life, East Timorese society as a whole is quite clearly traumatized. No community can suffer such horrors, he says, without being damaged. He believes that the trauma will result in an enhanced potential for violence - more "domestic" violence, that is, more men beating their womenfolk, but also more violence in the commission of crimes and, above all, in solving political conflicts.

Can the Violence Be Overcome?

That does not bode well for the time, something more than a year hence, when the territory will no longer be administered by the UN but is to be governed again by East Timorese for the first time in 350 years. The CNRT, the umbrella group of the independence movement, from the ranks of which the first independent government will undoubtedly come, is still only an alliance of convenience. It consists of various quasi-feudal groups and economic and political cliques, which came together in 1975-76 with the struggle against the Indonesian occupiers as their sole common purpose. But prior to the Indonesian invasion, these groups had begun a power struggle - sometimes fought quite bloodily - as soon as the Portuguese colonial rulers had held out the prospect of East Timorese independence in the wake of Portugal's own emergence from the decades of the Salazar dictatorship. And there are ample indications that the CNRT will disintegrate into its old, mutually hostile components once again when the unifying factor has been removed following the withdrawal of the Indonesians.

Should East Timor's independence movement fall back into its old, self-lacerating ways after all the international efforts to help it, that would cause a great sense of triumph among Indonesian revanchists. It is to be hoped that the realization of this will help the movement's constituent groups to put aside their old conflicts and overcome their more recent "trauma-induced" inclination to violence.

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