Subject: IPS: Timorese see glimpses of independence struggle

Asia Times June 5, 2002

Timorese see glimpses of independence struggle

By Aaron Goodman

DILI (Inter Press Service) - Augostino da Costa Cabral's eyes were wide open, and his smile seemed unbreakable. But he could not sit still, and was shifting nervously in his seat on the gymnasium floor. On that night his emotions were just beyond his control and his expressions changed swiftly, from racing-speed joy to perhaps more familiar realms of sadness and fear. He probably heard his own heart thumping.

Like 6,000 others in this newly independent country, Cabral, a 21-year-old university student in East Timor's capital Dili, came to watch four films retracing his country's devastating yet heroic past.

It was the first night of East Timor's Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, held throughout the week in the run-up to East Timor's independence on May 20.

"When I watch the films, I'm reminded that I couldn't even imagine how very sad it was," he said, referring to the militia-led violence that decimated East Timor after its independence referendum in 1999. In that vote, nearly 80 percent of East Timorese voted for separation from Indonesia after 24 years of military occupation.

A loud rush of rage poured from the audience and cries of "boo" were pelted like stones at images of militia leader Eurico Guterres, who led pro-Jakarta militia in their 1999 terror campaign that resulted in the killing of 2,000 people, the displacement of three-quarters of the population, and the leveling of nearly all standing buildings.

"I can't stand to see his face," exclaimed Cabral. "People all over the world know that he's a militia [leader] who brought terrible and very sad things for us. So I can say that I can't stand to see him."

But within moments, images of Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's former guerrilla leader and current president, brought roaring applause from the crowd. The image alone of the bearded leader set a vibrant grin back on Cabral's face and life to his shuffling feet.

"I'm very happy to see his face because he is the one who is able to lead our country and helped us achieve our independence," he pronounced. "I believe all Timorese people think he is a great leader."

Under Indonesian rule from 1975 to 1999, after Jakarta's invasion of the former Portuguese colony, 200,000 East Timorese - a third of its 1975 population - died from bombings, forced starvation and murder. The violence that took thousands of lives is carved into the Timorese's collective consciousness. But in a country where many people do not have electricity, let alone television, the recent film festival enabled thousands of people to see images of their own struggle for the first time.

"We were never allowed to see films like these because as you know, what Indonesia has done here is very terrible for us," explained Cabral. "So maybe to hide what they have done, they never allowed us to see films like these."

Coordinator Joanne Shoebridge said the impetus for the film festival came from Foreign Minster and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos Horta.

"Many of the films that Westerners have seen - images of the Santa Cruz massacre, for example - haven't been seen by many Timorese," explained Shoebridge. "Many people here haven't seen images of the resistance Falintil fighters who are legendary here. So they're seeing some of the touchstones of their resistance movement for the first time."

Filmmaker Max Stahl survived the Santa Cruz massacre in Dili in November 1991, in which 200 peaceful demonstrators mourning the death of a friend were gunned down by Indonesian soldiers. He captured the killing on film and sneaked the footage out of the country.

On the night that Stahl's film In Cold Blood, which contains footage of the Dili massacre, was screened, 10,000 people filled a soccer field and stood shoulder to shoulder in silence to watch it on a big screen. The rounds of gunfire in the cemetery and screams from the massacre's survivors and those about to die sent chilling echoes through Dili's surrounding hills.

Among the most horrifying episodes of militia violence in 1999 took place at a church in Suai district, where hundreds of pro-independence refugees had taken shelter after their villages were burned by militia members. On September 12, militia killed at least 50 people in the church, including three Catholic priests.

People from Suai who came to the film festival did not anticipate seeing pictures of the gruesome aftermath of the massacre - bloodstained and bullet-riddled walls.

Still, "we are happy to see these films because it's the first time for us to see what really happened", explained one woman. "We knew what happened in Suai. We'd heard stories of the massacre, but we'd never seen it for ourselves."

The films at the festival reached more Timorese than any other planned event held to mark independence. Many of the United Nations' public-information officers carried VHS copies of the films to districts and remote villages around the country, showing the films to thousands of people from projectors on the roofs of their trucks.

Some 50,000 people in one week alone saw images of their country's past for the first time - life in Timor under Portuguese colonial rule, during the Japanese occupation in World War II in which 40,000 East Timorese died fighting the Japanese alongside Australian forces, pictures of the guerrilla resistance in the hills under the Indonesians, and scenes of the more recent bloodshed in 1999.

Filmmaker David Bradbury said the films that have been archived at local schools and the University of East Timor in Dili will be a valuable educational asset for the new country. "I think it's a great opportunity for the young generation in particular to learn aspects of their struggle that they know nothing about," he said.

Sisters Lyndall Barry's and Sophie Barry's film Viva Timor Lorosa'e retraces the militia violence that swept through East Timor in 1999. "I think the power of film in the context of the film festival is to make people remember what they went through to get their independence and to remind them of the struggle that they made," said Lyndall Barry. "Now a lot of people are just looking for their day-to-day survival."

In spite of the horror of the images and the emotions they evoke in the crowds, one man said he was not surprised by the films' contents. "These are not new stories for me," he mused, "because at the time of the Indonesian invasion in 1975, I was already grown up. Now my hope is just that the future will be better and that there will be no more violence."


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