Subject: SMH/Age: Patriot's long drive to freedom

The Age May 18, 2002

Patriot's long drive to freedom

By Tom Hyland, Lindsay Murdoch

During 20 years of driving Melbourne buses, Abel Guterres often took the opportunity to tell passengers about the struggle for independence in his occupied homeland, East Timor.

Sitting behind the wheel of his Glen Huntly depot bus, Mr Guterres - now East Timor's ambassador-designate to Australia - would tell of the latest battles in the rugged half-island territory north-west of Australia from which he fled in 1975 at the time of Indonesia's bloody invasion. "I always believed that the only way Indonesia could overcome the resistance was to burn the entire country," he says as East Timor gets ready to become the world's newest independent state.

"They went close. But history tells us that dictatorships never last."

The news that Mr Guterres obtained in Melbourne through a network of clandestine informants in East Timor was often personally devastating.

Ten of his brothers and sisters were murdered or died from famine and disease during Indonesia's occupation.

One brother was forced to work as a porter for Indonesian soldiers during a notorious 1981 offensive, the "Fence of Legs", in which civilians were used as human shields against resistance fighters. Deprived of food or water, he collapsed.

"A guy walked up to him and blew his head off with an M16 - that was it," Mr Guterres says.

His father was killed when Indonesian planes bombed a guerrilla stronghold in the mountains in the central east.

A key organiser of East Timor's independence ceremony tomorrow night - which Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri will attend - Mr Guterres says he does not hold a grudge over the suffering of his family, relatives and friends.

"All we want is to be free," he says. "We are happy if we can walk from village to village and not have to look over our shoulders for the Indonesian military. We don't want anything else. I think our people accept that history is history and we go forward. Our struggle was against the military, not the people of Indonesia."

Mr Guterres believes that if the Indonesian military had behaved humanely in East Timor, the Timorese would not have resisted. "Timorese are actually peaceful people," he says. "They don't want to fight. But when you step on their souls you have a problem on your hands."

Mr Guterres says he has not yet fully comprehended that shortly after midnight tomorrow United Nations Secretary-General Kofi will declare East Timor independent after three centuries of rule by Portugal, a civil war, and Indonesia's invasion and 25-year occupation.

"Maybe some time in the future I will stop and think, wow, what happened, how did we pull it off?" he says. Mr Guterres says tomorrow's ceremony will honour the dead.

"When we talk about independence we think of our mothers, fathers and kids who died," he says. "We are the lucky generation to physically witness this special occasion in the history of country."

Mr Guterres, 47, became frontrunner to be East Timor's representative in Canberra after taking a year off work to study international law, trade and diplomacy at Oxford University.

"One of the things I aspire to do is to contribute to my people's freedom," he says. "I want them to enjoy life."

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