Subject: NZH: Ruak knows price of East Timor independence

The New Zealand Herald May 20, 2002

Commander knows price of East Timor independence


Arranging a meeting with the Falintil commander, Taur Matan Ruak, was never a simple affair.

In 1998, when he assumed leadership of a 500-strong guerrilla army in East Timor, an interview would involve weeks of planning as the leader was moved to somewhere accessible in the mountains, away from Indonesian forces, and the correspondent was kept out of sight in a safe house in Dili.

In 1999, when the Falintil forces agreed to locate themselves in four cantonments in the interior to avoid clashes with the militia and Indonesian Army, getting to the leaders' camp in Waimori meant walking for several hours accompanied by Falintil guards.

In September that year, as the country burned following the independence ballot, seeing Ruak meant travelling 50km through corpse-strewn, deserted villages where militia members were still armed and active and neither peacekeepers nor Falintil had yet entered

But a few days before East Timor became officially independent, arranging an interview with Ruak was just a matter of booking a time with the Portuguese colonel acting as his liaison officer, and waiting for the commander to finish talking to CNN.

Brigadier-General Ruak is now the head of East Timor's armed forces, the FDTL. Most of the 1860 soldiers are former guerrillas, and by June 2004 they will assume responsibility for East Timor's land border with Indonesia and security for the tiny country.

Ruak joined Falintil when Indonesia invaded in 1975, when he was 19. He assumed command of the guerrillas in 1998 because of the high attrition rate of the movement's leadership - the capture of Xanana Gusmao in 1992, the capture of Mau Huno in 1993, then the death of leader Konis Santana in 1998.

As the last commander of Falintil, he believes the May 20 celebrations are a time to remember those who died in the war against Indonesia.

"It is for the thousands of brothers who died in the 24 years of fighting and the thousands of civilians who died and suffered. All these deaths now seem to have a point. We all fought for a dream, now it is no longer a dream."

The worst time, he says, was the start of the war as the East Timorese became aware of the huge toll they would have to pay.

"There was a lot of murder: 200,000 to 300,000 of our people were murdered." Ruak says the situation in September 1999 demanded that he order his men not to fight as the population was forced across the border and the departing Indonesian military destroyed the towns. "Me and my men watch the death and the houses burn but we know if we enter the fighting it is their intention to create the impression of civil war. It was hard for my men not to respond."

When the international forces finally arrived, they intended to disarm Falintil. This was reviewed following a series of standoffs between the two forces.

"We are not prepared to disarm. During 24 years the Indonesians could never disarm us. Why should we voluntarily do it now?"

A deal was worked out whereby Falintil were restricted to a small area around the inland town of Aileu but allowed to keep their weapons. As an armed group they were not entitled to receive food aid and their position was difficult. After a year, plans were finally put into place to use the guerrilla force as the nucleus of the East Timor Army.

"The main problem now is the budget. We are a poor country with economic difficulties. Our attitude now is the same as before. We have to be patient and disciplined."

The problems his men have faced following the conflict were worse than for most East Timorese. "For those who were a long time in the mountains, they arrive with everything gone. No family, no houses. Our country is not in a position to make a special case for them."

He says people must look to the future and forget the painful, recent past. "A lot of my men had families killed by other Timorese. If you start revenge you will never get peace. All the people have the right for the process in court."

For the first time in his adult life, the 46-year-old commander is living in a house, although he doesn't own it. Last year he got married, which was something he had declined to do earlier as the wives of guerrillas were often the targets of Indonesian reprisals.

"We had one aim, the independence of our country. Now we have a lot of work to do.

"The idea of independence is not just to have our President, our flag, our Army, it is for the development of the country. The people feel the sacrifice must have some justification.

"Yes we need to fight for the future but not with weapons. We need to fight the poverty."

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