|Subject: JP: Book review: Bitter Dawn: East
Timor - A People's Story
The Jakarta Post Sunday, August 18, 2002
Tracing the pain of East Timorese
Bitter Dawn: East Timor, A People's Story; by Irena Cristalis; ZED
Books, London, 2002; 286 pages
Reviewed by Carmel Budiardjo, Contributor, London
After three years of breathtaking changes, transforming it from a
down-trodden, occupied country to the first newly independent state of the
21st millennium, East Timor has become the subject of a flood of books,
dissecting the fortunes and misfortunes of the country from many angles.
It is a subject that casts a penetrating light in particular on the
malicious efforts by the Indonesian military to counter the decision by
then president B.J. Habibie to allow the East Timorese to decide whether
they wanted to accept special autonomy or extricate themselves from their
Bitter Dawn can be counted as possibly the best account of the tragic
events that preceded and followed in the wake of the ballot on Aug. 30,
1999, when 80 percent of the country's infrastructure was left in ruins
and a quarter of the population was forced to abandon their homes and
become refugees in West Timor.
Cristalis' prose is lucid, making this a highly readable book full of
drama and tenderness for the victims of these terrible events. She spent
most of the year before the ballot in East Timor, traveling widely and
using her remarkable journalistic skills to understand a people deeply
traumatized by 23 years of Indonesian occupation and daring to hope that
at last things would change.
While her commitment to East Timor's righteous cause is never in doubt,
her frank and sometimes critical accounts of the people she met -- local
commanders of Falintil, the armed resistance, leaders of the Catholic
church, human rights activists, militia fighters and ordinary people, as
well as UN officials -- leave the reader with a refreshing sense of
diversity that challenges the often stereotyped accounts of a people
united around a common cause.
The book is studded with beautifully crafted portraits of a number of
individuals trying to adjust to the situation, the euphoria that greeted
the decision to hold a "popular consultation", which was rapidly
overtaken by fear and apprehension as army-backed militia groups took
control in many parts of the country, compelling over 200,000 East
Timorese to flee their homes and become "internally displaced
One major turning point was on April 6, 1999 when dozens of innocent
civilians were murdered in the Liquica Church massacre. It was intended to
ram home the message that churches could no longer be regarded as
The massacre was also intended, the author argues, to disrupt talks
underway at the UN in New York to agree on the modalities for the ballot.
Her account of a visit to Liquica to attend a mass on the Sunday after
the massacre vividly portrays the depth of the fear gripping the
population. Even with Bishop Belo there to take the mass, the people held
back and trickled very slowly into the church. This was the first time,
Belo later said, that he turned up to an empty church.
Eleven days later, the home of Manuel Carrascalao in Dili, where dozens
of Timorese were taking refuge, was attacked by the Aitarak militia under
the command of Eurico Guterres (whose trial is now underway in Jakarta).
This was intended to convey the message that "turncoats" like
Carrascalao who had switched from supporting integration with Indonesia to
supporting independence were in the sights of the killers.
One of her constant companions was Antero Bendito da Silva, the head of
the East Timor Students Council which had responded to the reform rallies
in Indonesia that drove Soeharto from power in May 1998 by mounting a
nationwide "open forum" campaign.
But da Silva was so obsessed with thinking about conflict resolution
and designing future education projects for the Timorese that he often
seemed blissfully unaware of the chaos and danger surrounding him and
needed to be rescued many times.
Another of the author's favorite characters, Mana Lou, an irrepressible
"secular nun", is fondly portrayed. She pursues her own brand of
grassroots Catholicism, dedicated to trying to restore people's sense of
self-esteem and identity which, she says, is what faith is all about.
This put her at loggerheads with Bishop Belo on the one hand and
Falintil leaders on the other. Dubbed by some the "Joan of Arc"
of East Timor, she tried as things grew worse to persuade militia members
of the folly of their ways while organizing food and medicine for the
thousands of IDPs around Liquica.
Another fascinating character who pops up regularly is a Falintil
commander known as L7, a flamboyant guerrilla, fond of delivering
speeches, of being the center of attention and a heavy drinker, when
supplies were available. Yet with all that, he was the proud head of a
Catholic youth organization, Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) that claimed
(justifiably, she was told) to have a membership of 60,000.
The author is no faint-heart and visited some of the most dangerous
places in the country as the ballot drew near. A constant theme is her
puzzlement at the failure of members of the UN mission, UNAMET, to take
seriously the threats of the militia, on behalf of their military
paymasters, to plunge the country into chaos, should the vote swing
heavily in favor of independence.
When East Timor descended into chaos and mayhem erupted just before the
ballot results were due to be announced, hundreds of foreign and
Indonesian journalists fled the country in the face of constant
The intention was clear; to ensure that the coming events would not be
reported. But the author and a tiny handful of journalists refused to
leave. She managed, with another Dutch journalist, to make her way to the
UNAMET compound where scores of East Timorese had taken refuge, inside the
compound and in an adjacent building.
As Dili burned and most of the country was reduced to ruins and as
250,000 East Timorese were herded into trucks and boats and taken to West
Timor, the UN was forced to wait till President Habibie in Jakarta took
the decision, after nearly three weeks of violence, to allow intervention
by an international force. Even in the depths of such a crisis, the
Security Council decided that a decision to send in foreign troops could
not be taken without Jakarta's approval.
Bitter Dawn recounts the closing chapter of UNAMET's mission with
careful attention to detail and colored by the writer's own emotions and
frustrations. For anyone wanting to know how it felt to live through these
events, this is the book to read.
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