Selected postings from east-timor (reg.easttimor)

Subject: JP: Book review: Bitter Dawn: East Timor - A People's Story

The Jakarta Post Sunday, August 18, 2002

Book review

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 Indonesian tormentors.

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 people" (IDP).

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 sanctuaries.

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 harassment.

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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