Subject: AGE: The truth of the matter

The truth of the matter

June 17, 2004

While President Xanana Gusmao makes overtures of friendship towards Indonesia, there are many East Timorese who may never be able to forgive their country’s former oppressors. Filmmaker Neil Barrett took their testimony.

"They beat me, my nose was bleeding and my face was all broken, but I told them nothing. They electrified my penis and my tongue, I felt I was dead already. They treated us like animals not people … Now when I go past that place I cry when I remember my brother and friends who died there. That was the place of our suffering." Saturnino Belo, rice farmer, Bacau, East Timor, former resistance supporter.

Xanana Gusmao may be right to embrace former Indonesian general and presidential candidate Wiranto in the interests of East Timor's long-term survival. Perhaps Timor's president will also be able to convince the majority of his people to forgive the terrible crimes committed against them without so much as an apology from perpetrators such as Wiranto, who has been accused of being responsible for the deaths of 1500 of Gusmao's countrymen. But my recent experience tells me that, for some East Timorese at least, this will be near impossible. Advertisement Advertisement

For the past 18 months, I've been producing a series of videos for East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (commonly known by its Portuguese initials as CAVR), which is investigating human rights violations during Indonesia's occupation. The commission has also set up a "truth-telling" process for victims and abusers to acknowledge what happened.

The videos comprise 20 interviews conducted with former resistance supporters who were captured by the Indonesian military and interned in what a veteran Portuguese priest has called East Timor's Auschwitz.

Between 1975 and 1999, a jail in Dili known as Comarca Balide was used by the Indonesian military as an interrogation and detention centre. Many thousands of terrified East Timorese men and women, and some children, found themselves at the mercy of the worst excesses of the occupying power.

The message was the same: for most of its Indonesian incarnation, Comarca Balide was a place of almost unbelievable suffering.

There were frequent disappearances and executions without trial; inmates spent months without bedding or clothes in grossly overcrowded, dark cells in which human excrement frequently fouled the floor; there were horrific beatings, torture with electricity and water; and, not surprisingly, appalling food. Death due to illness, violence and starvation was common.

For many people, the first hours spent in the prison were a foretaste of what was to come. Jacinto Alves - now one of CAVR's commissioners - was arrested in 1992 and taken to a rock in the quadrangle that had the words "Welcome to Comarca" painted on it.

Comarca Balide prison in Dili.

"We had to say ‘Welcome to Comarca' repeatedly for hours in the heat of the sun - from early in the morning until we fainted. Then we were splashed with water in order to get up. ‘Welcome to Comarca, welcome to Comarca,' until we fainted again," Alves says.

"Then they beat us until we were swollen, puffy and bloody, and we couldn't stand it anymore. Then we lay down over there and slept exhausted in the mud."

My sample of 20 videos includes testimony from people who are now highly respected leaders of East Timor. As well as Alves, those interviewed included David Ximenes, who is now in charge of East Timor's internal security; Francisco Branco, a member of parliament; Julio Alfaro, the chief executive of one of Dili's largest companies; and Father Jao Felguieras, a Portuguese priest who came to the country 33 years ago. I also spoke to ordinary people, like Saturnino Belo, who are now trying to make a life in their new nation.

All spoke with an integrity and a passion that I'd rarely encountered in several decades of documentary making. And while each had a powerful and distinctive story to tell about prison life and its effect on them, the message was the same: for most of its Indonesian incarnation, Comarca Balide was a place of almost unbelievable suffering.

There were several common threads running through the interviews. One was the dread of being among the "disappeared". A large number of prisoners were simply taken out during the night and executed at one of the many killing sites around Dili.

According to Felguieras, for several years prisoners were taken during the night and trucked to nearby Lake Tacitolu to be killed.

They were thrown in the lake or buried in some other way. At that time people used to say: "Today Tacitolu is red."

Alves recalls: "Most of the time people, including some of my friends and family, who were brought to these cells disappeared. They simply disappeared."

Alfaro was thrown into Comarca in 1975 because he had been in the Portuguese army: "I trembled at the thought of interrogation. But I was grateful if I was called in the morning because I knew I would return to the cell. Most of the prisoners who were called in the night never returned. Nighttime meant death, to disappear forever."

Another thread was the fear of the Mabuta cell block. This block contained seven cells, each about eight square metres in size. In six of the seven cells there was only a thin shaft of light to fracture the blackness. The seventh, the so-called Dark Cell, was totally black.

Usually, there would be 13 or 14 men in a cell and at times up to 30. The toilets were frequently blocked - perhaps deliberately - so that the contents spilled over the cell floors.

Needless to say, there were no beds, no private possessions and certainly no books. Conditions were so cramped prisoners had to take it in turns to sleep on the wastecovered floor either completely naked or in their filthy underwear.

Not surprisingly, many of the interviewees spoke of frequent deaths due to illness, especially TB and malnutrition.

One of the cells was called "the submarine". Soon after the Indonesians took over the jail from the Portuguese, they bricked up the doorway to a height of one metre so that the cell could be filled with foul water, thereby providing an effective place of punishment. Prisoners had to stand for long periods or drown. How many people were forced to choose the latter option is not known, but it was just one of the many horrors of Comarca.

David da Conceisau, now a taxi driver in Dili, spent a year in the Mabuta cell block when he was 20.

"During the first week, they used to beat me up every morning. My face was so swollen that I couldn't see. After that, they locked me up in the Dark Cell for six months. There was no light, I was naked. I slept on the floor. I was not given anything to drink. I survived on the water in the food. Because I didn't have a bath, my skin was all peeled and itchy."

Torture was systematic and, it appears, unlimited. The methods of choice were electric current, water immersion, cigarette burns and beatings. All interviewees refer to it. Ximenes survived the electricity but came very close to drowning in a water tank. And he still wouldn't talk.

"They brought in someone called Norberto and another man called Jordao. We all sat there, being interrogated. Those two were stabbed to death in front of me and their bodies thrown outside. They did all this before my eyes. The truth is, people just kept dying here, one after another."

Another common thread was the appalling treatment of women. At any time, there were up to 24 women in the prison, some of them with children. The three women interviewed all referred to severe beatings, torture and gross sexual humiliation. One of them, Maria da Costa, was arrested in 1977 when she was 18 and imprisoned for several years. She was frequently kicked and beaten and often forced to shower naked for the amusement of the Indonesians.

On top of that, she says, "I had one child from an Indonesian soldier. When we were due to be released, we had to make a promise to become a soldier's temporary wife. (Before that) I had conceived another child in Comarca but (it) died before it was born."

Felguieras says prisoners communicated with their relatives and friends by throwing notes over the wall for children to deliver.

"I remember a prisoner called Marcelina. The message she sent me said, ‘Father, we are living in hell'."

In January this year, Pak Ian Dion, the Indonesian civil servant who managed Comarca Balide for six years until 1986, and his wife spoke to Peter Carey, a tutor in modern history at Oxford University. Initially, both husband and wife lived inside the prison, next to the interrogation rooms. But because the prisoners' screams kept her awake at night, she decided after four months to move back to their home in West Java. The torture, she says, was done to extract information and "to give sadistic pleasure to the military interrogators".

Dion admitted that "there were no human rights in East Timor at that time" and that one of his biggest problems was that, although he only had enough in his budget to feed 50 prisoners, he often had to cope with up to 500. This helps to explain the high death rate referred to by survivors.

The stories told by the 20 people whose testimony I recorded are now being used by CAVR in the writing of its final report. Some of the alleged perpetrators may, like Wiranto, be charged with crimes against humanity, although the chance of them coming to trial is becoming increasingly remote.

On the 10th and last day of interviewing, five of the oldest survivors from Comarca Balide reunited outside the Mabuta cellblock. One of them, Alfaro, spoke on their behalf. When he mentioned the suffering they had all endured, he and others on both sides of the camera began sobbing and the interview came to a temporary halt. For their sake, I hope Xanana is right.

Neil Barrett was the founder and for 20 years the chief executive of Video Education Australasia Pty Ltd, a leading company in the production of videos and other educational resources. His work for CAVR is being done on a voluntary basis.

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