Subject: Timor hero still seeking a future
Thursday, 9 October 2008 16:17 UK
Timor hero still seeking a future
Many ordinary people were celebrated as heroes for the role they played
during East Timor's struggle for independence from Indonesia.
Dutch journalist Tjitske Lingsma, who reported on the conflict, tracked
down a young man who saved the Timorese enclave of Oecussi by smuggling
a desperate plea for help inside his flip flops.
The taxi stops at the arts school just off the main road in Dili, East
Timor's coastal capital. A student shakes his head: "Lafu was seen here
for the last time in 2004."
Later, we hear that Lafu has returned to the family home in the East
Timorese enclave of Oecussi in Indonesian West Timor, the scene of
brutal attacks during the independence struggle.
Twelve hours later, after an uncomfortable night on a ferry, the
jungle-clad mountains of Oecussi loom.
Lafu, 25, is waiting on the quayside among a crowd of people gathered to
meet the boat. On his borrowed motorbike he leads the way to a
whitewashed house with an attached corrugated iron shed where he tells
Flip flops and a catapult
Lafu, whose full name is Fredolino Jose Landos da Cruz Buno Sila, was a
wild boy. Aged 13 he slapped his school teacher in a fit of anger and
ran away from home.
He did not return for three years until 1999 when Indonesia agreed to a
referendum on independence for East Timor after 24 years of occupation.
Lafu was too young to vote but those who could voted overwhelmingly in
favour of independence. In response the Indonesian army and loyalist
militia groups unleashed an orgy of violence.
Lafu fled to the mountain hamlet of Kutete with thousands of refugees
but with basic supplies running short he set off for a nearby village to
look for a shop.
"I was wearing a black baseball cap with a ribbon in the Indonesian
colours, red and white, so the militia would think I was pro-Indonesia,"
While he was away the militias came to the village, destroying it and
forcing the refugees down to the beach where they huddled together in
With the Indonesian army planning an assault on Oecussi the
pro-independence leaders chose Lafu for the dangerous task of crossing
the military lines to deliver a plea for help to the Australian-led
international peacekeeping force, Interfet.
From a chest in the room, Lafu pulls out a catapult and a pair of flip
flops. He takes up one of the shoes and carefully pulls apart the sole.
"Here they hid the letter," he says.
In the morning he set off for Atambua, a border town crawling with
militia. "They invited me to drink. With a [pounding] heart I agreed. I
took my flip flops off so I could sit on them. When the militia were
very drunk I ran away.
"By shooting birds with my catapult I could get closer in a seemingly
innocent way - until I was stopped by an Indonesian soldier who warned
me that Interfet was nearby."
Lafu bolted: "I sprinted towards the border where I saw Australians. I
lifted my arms and walked towards the soldiers."
Lafu had escaped and was taken to Dili by helicopter where he delivered
his plea for help to Interfet commander, Maj General Peter Cosgrove, and
Timorese guerrilla leader Taur Matan Ruak.
To his horror Interfet did not immediately decide to rescue the besieged
people of Oecussi. Instead Lafu was taught how to operate a radio and
taken back to Oecussi, where the foreign soldiers abandoned him on the
beach. "They had betrayed me," says Lafu.
By the time Lafu rejoined the pro-independence leaders in Oecussi
killings had already begun.
In desperation, with starvation looming and the militias circling, Lafu
used his radio to contact Interfet to tell them that an attack was under
way. "It is not going well. I have to run," he said and switched off the
The next morning the refugees were awoken by the sound of approaching
helicopters. "We ran towards the beach and could only cry. We were
Lafu had rescued the enclave and became a hero.
'Drinking to forget'
An Australian who heard Lafu's story sent money so the family could
rebuild their house. Today his father rents it to UN workers for $100
(?58) a month.
The income is a lifeline and pays for school fees for Lafu's brothers
Despite his hero status, the post-independence years have not been kind
to Lafu. In Dili a former bishop sponsored him through theatre school
but in 2003 the money ran out and Lafu left.
"After that I tried to join the army," he says, "but I failed the
Then his mother died. "I started to get bored and became a thug.
"I joined a gang which protected the neighbourhood where I lived against
other gangs. During serious fights people got wounded and even killed."
Disillusioned with life in the capital Lafu returned to Oecussi in 2006
just as the fragile peace was shattered again when rebels, army, police
and criminals clashed. People died and houses were burned in the
"I left Dili because I could not find a job. But in Oecussi I have no
work either," Lafu laments. "The government is neglecting us."
Lafu belongs to a lost generation of young Timorese who do not know
where their lives are going.
"I am happy because we have freedom, but sad because we don't have work.
With friends I often start drinking to forget our situation.
"We drink until we get sick. Only then we stop."
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