Subject: CT Book: Moving Story Of An E. Timor Child of Occupation
The Canberra Times
Saturday, April 12, 2008
Moving story of a child of occupation
By Angie Bexley and Fiona Crockford
Naldo Rei's memoir is a moving testimony to the sacrifices endured by
East Timorese during the struggle for independence from Indonesian
military occupation. It is only the second literary work by an East
Timorese author to be published in English in the post-occupation period.
The first was The Crossing, a beautifully crafted account of exile and
belonging written by Luis Cardoso. Cardoso was part of a cohort of
relatively privileged, lusophone-oriented youth brought up under the
former Portuguese colonial administration and educated in Catholic
seminaries. (His contemporaries included a number of future political
leaders, among them the former resistance leader and current Prime
Minister, Xanana Gusmao.) Cardoso received a scholarship to study in
Lisbon just prior to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975. That
cataclysmic event left him unable to return home for 24 years. These two
seminal works thus reflect vastly different generational experiences and
Born in 1975, Rei is a child of occupation. His book sheds light on the
experience of a generation of youth socialised into a culture of
resistance and secrecy. Through the lens of his personal odyssey, which
takes him from occupied East Timor via Jakarta to exile in Australia and
back to an independent East Timor, we come to understand how formative
experiences of routine violence affected the politicisation of that
generation. We learn of the devastating effects of war and displacement on
family structures: how childhoods were radically foreshortened and how
youthful needs and ambitions were, inevitably, subordinated to the
Rei's early life is marked by post-invasion chaos and the flight of
thousands of Timorese refugees into the mountains to evade capture by
Indonesian forces; their subsequent internment and subjection to intense
surveillance techniques and intimidation. A defining moment is the murder
of his father by Indonesian forces. That critical event ''turned me, a
young child into a soldier and resistance fighter. Justice for my father
and my land, and anger at the oppression we endured constantly, were fuel
for the fire in my belly.''
From that point, his identity as a resistance fighter is fixed. Rei is
recruited into the clandestine movement as a special courier, a role that
requires the precarious shadow play of a double life. It also entails an
unquestioning loyalty to an authoritarian and hierarchical chain of
command, to which the young boy readily submits. He is repeatedly
arrested, interrogated and tortured by the Indonesian military. These
traumatic experiences only serve to reinforce his patriotism and he
acquires a reputation for being ''unbreakable''.
His endurance seems remarkable, yet the consequence of surviving such
extreme physical and psychological assaults is a kind of depersonalisation
and emotional distance. Bereft of familial support and succour from a
young age, he finds a sense of community and fraternal love among his
comrades within the resistance network. Drawn into an intense, hyper-
masculine and hyper-vigilant world of counter- insurgency and subterfuge,
Rei is ''enthralled'' by the folkloric charisma and mystique of the key
resistance (and father) figures he is instructed to protect.
The heroic, and somewhat romanticised, image of the archetypal
guerrilla fighter becomes central to Rei's identity: he grows his hair
long as an assertion of difference to the Indonesian army crew-cut. The
culture of resistance inevitably shapes his relationships with women.
Strict codes of conduct precluded romantic attachments and, while the
author coyly insists he had neither the interest nor energy for such
things, he is clearly not immune to the attentions of young women, nor
unaware of his own self-image as an ''exotic outlaw''.
While the memory of his father's murder drives his patriotism, it is
his connection with surrogate mothers that provides Rei with the emotional
closeness he lacks. Thematically, the feminised sanctuary space these
women represent provides a counter to the masculinist warrior culture, and
partially compensates for the self-abnegation that commitment to the
Exile brings a profound shift in Rei's moral framework and sense of
self. On the run in Jakarta, he is reliant upon the support of Indonesian
pro-democracy activists and solidarity groups with whom he works closely:
these encounters fundamentally challenge his hardline assumptions toward
Indonesia as the stereotyped enemy. Despite the incredible hardship and
frustration he endures there, he remains crucially involved in the world
of strategic activism.
Relocation to Australia, by contrast, is experienced as profoundly
disempowering. He struggles with culture shock, financial hardship,
language difficulties and a sense of existential limbo. When liberation
finally comes, Rei returns to East Timor to document the independence
celebrations. Yet following the initial vertigo of freedom, there is a
collective loss of momentum and focus.
Rei's generation are faced with the challenge of how to reconcile with
the past and reconstruct themselves as postcolonial subjects. His book is
testament to their suffering. It raises fundamental questions about the
role of patriarchal power in the construction of a warrior culture.
Reflecting on the legacies of his resistance childhood, he writes
''children should not be soldiers; I feel I missed out on childhood and
can never get it back.''
While exceptionally well-written, Rei's narrative is self-conscious and
restrained and it does not have the lyrical quality and gentle, self-
deprecating humour of Cardoso's The Crossing. But his story is an
important contribution to Timor's nascent national literature that will
certainly inspire others to write their own.
Angie Bexley and Fiona Crockford are researching East Timorese youth
identities at the ANU.
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