Subject: Big Issues: Waiting to Wage Peace
Date: Sat, 17 Jul 1999 09:32:12 -0400
From: "East Timor Ireland Solidarity Campaign" <>

Source: The Big Issues. Date: 16th July 1999


Sean Steele reports on his visit to East Timor, where he met members of the world's most isolated guerrilla army

He appeared at the edge of the forest, small, wiry, dressed in rags - a mix of military jacket and jeans. Ushering me into the forest, we were quickly and completely enveloped by trees, low-lying bushes and scrub. The grassy meadow, where I had stood moments before, disappeared, blocked out by the banana trees whose giant palm-shaped leaves hung limply in the scorching sun. Arriving at a clearing we hunched down. Without warning another half dozen appeared out of the undergrowth. Standing around, fingering the triggers of their M-16 rifles, they stared impassively. Then they smiled - big wide grins - and shook my hand eagerly. They were small and slightly built. Two were barefoot; the others wore light sandals. They were armed to the teeth with pistols in their belts and had machetes dangling by their sides. Finally I was face-to-face with the fighters of Falintil, East Timor's liberation army. Throughout this tiny island 300 miles north of Australia, people speak about them as "our friends in the mountains". Numbering only 600, their symbolism represents more than their numbers suggest. "For us Falintil means freedom," exclaimed Fernao, a lanky, reticent youth in the capital Dili. "They are up in the mountains living free while we are here in prison."

Since 1975 these guerrillas have fought a long, lonely battle against the Indonesian army (ABRI). From their bases in the mountains that are East Timor's spine, they still tie down 20,000 soldiers. After exchanging pleasantries, their commander appeared: a thin moustachioed man of 46, he squatted down flanded by two alert bodyguards, who checked every sound and movement. Kown by his nom de guerre Faustino, he spoke in a barely audible whisper. They all did - a necessity for survival. Soldiers often use scanners to detect them and listen to their conversations. Even from our forest clearing I could see the thin frame of an Indonesian communications building, a mile away. Sensing my nervousness Faustino said: "We are in constant touch with them by waldie-talkie. Many of them have given up fighting." I had heard that in some areas Indonesian commanders had negotiated local ceasefires with the guerrllas. Now it was confirmed. "They complain about bad food, bad conditions, of not being paid for months," explained Jao Suquera, another guerrilla leaning his rifle. "Many are just wanting to go home."

Sitting back on clumps of the bare earth of the clearing, Faustino lit a cigarette - "one of my few pleasures" - and sat pensively as he exhaled. We met near Los Palos, a tiny town set in rolling hills on the island's eastern tip. Heavily militarised with bases on every street, it shows how difficult the guerrillas have made it, that even now ABRI doesn't completely control the area. Faustino has been with Falintil since 1976, one of a handful of survivors from that era. Most of his family are dead. But his is hardly the exeption in a country where 300,000 (half of the 1975 population) have died. Along with wanting to fight for independence, all of them have personal reasons for joining Falintil (Indonesian army savagery ensures a steady supply of recruits). "There is no-one who hasn't lost several members of their families, declared Armando Nunhes. " In my family, 12 were murdered. The Indonesians treated us like animals so I decided to join." There are few women guerrillas but I managed to meet one, an emaciated, deeply traumatised 19-year-old, Rosa. Her taut features spoke of a life of suffering. Unlike the others, Rosa was born in the mountains, and into the movement. But like the others, most of her family are dead. "Myself and my mother were the only ones who survived," she says, never raising her eyes as she recalls a catalogue of terror. Her father and nine brothers and sisters died in the bombing. She carries a pistol but doesn't fight, "the guerrillas are my family and I help them by cooking; attending to the sick is the best thing I can do."

Life for these fighters means moving between 'camps', usually straw huts hidden in thedensely forested mountains, always hunted, often hungry or sick with stomach problems, rotten teeth or malaria. Nowadays, most Falintil actions are defensive. Their numbers are too few to mounta attacks. Their mere existence is enough to keep the fflal flying for East Timor's independence. In the late 1970's Falintil had 6,000 men, whose determined resistance slowed a for larger, lavishly equipped Indonesian army, inflicting huge casualties on the invaders (over 25,000 soldiers have died since 1975). By 1975, when Los Palos was taken, constant war and starvation had decimated guerrilla ranks. What really turned the tide was the arrival of fighter aircraft, Hawks from Britain and Broncos from America. "We remember those aircraft bombing, the terror they caused," recalled Armand Nunhes. "Every day they attacked villages, dropping napalm that burned people's skins. Thousands were killed, including my parents."

By the early 1980's the guerrillas were nearly finished as a fighting force. Under Xanana Gusmao's leadership, they were reorganised into four regions and rebuilt. Faustino is secretary of "Region One", that covers the Eastern island, and has 380 fighters and supporters drawn from a civilian support network - "the clandestine front" - that operates in every town and village. It was this clandestine front that organised my visit right under the noses of the Indonesian army. Meeting Falintil isn't easy. Letters are exchanged, work sent ahead, permission sought. Once given I had to go to Los Palow, a bone-breaking six hour bus jouney from Dili along narrow crumbling roads. At dawn at a pre-arrandged spot, I was bundled onto the backof a lorry, asked to lie on the floor along with my Timooerese translator and covered with a tarpaulin. As we sped along he whispered, "There are Indonesian bases along there. If they find us we are in big trouble."

After half an hour, we came to a bumpy halt. Jumping off I found myself at the edge of the forest from where they emerged. There small groups are the world's mos isolated guerrilla force who have no borders to seek sanctuary or smuggle weapons across. All their weaponry comes from captured or dead Indonesian soldiers. Some can be bought on the black market from corrupt Indonesian officers. The going rate for an M-16 they informed me is £300, a bullet costs 20p. Falintil depends on the ordinary people for food. In the thickets beyond I could just make out several women, local villagers who come dwith rice, bread and dried meat. "Falintil is not just fighters," says Jao, turning to look at them. "It is the Timorese people. Without them we could not survive." The banter between them and the guerrillas indicates a close relationship. And the relaxed postures and laughing showed a different side of the East Timorese. With soldiers they were submissive, unsmiling, with their eyes normally fixed downwards. Talk turns to th future as Faustino outlines his conditions for Falintil laying down its arms. "All Indonesian forces would have to withdraw and several thousand UN peace keepers would have to come to snsure security and seal the border [with Indonesian West Timor]." "Then we would hand over our guns but only when the conditions are right," he stresses.

UN monitors are coming, but not th numbers Fausino or most East #Timorese want. 280 unarmed police - inclueding 20 from Ireland - and 450 civilaianobservers will nonitor the voting on 28 August, when the East timorese will vote to stay with Indonesia or become independent. Originally scheduled for 8 August, it was postponed because of violence from army controlled paramilitary gangas who have killed huyndreds and driven 100,j000 villagers from their homes. Despite this Falintil have held their fire. "We believe they [ABRI] are provoking us by terrorising our people," explains Jao. "but Xanan has ordered us not to fore. We want this process to work and not give Inodnesia an excuse to restart the war." Faustino admits to looking forward to an end tothe 23-year-old war, although he is unsure what he will do afterwards: "I don't know what I will do when we get independence. But the most important thing is that we get freedom. "A lot of damage has been done," he adds. "People have suffered so much. We will need a long, long time to heal." Until then the struggle continues: "We want the war to stop but we will hold onto our weapons and keep fighting as long as necessary."

Back to July Menu
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu
June '98 through February '99