Women in Timor-Leste - New Naratif

Timor-Leste’s Forgotten Heroes

In any of the hundreds of villages dotting the hills of Timor-Leste, you might meet a gentle, older woman, body wrapped tight in a sarong, selling vegetables, running a kiosk, or watching over grandchildren, sanguine as the day goes by. Her quiet stoicism belies the unresolved trauma many Timorese women carry with them—they were just children during Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of Timor-Leste, but today they live with memories of forced starvation, torture, rape and death.

After the end of the Indonesian occupation in October 1999, the guerrillas who fought for the country’s independence descended from mountain hideouts to a victor’s welcome. They remain valorised and compensated by the country’s government today. But for thousands of people who supported the resistance in secret as clandestinos—smuggling food to guerillas, passing messages through the country, sabotaging the enemy’s weapons, vehicles, plans and efforts—recognition is much harder to come by, and compensation little more than a pipe dream.

And for the many women who suffered unimaginable violence as foreign forces swept their land, the glory of independence meant a return to the humdrum routine of cooking, cleaning, and child-raising. Their contributions remain unacknowledged and their fight for survival continues every day.  

“Justice should be ongoing”

Josefa Adao da Silva was a nervous 12-year-old in 1975 when her family fled deep into the rocky mountains from invading Indonesian forces. Surviving for months in the makeshift mountain camps of Timor-Leste’s independence fighters, da Silva watched both her parents die of starvation.

Da Silva recalls spending four years living in secret in the mountains. She helped the hiding guerrilla groups by teaching their children and patrolling the camp’s perimeter until the day she was caught. She was captured, detained, interrogated and tortured. Soldiers kicked her, beat her, starved her, burned her skin, electrocuted her, took photographs of her naked, and dunked her head underwater in a tank filled with crocodiles. At three o’clock in the morning, an Indonesian soldier raped her in her cell.

He told her: “If you don’t surrender your body, I will not shoot you—I’ll cut your body into pieces right here.”

Josefa da Silva - New Naratif
Josefa helped the resistance during the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste, and endured torture after she was captured. Credit: ACbit

Da Silva recalls his words in her story published in Enduring Impunity, a record by Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan). Untold stories from Timor-Leste’s fight for independence pad the fat book and present a stark picture of lives unresolved.

“I want a good life for me and my family,” she says in Enduring Impunity. “I need something in return for what I have suffered.”

In peaceful Timor-Leste today, da Silva runs a small kiosk. She left a forced marriage to an Indonesian soldier and lives with a son from that marriage and a new husband, whom she says accepts her despite the pervasive and dangerous belief that women raped by Indonesian soldiers chose to be with the men.  

“Justice should be ongoing, because only with justice can we get truth about what we suffered”

Timor-Leste voted for independence in 1999; after three years of administration by the United Nations, it emerged in 2002 as the 21st century’s first new country. Public attention turned away from its struggle.

Now, former guerrilla leaders—almost all men—occupy powerful political positions and run the country, shrouded in the glory of days gone by, while many of the women have retreated into the background, a silent pillar of a sovereign state that may be peaceful but isn’t yet just.

“Justice should be ongoing, because only with justice can we get truth about what we suffered,” da Silva says. “There especially must be justice for all the women for whom independence cost them their dignity.”

Today, the government of Timor-Leste provides generous pensions and strong support for veterans of the resistance. There’s no question it’s deserved. But veterans of armed conflict weren’t the only contributors to the country’s struggle for freedom.

The clandestinos

Despite the clandestinos’ significant contributions to the fight at great personal risk, they’re not classified as veterans for the purposes of the otherwise generous pension scheme. To be eligible for a pension, veterans must prove their participation in the resistance as part of its “structures and organisation”. But many clandestinos can’t prove formal involvement, precisely because of the covert nature of their work.

The pension scheme is scaled to provide larger payments for veterans who can prove more years of “exclusive service” to the resistance cause. Again, the clandestinos are at a disadvantage: even if a clandestino could prove their involvement, the fact that their contributions were carried out in secret, undocumented, and masked by work and study, means they fail to meet the years of exclusive service required to achieve the economic security such a pension could provide.   

According to officials, women made up over 60% of the clandestino population. Their activities, done under-the-radar, now go unrecognised and uncompensated. Women in Timor-Leste—systematically excluded from social, political and economic power—are again locked out of social and economic security, despite having risked their lives for their country.

A turbulent history

Long-neglected colonial outpost Timor-Leste, then known as Portuguese Timor, entered a decolonisation process following the Carnation Revolution that dissolved the Portuguese empire in the mid-1970s. As the dust settled in the tiny half-island country, a left-wing party known as the Revolutionary Front for an Independent Timor-Leste, or Fretilin, unilaterally declared independence on 28 November 1975.

The country enjoyed nine days of sovereignty before neighbour Indonesia launched, on 7 December 1975, a brutal land, sea and air invasion. The Indonesians justified the attack as a move to counter communism, and spread a belief that the nascent state wasn’t equipped to self-govern.

Between December 1975 and March 1977 an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Timorese were killed. Invading forces systematically destroyed houses, stores and food sources, poisoning crops and water sources with chemical weapons. Civilians endured countless atrocities and fled from their villages to the mountains, where they remained hiding until bombing and encirclement forced many to surrender.

Felismina de Araújo - New Naratif
Felismina de Araújo was arrested and tortured. She never found out what happened to her husband. Credit: ACbit

Felismina de Araújo fled with her family from their village to the isolated mountains of Ainaro. They lived in the forest for three years, cooking and delivering food each night to rebel forces. She was caught one night and taken to the military subdistrict command, where she was kicked, interrogated and gang raped by Indonesian soldiers. She was four months pregnant.

“I told them I was pregnant, but they didn’t care and said if I fought against them they would throw me in the river,” she says in Enduring Impunity. “I just cried.”

She was arrested again in 1982 and detained in the notoriously tough prison on barren Atauro Island, which today serves as a tropical holiday playground for expats in Dili. She never found out what happened to her husband.

Violence and independence

The conclusion of the Cold War and the 1998 end of Suharto’s regime in Indonesia returned public attention to the question of Timor-Leste’s independence. Suharto’s successor, BJ Habibie, announced a referendum for the Timorese, giving them a choice between special autonomy within Indonesia or independence. Despite intimidation from the militia, a staggering 98.6% of registered voters turned out, and 78.3% voted for independence.

The furious Indonesian forces retaliated, murdering citizens as they retreated. In Bobonaro municipality, near the Indonesian border, a local women’s organisation called FOKUPERS has worked with women widowed during the retreat to establish a support group called Nove Nove (“Nine Nine” in Portuguese), named for the month and the year in which their husbands were murdered, September 1999.

Women in Timor-Leste remain systematically excluded from social, political and economic power

The group’s coordinator, Teresinha Soares Cardoso, suffered through the death of her husband in the final days of the occupation, and the death by starvation of her 18-month-old baby in a refugee camp mere months later. Today, she runs a small kiosk, selling kitchen items and hand-woven tais (a traditional woven cloth) to support her children and make ends meet. But she has to engage in constant arguments with her husband’s family, who are trying to take over the land they’d bought as a married couple.

“My husband and I bought this land,” she says in Enduring Impunity. “It was not inherited from his parents. However, my in-laws are secretly planting trees on the land without informing me so they can claim it, and are also dividing up the land to give to their two children. When husbands die, women have no rights to land.”

Many women live far from urban centre; this distance compounds the barriers they face in accessing services and schemes available to them, including aged pensions and legal documents to land.

The Chega! promise

Post-independence, the United Nations established several transitional justice mechanisms in Timor-Leste, designed to draw a line between the country’s violent past and hopeful future.

A Serious Crimes Court with jurisdiction over war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, and murder, torture and sexual offences committed in 1999 was established that year. A truth commission, known as CAVR, followed in 2002. Between 2002 and 2005 CAVR recorded approximately 1,600 statements from women survivors of violence, and published in 2005 a report of over 2,000 pages entitled Chega!, or Enough!

Chega! painstakingly documented 835 counts of sexual violence and found clear evidence of the widespread and systematic way Indonesian forces engaged in rape, sexual torture and sexual slavery over the 24 years of the occupation, largely with impunity.

The report made specific recommendations for redress, and many hoped it would act as a framework for progress. But, more than a decade on, little progress has been made. Parliamentary apathy and dwindling interest further curtail efforts.  

Without a champion in a high position of power, the needs of women survivors can easily fall to the wayside

Manuela Leong Pereira is the director of Assosiasaun Chega! Ba Ita, or ACbit, an NGO established in 2013 to implement the Chega! report findings. In her sunlit office in Dili, she shares some of the struggles the organisation has faced in securing political and financial support for its mandate.  

A national reparation scheme that would provide trauma counselling and financial compensation to women survivors has stalled. “Parliament just didn’t have the political will to get the law passed,” Pereira says. Without a champion in a high position of power, the needs of women survivors can easily fall to the wayside as the country’s leaders grapple with other political questions.

Previously part of the local office of the Geneva-based International Centre for Justice, ACbit lobbied Timor-Leste’s government to draft a reparations law that would provide financial compensation to women survivors. The organisation collected testimonies from victims to share women’s experiences, but the Fretilin-led government took issue with an article of the law that would guarantee non-discrimination for victims.

“They just wanted the victims coming from [the] Fretilin party,” Pereira explains. “We tried to explain to the advisors that’s against international law, but they just postponed and postponed until their mandate finished.” The government changed in 2012, forcing ACbit to start from scratch, but successive governments remain disinterested in the scheme.  

A new government, a new hope

A minority government led by Fretilin took power after last July’s parliamentary election. Pereira says that the government’s Ministry for Social Solidarity, a long-term ACbit donor, cut funding to the organisation: “We don’t receive [funding] anymore.”

There’s a chance that the situation might change. The Fretilin government was dissolved by President Francisco Guterres after failing to gain parliamentary support for its programme.  A re-run election last month saw a new coalition of three parties win power. The People’s Liberation Party, a member of the victorious coalition, campaigned on the importance of returning attention to the past conflict, and a previous government led by another coalition member, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, gave ACbit consistent funding.

Pereira hopes the new government will revise the decision to cut ACbit’s funding. But for now, without money from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, she says ACbit will drop its staff down to part-time roles.

Pereira seems frustrated by the block. “They don’t need big money,” she says of the survivors ACbit supports. “They just need attention, some specific programmes, some opportunities.”

She cites university scholarships as an example of continuing discrimination against female survivors and their families. “They give scholarships to minister’s children. [Children of survivors] already don’t have education because they live very far from Dili, they have to compete with Dili children.”

Around 70% of Timor-Leste’s population lives rurally, and the country’s universities are concentrated in the capital. The national university, Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e, offers scholarships to the children of veterans, but no such initiatives exist for the children of other resistance survivors.

ACbit conducts participatory research with survivors and maintains a comprehensive database of stories and data, which inform advocacy and education work. The organisation supports six centres in four municipalities, where women survivors can gather to share stories and conduct business. “If we join them together they can support each other and understand,” explains Pereira.

ACbit is the only organisation in Timor-Leste working directly and exclusively with women survivors of the conflict. Local non-government organisations FOKUPERS and Alola Foundation have also provided critical counselling, training and financial support to vulnerable women across the country, including survivors, and the women’s NGO umbrella network Rede Feto has also conducted research.

Women’s stories sidelined

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper late last year, resistance fighter-turned-organiser Lourdes Alves Araújo identified the sidelining of women’s contributions to the resistance movement as a key barrier to progress for conservative, patriarchal Timor-Leste.

“Since the war ended, it’s been mostly men who have had their stories told and their images presented to the country… But many of our leaders and heroes were women, and it’s important to recover that history and make it right”

“Since the war ended, it’s been mostly men who have had their stories told and their images presented to the country,” she said. “But many of our leaders and heroes were women, and it’s important to recover that history and make it right.”

Head of the women’s branch of Organização Popúlar das Mulheres da Timor, a group with close links to Fretilin, Araújo says she and her colleagues are publishing a book to tell that story. ACbit and its regional sister organisation, the Jakarta-based Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR), have also published significant work and recommendations based on participatory research results and documentation.

“People just hear about veterans’ stories, men’s stories, not women’s,” says Pereira. “This is an opportunity to talk.”

Life goes on for many women survivors of the conflict. For them, there is no wistful, charged ending to their story, no hero’s reward or adulation. Pragmatic survivors getting on with their lives have little room for entertaining fancy. But there’s a quiet determination to live a life bigger than trauma, to continue the fight, to have it mean more than it did.

“We have hope,” Pereira says, more than once.

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