As it turned out I had little to worry about. When you're travelling around a country as unpredictable as East Timor bizarre events have an uncanny ability to hijack even the most sedate itineraries. I could sit here and write about my close encounter with a pod of killer whales (I missed them by one hour!), or about the bar brawl that saw Dili's most popular nightspot trashed, eighty men placed under arrest and fifteen gun shots fired. About a resident Filipino prostitute who finally saw the light, or the small but satisfying role I played in the emergency birth of a beautiful baby girl. About my unknowing conversation with the ex-Falintil guerrilla army leader, or the night I spent sleeping on the floor of a village jail cell after an interrogation by the Chinese (yes, Chinese) police. About the traditional Timorese wedding I attended -- complete with a sacrificial goat that I somewhat unwillingly helped slaughter -- or the humbling conversations I had with lucky escapees of the Bali bombings.
When you're travelling around a country as unpredictable as East Timor bizarre events have an uncanny ability to hijack even the most sedate itineraries.
I could sit here and type for hours about the events that unfolded in my last week in Timor, but I won't. Because the more I reflect on the events of this week, the less important they seem in comparison to the five relatively uneventful hours I spent sharing a simple meal with a man named Fernando, a Timorese local I met while travelling through the small coffee plantation village of Ermera. During that meal (and the two hours of hard drinking that followed) Fernando grappled with his basic grasp of English to recount the story of his life. I sat awe-struck as he painted the broad outline of his twenty-six short years and then badgered him with questions for hours, marvelling at his strength, courage and compassion. Fernando's amazing life -- more so than any comparatively inane travel tale I could recount to you -- powerfully captures the spirit, struggles and hopes of this country and its 750,000 citizens.
Read it and I'm sure you'll agree.
Fernando was born in Viqueque, a small and unremarkable town nestled in the mountains of south-east Timor. He grew up in the early years of Indonesia's occupation of the region, helping his relatively small (well, by Catholic Timorese standards at least) family of two sisters and a brother eke a living from the sometimes hostile land around them. Fernando and his family led a humble life as subsistence farmers, bartering for most of their daily needs but rarely going hungry. Surrounded by friends and family, Fernando has fond memories of his childhood, recalling that he "always had someone to play with".
Fernando's uncle was a young political idealist who had been involved with Fretilin, the left-wing political party that had ruled East Timor before the Indonesian invasion. Unwilling to accept foreign occupation of his country, he had become one of the first activists protesting oppressive Indonesian practices and fighting for an independent East Timor. Unsurprisingly, his vocal opposition to the Jakarta-based regime soon drew the attention of local army commanders, who arrested the young man on unrelated charges and imprisoned him indefinitely.
This officer with the Chinese police (volunteering with the Ermera CivPol unit) barged into my prison cell at 3.30 am and wanted to know who I was, what my intentions were, and why I had sweet-talked the local officers into letting me crash at the police station. He let me go after an hour of questioning, and then asked to take a photo of us in the morning. Enlarge »
Fernando's father, who had always seemed content to live and let live as far as the Indonesians had been concerned, could no longer live in silence. Family ties clouded his political sensibilities and he began speaking out on behalf his imprisoned sibling, lobbying local government officials and army personnel to have him released. Unfortunately these protests soon raised the ire of the Indonesian administrators, who labeled Fernando's father an activist and insurgent and set about making life miserable for him and his family.
The following year of government-sponsored scrutiny, harassment and intimidation that Fernando's family endured irrevocably scarred his father. Fernando, who was only seven at the time, recalls that his father's constant smile was slowly worn away, that the usually outgoing family man became a recluse to his own wife and children and that his bitter verbal attacks against the Indonesian regime, always dispensed within the safe confines of their home, increased in both frequency and severity.
One rainy afternoon in late 1989, when the wet season was at its peak and Fernando was battling his way through the driving rain on his way home from school, he noticed a crowd of people gathered outside his family's shack. He wormed his way through the friends and family muttering grimly at the doorway to his house and was greeted by the sight of his mother wailing hysterically into a handkerchief while being rather fruitlessly comforted by her sister.
Fernando's father was dead. He had been gathering firewood with his brothers in the woods near house when he had lost his footing and slipped off the edge of a small cliff. He would have survived the fall, had he not hit his head on a large rock at the base of the wall and crushed his skull.
Across Timor, the charred remains of buildings destroyed during the violence of 1999 are up for rent to those with cash to spare and time on their hands. Enlarge »
With little remaining of his father's face, Fernando's family were kept from seeing the body and instead Fernando farewelled his father at a simple funeral two days later. To this day, a small, white cross still marks the spot where he was buried.
The years following his father's death were hard on Fernando and his family. With the strongest man of the house gone, it was up to eleven year old Fernando and his fifteen year old brother to try and support his mother and two sisters. Although the government had eased its harassment after his father's death, the family still struggled to gather enough food to eat and Fernando remarked that his overwhelming memory of this period was of "hard work ... always working, just to survive". Fernando's mother was especially distressed after her husband's death. She stopped attending church and rarely visited her close friends. Instead she focused her energies on raising her children to "live the life our father had not".
In the early nineties, four years after his father's death, Fernando arrived home from a friend's house to the sight of his father's ghost sitting by their doorway. He stood there, stunned and let out a small yelp. It was his father who spoke first:
Fernando did the only thing he could when faced with an apparition from the other side, he began reciting the Lord's Prayer.
"I'm not a ghost," Fernando's father assured him before dropping the biggest bombshell of all. "I was never dead."
In the year preceding his apparent death, Fernando's peace-loving father had been transformed into an angry, bitter opponent of the Indonesian regime. Realising that his presence was only causing his family more problems with the government he decided to join Falantil, the guerrilla movement seeking a free East Timor. With the help of his brother and a distant relative who had already joined the movement, Fernando's father faked his own death and fled to the hills.
Fernando's father fought the Indonesian army and hid in Timor's mountainous interior for three years until political in-fighting among the troops saw another Falintil fighter cast doubts upon his loyalty. He was accused of being an Indonesian spy and despite the absence of any proof to support these claims, Fernando's father was ostracised from his fellow soldiers and became a outsider, carrying out ineffective lone sniper attacks and sabotage raids by himself.
This photo was taken off the mountain top of a coffee plantation in Timor's centre. Enlarge »
One day, while fleeing from Indonesian forces that had found one of his makeshift camps, Fernando's father fell and tore a large gash in one of his legs. Without any medical attention, and unable to turn to his former commrades for help, the wound soon became infected. Realising that he would die if the infection spread, Fernando's father had been forced to turn to the only people he could trust: his family.
Fernando and his family hid his father for two months, tending to his leg with smuggled medicines and keeping his presence a secret, even to close friends and relatives. The hushed comings and goings, however, were enough to arouse the suspicions of one of their neighbours, who tipped off the government about Fernando's father's return in exchange for a lucrative civil service position.
Within a week Fernando's father had been arrested and taken to jail. Although he never spoke to his father again, it is almost certain that Fernando's father was tortured for information on Falintil activities and then executed.
Fernando's older brother, who was in his early twenties at the time, was hardest hit by his father's second death. Determined to avenge the execution, Fernando's brother ignored his mother's pleas and fled to the mountains to join Falintil and pick up where his father had left off. It was the last time Fernando would see his brother.
Fernando, then eighteen, was left to care for his distraught mother and two sisters. Food was difficult to come by and Fernando often kept his mind from the hunger that gnawed at him by teaching himself English out of a tattered workbook he had received from an NGO worker passing through the town.
When the Indonesian government finally agreed to hold an independence referendum for the Timorese in 1999, Fernando's basic English skills earned him a job with the United Nations to help with voter registration and public education. His involvement with United Nations and the referendum process, however, also made him a target for intimidation and coercion by the Indonesian army, who sought to ensure the vote was anything but fair.
Fernando's brother ignored his mother's pleas and fled to the mountains to join Falintil and pick up where his father had left off. It was the last time Fernando would see his brother.
But the worst was to come after the vote, when it became clear that despite the army's attempts to sway the results, eighty percent of the country had voted for independence.
During the months of murders, looting and arson the followed, those considered to be Falintil sympathisers or those who had facilitated the referendum attracted special attention from the rampaging bands of militiamen. With two Falintil fighters and a UN employee among their ranks, Fernando's family topped the list.
"They raped my mother in front of me," Fernando recounted to me in a lifeless voice, "and when they finished with her, they wanted my sister.
"My mother screamed at them, so they shot her. Then they raped my sister. And then they burnt our house."
Like half of East Timor's population Fernando fled with his two sisters to the hills around their town, hiding out in caves and living off food stolen at night from army camps. For three months they had only one goal: to stay alive.
By the time Australian peace-keeping troops had stabilised the security situation in East Timor and Fernando returned 'home', the young man's life lay in a shattered mess -- emotionally, financially and physically -- around him.
Since 1999, Fernando has slowly begun the process of rebuilding his life. He now works as a freelance translator for foreign NGOs in Timor, sending most of the money he makes travelling the country back to his sisters, who live together only one street away from the neighbour that betrayed their father's location to the Indonesians. His brother is still missing but is assumed to have died fighting Indonesian forces. One day, Fernando hopes to come to Australia in two years to study English full-time and then return to Timor as a much-needed teacher.
Although Fernando's story is a tragic one, that isn't the reason I'm repeating it for you all to read. This young man's life is remarkable for a number of reasons.
First, it is not a unique one. All over the country, almost every Timorese has a friend or family member that was murdered, tortured, raped or similarly suffered at the hands of the Indonesians and their rule. The pain they inflicted seeped into every aspect of Timorese life.
Second, like so many other Timorese, Fernando's ability to forgive Indonesia and begin the process of healing is nothing short of inspirational. I asked him how he was able to put all he had seen and heard behind him and move on. How could he forget what had happened to him?
Boarding the flight back to Darwin, then Melbourne, and then my bed. Enlarge »
"I will never forget," he retorted quickly and glaring at me resolutely. He visibly softened and continued. "I will never forget what happened. My mother, my father, my brother... they killed them all. But we have won. We have our own country.
"If I was only angry, always looking for revenge, then it would have been for nothing. Everybody who fight and died, wanted one thing: freedom to live. We now have that freedom. If I throw that freedom away and waste my life being angry, then all the people that died were for nothing."
But, I reminded him, he had paid a higher price than most for his freedom; other Timorese had lost relatively little. Did he think it was really worth it?
Fernando raised his glass, recently refilled with the toxic local brew known as tuak, smiled at me broadly and said:
"We have our own country. Finally, we have our own country."