East Timor: Timothy Mo on hope in the troubled nation

'The Redundancy of Courage' by Timothy Mo was based on the conflict in East Timor. He finds hope still exists there

East Timor has stopped being a cause and become a country. Consolidating nationhood is proving nearly as fraught as the bloody but relatively uncomplicated fight to expel the Indonesian invader.

On the strength of my novel The Redundancy of Courage and my review of Luís Cardoso's The Crossing, Sofia Belmonte of the Council of Ministers invited me to attend The Dialogues of Dili.

I had never been to Dili but it was exactly as I had imagined: to the rear, green hills sharply rising; to the fore, the winding Praia beach front with the immaculate new embassies opposite the grubby sand. Across the sea, 23 miles away, but in good weather seemingly close enough to touch, loomed craggy Atauro island. I was warned not to swim. It wasn't a joke: monster salt water crocodiles were occasionally sighted opposite the Government Palace. Dominating the Dili skyline stood the cube of the Finance Ministry, easily the tallest building in town and constructed mostly of glass, presumably as a symbol of transparency.

The only surprise came out of town. The 10,000-foot mountains were unexpectedly massive, reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, and impenetrable mists quickly rolled down them. You could still find skeletons on Mount Matebian or Ramelau where wounded FALINTIL fighters had crawled into cracks and crevices to bleed to death rather than endure the Indonesian army's torture chambers. Just out of Dili, the narrow road East ran past unfenced chasms, hundreds of feet deep.

Our talks and lectures were ostensibly about the contribution of literature to identity and reconciliation, the "construction of conscience", as Abé Barreto called it. The Redundancy of Courage had been hard to write. I disliked it in the way that a mother has to fight her resentment of the child who gave her the most painful birth. But, like a runaway child, this novel had been the one that had a life of its own. It had become a part of the events it purported to describe, with fact and fiction intertwining till they were indistinguishable.

My old acquaintance José Ramos-Horta, the former President and Prime Minister of Timor-Leste – he survived two rifle bullets to the body in peacetime 2008 – had visited Mohamed Nasheed, the former President of the Maldives. Nasheed had been democratically elected but ousted by the army and Islamic fundamentalists. José recounted in his blog that as they shook hands he said that he expected His Excellency had never heard of Timor-Leste. "On the contrary," retorted Nasheed, "The Redundancy of Courage was part of my prison reading."

The biggest surprise of all was to come. After my lecture a large and imposing figure blocked my path. It was Virgiliano Guterres, a bear of a man. "Only now do I truly know you are a real person," he said, embracing me.

Gil had been imprisoned by the Indonesians. In jail he had read one of the many photocopies of my novel doing the rounds of Dili. He and his cellmate had been convinced it could only have been written by a Timorese. In a Malayo-Polynesian mouth my name sounds like Team-Uh-Tee-More. In obsessive and claustrophobic cell debates Gil and his comrade decided my pseudonym of Timothy Mo was a pun on Timor, Timor. And just like my novel's narrator, Gil's cellmate had his life saved by a noble Indonesian boy. He and Gil were convinced I had taken this true story from life and put it in the book and redoubled their belief that I was living in Dili. But it was one of those occasions where life follows art, rather than vice versa.

Timor occupied a strategic position. It sat on deep water which allowed nuclear submarines rapid transit between the Pacific and Indian oceans. The Timor Gap held huge reserves of gas and oil, bitterly disputed with Australia. Contemporary Dili seethed with espionage and conspiracies. Would the father of the nation, Xanana Gusmão, Timor's Mandela, resign as he threatened, come September? Was it an elaborate double-bluff? Under cover of an aid package, the Australian secret service had bugged Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri's office in 2004 (the spy who blew the whistle had his passport revoked in 2014, preventing him from testifying at the Hague).

All Timor-Leste could do was try to play the powers off against each other. The Chinese had constructed two ministry buildings for free, presumably sans microphones. Timor went to them for patrol boats instead of Australia. The war heroes had been male but the strong women of peace-time Timor impressed me now. Mimi Chungue hosted us. She was from a famous Timorese-Chinese lineage. Mimi herself had been a highly paid manager at Coca-Cola but come home. It was Mimi who got us a long audience with President Taur Matan Ruak and the First Lady and then with the Army Commander, Major-General Lere, followed by the veterans of the clandestine Dili network.

First Lady Isabel da Costa Ferreira and the Culture Secretary, Maria Isabel de Jesus Ximenes, were charmers. The First Lady was sincere, intelligent, and determined. Typical of the convoluted personal tragedies of Timor, her husband had commanded FALINTIL whose former political wing FRETILIN had murdered her father.

The former First Lady, the Australian-born Kirsty Sword Gusmão, was unassuming and dedicated. Renowned for her strength of character, as PM's wife, she remained a national asset. So modest was she, I only realised who she was five minutes into our chat at the library that bore her husband's name. Xanana's sister, Armandina, a subtle poet, also gave herself no airs on the strength of her legendary brother. Armandina and I shared a tiny public van to meet Luís Cardoso at the airport. Luis's own lover, Rosa Bonaparte, immortalised in an iconic photograph with other FRETILIN leaders in 1975, had been killed on invasion day. Mara Bernardes de Sá was Portuguese – she worked in the beautiful museum of national resistance for the Director, the formidable "Hamar", who told me the trick under electric shock was to reveal only in dribs and drabs rather than try to stay silent. Mara's three-year-old was already fluent in Tetum. He would be as Timorese as mountain weave.

Among the women, about the children, exists hope. It flickers perilously above public vendetta and private vicissitude but, just for now, it lives on.

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