After two decades in the jungle hills of East Timor, the resistance fights on

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IN GREETING Commander Lere Anak Timur, deputy chief of staff of Fretilin, the East Timorese guerrilla army, you clap him on both shoulders in a bear hug, but you do not shake his hand for the simple reason that it is not all there. In 1984, during a battle with Indonesian soldiers, the middle finger was shot off.

It was the first of three encounters with an Indonesian bullet: the second, in 1992, grazed his face, the third, in 1996, is still lodged in his leg."In East Timor, we fight with cockerels," says the commander. "And a cockerel that has been injured fights more bravely."

Fretilin was formed in 1975 when the Indonesian army carried out its invasion of what was then an obscure Portuguese colony, and ever since that time Commander Lere, and hundreds like him, have lived continuously in the jungly hills of East Timor.

Their true names are secret: instead each is known by a romantic nom de guerre. The top Fretilin commander is called Taur Matan Ruak and the "president" of East Timor, Alexandre Gusmao, a prisoner in Jakarta since 1992, is known by everyone as Xanana.

Commander Lere's name means "Child of the East" after the region of East Timor for which he is responsible. In the photographs that exist of them, Fretilin commanders sport the same black bushy beards and billowing hair. In East Timor people refer to Fretilin as the orang-utan, literally the "men of the forest".

To visit the orang-utans of Borneo you contact a travel agent, undertake a long journey and wait for a lucky sighting.

To visit Fretilin, the principle is the same but with three differences: the tour is free, only foreign journalists can make it, and your travel agent risks imprisonment, torture or being murdered by Indonesian intelligence if he is caught.

My tour began three weeks ago in Jakarta with the young East Timorese exiles who live semi-clandestinely in the Indonesian capital. A friend of a friend introduced me to a friend of his who believed that he could take me into the jungle.

Two days later I flew to the East Timorese capital, Dili. My guide flew over separately. Necessarily, there were complications. But after a few clandestine meetings, a secret pick-up and the most arduous walk I've ever undertaken, I found myself on a jungle plateau where about 50 people, a few of them in uniform, sat in a horseshoe, their faces lit by candles.

At their centre was Commander Lere wearing a green beret, camouflage jacket, a Swiss automatic rifle and bifocals. The commander likes to wind up his guests. "So tell me," he said in Portuguese, "if the Kopassus were to turn up now, what would Signor do?" Kopassus are Indonesia's special forces, notorious throughout Indonesia, and the agents of many of the worst atrocities in East Timor; my response was a nervous simper.

"Do not worry, my friend!" said the commander, amid general hilarity. "If all the people here are killed, then Signor will be killed too. But as long as I am alive, Signor is quite safe. Ha ha ha!"

Apart from his high rank and the length of his stay in the jungle, Commander Lere's life has been typical of those Timorese young at the time of the invasion - a youth marked by optimism but suddenly transformed by war, dislocation and bereavement.

In 1975, he was a 24-year-old student of agriculture in a backward and neglected Portuguese colony that seemed bound to achieve its independence in the next few years. But East Timor's strategic position, close to deep- sea submarine routes, and with potential oil resources, gave it an interest to the rest of the world disproportionate to its tiny size.

After their attempts to foment a coup and a civil war were frustrated, and with the passive support of the United States and Australia, Indonesian troops launched a full invasion in December 1975.

As many as 200,000 people, one-third of the then population, are said to have died as a result, and it is rare to meet an East Timorese who has not lost several relatives in the fighting, or the hunger, epidemics and purges that it created.

Commander Lere has one living son, who lives in Jakarta, "having happy days" as he puts it. His other son disappeared in the 1980s, permanently. His wife died after giving birth to the lost boy in 1981. His parents, he believes, were poisoned after being interrogated by the army.

"Out of 100 people who have died in East Timor, you will find five who died naturally," he says. "The rest died from the occupation. Ask people, and they will tell you: my mother, my father were killed by the Indonesians."

Until 1978, Fretilin held out, and tens of thousands of people lived under their protection in the mountains. In that year the Indonesian army, Abri, began using supersonic jets, allegedly British-made Hawk fighters, to attack the population in the hills and the battle was lost.

"The Indonesians were too strong," says the commander, "so we changed the strategy from the war phase to the guerrilla phase - the war of movement." The civilians returned to the lowlands where they were herded into camps. Fretilin remained in the hills, and in two decades the Indonesian military has been helpless to stamp them out.

Far from being an entrenched army facing off their adversaries across a front line, the guerrillas move stealthily from the jungle to the town and back again, bringing supplies and news.

The number of active fighters has dwindled over the years to what is believed to be no more than a few hundred."Sometimes there might be 10 of us, sometimes 20 or 80," says Commander Lere.

"Sometimes Fretilin uses civilian clothes and works with civilians - we can go to work in the gardens and the rice paddies. It is in the minds of all Timorese to fight against Indonesia and if Indonesia wants to kill Fretilin, they first have to kill the entire East Timorese population."

The guerrillas have never practised terrorism; since the resignation of President Suharto in May, they have given up actively taking on the Indonesian forces all together.

Increasingly, Fretilin members, including senior commanders, have been slipping into the town where large pro-independence demonstrations of a kind that would never have been tolerated under Suharto have been held.

"The problem of East Timor cannot be solved with guns," says Commander Lere. "Neither side can win. The only solution is a peaceful solution based on international law and based on the support of the international community and the United Nations. Foreign governments say that they want to help us, but still they help Indonesia."

Fretilin has always insisted that the troop "reductions" claimed by Abri were a farce - as The Independent revealed last week, Indonesia's own secret documents show that, far from reducing the numbers of soldiers to fewer than 12,000, Indonesia maintains 18,000 in East Timor.

"We need international attention," says Commander Lere. "We need the UN to come and witness the withdrawals otherwise they will never happen. The Indonesia military has too much business here, too many opportunities for promotion and profit." The danger of a drawn-out solution, he says, is economic: that the poverty of many East Timorese will compromise the population.

"These young men leave school with no jobs and no money, and the only way they can live is as informers. They want freedom, but they cannot live without food. The military know this: they say, 'We cannot shoot the East Timorese with bullets, so we will shoot them with money'. Already it is working."

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