Enemy number one eludes Jakarta: In his first ever interview, East Timor's new guerrilla leader pledges to fight on against Indonesia's bloody rule

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The Independent Online
IT IS AN eight-hour walk, but only a few minutes' flying time, from the Indonesian troops' most frequent areas of operation to the mountain camp where I met the new guerrilla commander-in-chief of East Timor.

This veteran of the struggle between the people of East Timor and the Indonesian invaders, which has killed about 200,000 Timorese - nearly one-third of his countrymen - arrived immaculate in a captured American camouflage uniform and polished boots, still bursting with energy after a day-long walk through the rugged mountains.

Up here, the guerrillas move around in the open without fear. They pray in a chapel in the space between three large leaning rocks. Messengers come and go several times a day, using the swirling mists to dodge Indonesian troops.

This was Comandante Konis Santana's only interview since taking over from the legendary Xanana Gusmao, who was captured in November 1992. In fact, it was the first filmed interview with any resistance leader in the mountains in 18 years of Indonesia's blood- soaked occupation of this small former Portuguese colony.

Like an athlete, Santana was fit, precise, intense and a little nervous. The survival of his resistance force, the Falintil, is the most potent threat to Indonesia's campaign to 'integrate' East Timor into its empire of 13,000 islands and 300 languages, inherited from the Dutch 45 years ago. And at this camp there was evidence that the threat from one of the less numerous, darker-skinned peoples - whom many of the dominant Javanese look down on, with jokes about 'monkeys' - was not 'dwindling away', as Indonesia claims.

The Falintil - with about 800 men and only 450 weapons, according to the commander's detailed figures - claim control of many of the mountains that form the spine of this half- island, which is little bigger than Wales.

''The Indonesians can penetrate only by launching a military operation,' said Santana. Against this eventuality, he had detailed patrols to scout hours away from the camp to protect our meeting. As we spoke, one came to report on recent combat. Two Indonesian soldiers had been killed and 'a spy' was seen attempting to locate us.

There were four battalions of special forces that were said by guerrilla intelligence to be detailed to capture Santana. At times, there have been as many as 12.

Despite Indonesian claims of mass surrender, almost no one, according to the guerrillas, had surrendered. In fact, they said guerrilla numbers had increased since 1991.

Here in the mountains I met some of the 70 new guerrillas who joined the armed struggle in 1991 and 30 more who joined in 1992, and who now operate in an area abandoned by the rebels years before. Many were young survivors of the Santa Cruz massacre of 273 demonstrators, which I filmed in November 1991. We sat together and cooked horsemeat over a fire, trying to exchange news in bahasa Indonesia (the Indonesian language). They spoke hardly a word of Portuguese, the language their commanders still use for resistance circulars.

These students were the evidence of the catastrophic failure of Indonesian integration policy. Infants in December 1975, when the invasion came and the years of bloodshed began, they had received their education under Indonesia. Some could not remember close relatives who had died in the worst years from 1976 to 1981.

Each talked of losing 20 or more relatives. They had chosen to fight after giving up all hope of a normal life under Indonesian rule.

It was not just what Santana described as 'the profound shock to the youth of East Timor' of the Santa Cruz massacre that had been decisive, but the aggressive pursuit of all dissidents, victims and their families that followed.

In February 1992 the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, congratulated Indonesia on the action taken to make amends after the massacre. But the principal action - apart from the arrest of some low-ranking soldiers, who received sentences ranging from three to 18 months for the slaughter - was the replacement of the Indonesian military commander, Colonel Rudi Warouw, by General Teo Syafei, who had a far worse human rights record.

In these mountains, which the East Timorese call the Grandparents of the Heights, Santana is rebuilding the resistance. He said his task was not to defeat the Indonesian army militarily, but to 'destabilise the occupation'.

Proof of this, he said, was the continued presence of Indonesian troops on constant patrol. The guerrillas' most important role, however, was political - to act as a 'mobilising force' to provide the civilian population with a constant reminder that a free Timorese leadership existed.

'The presence of the guerrillas here has deep political meaning,' said Santana. 'When our people look up to the mountains, they know that it is there where their children are, where their arms are raised in rebellion.'

They operate in groups of no more than three or four, often under the noses of Indonesian patrols in the mountains and on the coast, using their weapons for self-defence. They are in contact with civilians and serve in a symbolic way as a shadow government, advising on such things as community disputes and civil disobedience.

Santana, 39, is the first of a new generation of resistance leaders who subscribe to no political doctrine, other than supporting 'national unity'. He was 21 when the invasion came, and he had just qualified as a primary school teacher. He joined the resistance, and during the 1980s became the 'favourite son' - the chosen successor after Gusmao's capture and trial last year.

What sets the present generation of East Timorese guerrillas apart from Gusmao's contemporaries is politics. The young students who have headed for the mountains reject ideology and blame civil war between left and right and left and left for the present fate of East Timor; the conflict gave Indonesia the excuse it needed to invade.

It is remarkable that the guerrillas, cut off as they are from all supplies, manage to acquire any weapons at all. Clearly, some have been captured, but there are suggestions that corrupt army officers, when being transferred, sell equipment to make money before moving on. Prices range from about dollars 750 ( pounds 500) for a rifle to dollars 250 for a case of ammunition. 'Let us just say we are in a good political situation to receive these weapons,' said Santana.

For Britain and the West, the commercial and political stakes in this region are high. The Javanese-dominated regime, which has huge multinational investments, faces at least two other active guerrilla revolts by powerful nationalist, cultural and ethnic groups in resource-rich West Papua and Northern Sumatra.

The resistance in East Timor represents a threat and a provocation that is far beyond its tiny military potential. The fear of disintegration of the empire - which the Javanese leadership has tried with relentless propaganda and rigid military control to shape into a 'free' nation - lies behind much of the brutality that has erupted in regular bouts of bloodletting since the current regime took power with the slaughter of perhaps 500,000 'communists' in 1965.

(Photograph omitted)