The torture of East Timor

On the day the Nobel Peace Prize is shared by champions of the Timorese cause, Richard Lloyd Parry talks to a young activist about the struggle to free his country from Indonesia
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The Independent Online
The young man at the door of my hotel room, who calls himself Putu, was a prince in his own country, and even in Jakarta he has a detached and exotic air. His skin is darker than typical Javanese skin, and his lips and brows are thick and pronounced. He wears neat jeans and expensive boots, the gift (he says) of "friends of the cause". His hair billows behind him in a dense fuzzy ponytail, and he has long, elegant fingernails.

He wasn't easy to get hold of. A mutual friend told Putu that I wanted to meet him, and this morning Putu called the friend, who talked to us simultaneously on two separate phones, arranging the time and the place. Putu has no proper identity papers, and in August several friends of his were arrested; they go on trial this week on the capital charge of subversion. Since escaping from East Timor, he has lived as a fugitive, moving from one safe house to another, never sleeping in the same bed for longer than five nights.

Putu is 21 years old, exactly the same age as the war in East Timor. When he was born in June 1975, the Indonesian government's secret plans to annex his home were already well advanced. He was five months old when the first troops landed, and shortly after his first birthday President Suharto signed the document formally proclaiming East Timor the 27th province of Indonesia. Putu lost his father at the age of 10, was tortured for the first time at the age of 12, sentenced to death at the age of 17, and fled to exile last year.

East Timor is one of those conflicts which flickers only intermittently on the global radar screen. As many as 200,000 people are said to have died as a consequence of the Indonesian invasion: in its immediate aftermath, there were indignant resolutions in the United Nations, but within a few years the problem had been largely forgotten. The subject flared again in 1991 after a British cameraman filmed a massacre of mourners in an East Timorese cemetery, and since October this year East Timor has been back on the international worry list. At a ceremony in Oslo today, the Nobel Peace Prize will be jointly awarded to two of East Timor's most outspoken champions - its bishop, Carlos Belo, and Jose Ramos-Horta, its unofficial foreign minister in exile.

The government of the Indonesian president Suharto has made no secret of its fury at the award, especially to Ramos-Horta, whom it paints as a trouble-maker and former terrorist. Some diplomats in Jakarta believe that the announcement has done more harm than good, driving the touchy Suharto regime into a corner, and provoking an even harder line. Hints of this came last month after a German magazine published an interview with Bishop Belo in which he accused Abri, the Indonesian armed forces, of treating East Timorese like "scabby dogs"; under intense pressure from Jakarta he denied using the expression. "But he was telling the truth," says Putu. "I know because I am one of them. I am one of the scabby dogs."

Putu, and his war, are products of a singular moment of transition and an unlucky set of historical circumstances. His father was a liurai, one of the many Timorese "kings", whose local authority was affected remarkably little by the Portuguese colonists who first came to the island in the 16th century. The Portuguese in the east skirmished intermittently with the Dutch in the west for control of the valuable sandalwood trade. But Lisbon was half a world away, and Timor, with its distinctive tribes, languages and local cults, remained much as it had always been - poor, neglected and peaceful.

The turning point came in 1974, when a new left-wing government in Portugal began a rapid withdrawal from its remaining colonies. The Indonesian government, uneasy and divided after riots the previous year, was ready for a military distraction, and the United States, bogged down in Vietnam, was in no mood to make trouble with one of South-east Asia's most bitterly anti- Communist governments. It was in this atmosphere of opportunism and connivance that the war began.

Putu never knew Timor at peace; the king and his family fled their town when he was still a baby. "We lived in a hut in the jungle," he remembers, "but for a long time I really wasn't aware of the war. In the jungle we used to find bodies of people killed by Abri, but I didn't think anything of them. Sometimes our parents told us that the army was coming, and we moved deeper into the jungle. There was bombing, from the air and sea. But I was just a kid and it didn't seem strange to me."

There was a reason why the family had to keep on the move, apart from the routine brutality of the occupying army. Putu's father was collaborating with Falintil, the armed wing of the East Timorese resistance. One day, after they had been caught in the jungle and forcibly returned to their home by the army, the king and five of his people were summoned to the office of the local Indonesian administrator. "They were taken by the military and told that they were going to be given money, which the Indonesians paid to all of the kings. On the way to the office they disappeared. Someone found my father and his friends in a small cave. We took their bodies out and buried them."

At the age of 10, Putu became a courier for Falintil, carrying letters and clothes to the fighters in the hills from their supporters in the capital. When Putu was 12 a group of soldiers came round to his house and took him away to the local military headquarters. They beat him up, forced his fingertips under the leg of a heavy metal table, and sat on it; afterwards, they stripped his fingernails. "At the time I thought I'd rather die than go through that kind of torture. I couldn't get any sleep for three days because they just kept torturing me. Two or three would hit me, then they'd go out and a different group would come back in."

Other detainees in the military headquarters were going through even worse. Putu saw a brother and sister being tortured side by side with electrodes attached to their genitals. He doesn't know how many deaths he witnessed. After three days of this, the soldiers started asking their questions: did he know such-and- such a person in Falintil? What kind of things did he take to them? This technique of torture first, questions later is apparently standard in East Timor. "They know that it's useless to question East Timorese without torturing them first," Putu says. "They won't tell you anything."

As Putu grew up, and the nature of the struggle in East Timor changed too. With its overwhelming military superiority, stiffened by American and, allegedly, by British hardware, the Indonesian military captured and killed large numbers of the resistance and its leaders - these days the fighters are believed to number no more than a few hundred in the deepest reaches of the interior. The struggle shifted from the hills to the cities, and from the older guerrillas to young activists like Putu.

He moved to the East Timorese capital, Dili, and was there on 12 November 1991 when troops opened fire on unarmed mourners in Santa Cruz cemetery. A year later he was arrested after organising a protest to coincide with a summit of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement. After a week of torture (beatings administered while he was hanging upside down), he was taken by night to a lonely beach which was notorious as an execution ground.

"They told me to kneel down because my life was going to end. I prayed and gave myself to God. Then one of them said, `Don't kill this boy. He's still young, there's still time to teach him.' They took me to a prison in Dili. They stripped my clothes, and put me in a cell which was full of human shit." He spent a year in detention, working as a forced labourer, moving from prison to prison every three months.

The next time he was arrested in November 1994, the Indonesian intelligence forces, after the routine softening, offered to cut a deal with him: in return for a house, a car, a motorbike, and 20 million rupiahs (pounds 6,000), he was to lead them to two of the most wanted Falintil leaders. Putu signed the agreement, and was released; 15 December was set as the date when he would pass on the information, and collect his prizes. "I knew where they were," he says. "But it would have been better to die than give that information." On the appointed day, he fled to the town of Kupang, where he picked up a fake identity card. Three weeks later, he sailed for Jakarta.

But the ship, loaded with escaping Timorese, was being followed. An Abri patrol boat caught up with it, and soldiers boarded. One by one the fugitives were fingerprinted, identified, and removed from the ship. But Putu had grown his hair long, and his fake ID was marked with a Kupang, not a Dili address. Alone among his friends, he remained on the boat. He arrived at Tanjung Priok, the port of Jakarta, in February last year.

Remarkably, compared with similar insurgencies elsewhere in the world, the East Timorese have never resorted to terrorism outside their own borders. There is no Timorese IRA or ETA; instead, young people like Putu loosely organise themselves in clandestine organisations with endearingly Ian Fleming-like acronyms such as Smid and Sprim and Pijar. Their weapons are lightning demonstrations, timed to inflict maximum diplomatic embarrassment on the Indonesian government and the foreign governments which silently collude with it. In the past year, dozens of Timorese have scaled the walls of Jakarta's embassies to seek political asylum.

Among them was one of Putu's brothers. Six others are in hiding; only his mother and sisters remain in Timor. "I regret leaving my home, but I have no other choice, and I have to accept it to continue the struggle. I have achieved nothing compared to those who were killed defending the truth. I don't want to die but if the time comes I will be ready." All wars have victims and beneficiaries, but Putu is not quite either. He is a product of his conflict, devoted to it, and completely untroubled by doubt or even fear. When you ask him what he would be if there had been no invasion and no war, he laughs because he doesn't have an answer.