Facing page: Indonesian Police training with revolvers. Image found in ransacked police station in Dili, 1999.
'V I V A F A L I N T I L'
Behind the Lines
With Timor's Forgotten Guerrillas (Far Eastern Economic Review. September 3rd 1998)
In July 1998, Australian photographer Philip Blenkinsop and Cameraman Sophie Barry spent three weeks in the mountains of East Timor with the guerrillas of Falintil the armed wing of the Timorese independence movement They were among just a handful of journalists who succeeded in penetrating the Indonesian army cordon to meet the insurgents since 1975.
Wake before dawn and crawl out of a cold and sodden sleeping bag. A nine-hour trudge ahead of us, up and down a rock-strewn, crevice-laced path, thick with mud as slippery as ice. Our hands work overtime-swatting away the tall, coarse Aifunan wild-grass that blocks our faces and clutching at whatever foliage we can to slow our descents and to help our climb. I focus on our long-awaited meeting with Falintil Field Commandant Taur Matan Ruak, but it's difficult not to be reminded of Konis Santana; navigating a similar path last March, Santana, Ruak's predecessor, slipped and fell to his death at the age of 42.
As we near Debo camp, deep in the jungle southeast of Dili, an advanced party of Ruak's men meets us and the 20 clandestine soldiers who have guided us. They take us over a last rise onto a muddy parade ground-cum-volleyball court, where 60 or so troops stand at attention, assorted weapons at their sides. Some of them are newcomers-not more than 18 years old; others, probably in their late 50s, have been fighting for decades, moving constantly among scores of temporary camps, like Debo, that litter the mountains of East Timor. The soldiers, obviously excited by the unusual spectacle of visitors, use video cameras (probably left by visiting journalists years earlier) to tape us as we descend into the camp. Gripping a camera in both hands, his Smith and Wesson .38 Midnight Special holstered above his left hip, Commandant Ruak greets us with a huge grin and a hug. He's an unlikely image-dressed in jeans, and covered in a scraggly beard and head of hair more reminiscent of a 1960s Cat Stevens than a rebel leader.
After settling in, I inquire about the origins of his revolver. "Before, I used to have an AK-47 but it was the only one in EastTimor. When the Indonesians would hear the BBRRRRR of the AK they would know it was Commandant Ruak!" he explains. "So I sent it to someone else in another region. Then I have a Herstal, but after a while they know it is me! So now I have this! When they know about this I will send it to a friend in another division and he will send me a new gun." Although the guerrillas' arsenal of weapons is a modern one, it is meagre. Their only means of obtaining guns is to capture them from the Indonesian army during battle. And as the number of conflicts in recent years between the enemies has diminished so has the opportunity to secure weapons. As a result, the number of guerrillas that comprise Falintil has dropped to several hundred from around 5,000 in the years immediately following Indonesia's annexation of East Timor. As we talk, Ruak beckons a guerrilla over. Leki-Naha-Foho is second in command of the Manajutu/Dili region-one of four Falintil "regions." The soldier, who is in his mid-50s, rests his gnarled left hand, fingertips blown off by a bomb in 1988, on the bamboo table between us. His uniform 'is festooned with keepsakes, or talismans called 'Luliks', the most prominent of which is a boa constrictor' 5 jaw bone and fangs, suspended within a fine, ivory ring over his heart. "This is a lulik too," Ruak says, squeezing a glass marble out of a plastic bag. "When we cut open the stomach of a deer, we found this inside. My friend gave it to me."
He goes to great lengths to explain his faith in the talismans: "In war, everybody has lulik, or they have God. Once we are hit by five grenades. Shrapnel wounds 15 people but we are okay. I am wounded in my side . . . my blood comes out . . . a lot from my side, my mouth and nose. Then the man that gives me the lulik comes." He mimes the man's gestures, blowing on his hand and pressing it against the wound. "The bleeding stops. I get up and we go!" As Ruak speaks, his smile and his eyes grow wider and wider. Soon other guerrillas gather to
listen. A 23-year Falintil veteran, Ruak serves as right hand man in the field to Xanana Gusmao, the influential guerrilla leader who has been in Indonesian custody since late 1992. I notice that many of the guerrillas wear uniforms and I ask where these were made. Ruak looks at me a little puzzled. "Indonesian soldiers dead ones,"…. he replies. Like weapons, the enemy is the sole supplier of uniforms.
Capturing such necessities has seldom involved taking prisoners though. And when it does, Ruak says, the guerrillas go easy. "On 28 November. 1995, we capture a captain in Viqueque/Luka. He was very scared," Ruak recounts. "After we take his pistol he put his hands together to pray. He thought we would kill him. But no. All we tell him is not to harm the people in the area where we were fighting. This year, on 14 January, we captured Commander Sera Malik. We took his pistol but let him go. I never kill prisoners. It is better to be humane."
But this isn't a war characterized by humanity. The guerrillas all have stories to tell about the oppression, torture and rape that drove them into the mountains in the first place.
Frederico, 22, recounts a gruesome meeting with Indonesian soldiers that took place after he witnessed the massacre in Santa Cruz; in November 1991 Indonesian soldiers shot to death as many as 200 unarmed students at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili. "They hung me in a sack and beat me with an iron bar. When my blood stopped running onto the floor theytook me out. When they saw I was not dead, they beat me again with rifle butts until I fainted. Then they gave me an injection to wake me.
"When I still refused to give them the names of my companions they put me back in the sack to beat me again. They cut me with a razor until my intestines were exposed. In prison at Karpotsek commando barracks they took away my clothes and burned me with cigarettes and "electric'" Frederico gestures to his genitals as he speaks. "They put me on cleaning duties. When I had the chance, I ran away to the mountains."
AITANA end of the second day's crossing.
Leeward side of the mountain path foot wide. Dusk rain comes at us horizontal from the north whipping at the tops of our heads raised just enough to still steal peeks over the sharp ridge into the approaching storm across the dark unfolding ranges. Spiders smoked out of bush bedding and exhaustion opens its arms after a few bites of stolen dinner. Sleep doesn't wait.
Half-dreaming and reluctant to be drawn from my warm cocoon I cling to sleep in the dark trying to keep dawn at eyes length. Cries and murmers in the blackness, occasional and muted steal their way into my dreams and call to my consciousness. I resist. Another little cry, this time outside of my dreams. I worry maybe it is Muki, suffering silently as she was wont to do with her infection working its way through her toe. And again, little whimpers. The considerate whimpers of a generous sleeping partner.
Darkness still blankets the mountain and our complete band sleeps silent and hidden. My eyes have little to focus on. I send a hand out to feel for my mag-light, and turn the head a few times, keeping the light source pressed firmly into the palm of my hand lest by some unlikely occurrence an Indonesian patrol should happen to be scouring the mountainside for signs of life. From the dim glow the warmth of the night is suddenly explained.
Incredulous eyes fall on a shiny face just inches away from my own. It's own eyes blind and useless, pathetic cries barely registering in the world. Around it's neck the swollen labia of Ruak's bitch. She has stolen into our lean-too at some stage in the night, without doubt the warmest and most sheltered place in the vicinity and her belly is just above my head, supported on my pillow of cut bush and with another effort, the second of the litter slides from within her and turns groggily teatwards.
I reach for Muki, wake her silently and explain with a whisper. We spend the time 'til dawn lying together and watching in silence as the space between us fills with the rest of the litter. We stay too long like that, OD-ing on the experience, offering soothing words to Kapulai. As the camp stirs, I go to visit Ruak and bring him back to the suckling brood. He has that 'Ruak' grin wrapped ear to ear and with a glee impossible to conceal he immediately begins to quiz me on the order of the births. The first-born is promised to Commander Sabika. The second is for Ruak himself. The birth of the pups is the cause of much joy around the camp, an energy boost that has everyone smiling inside and out and eager to set out on this new wonderful day. The summit awaits.
Found images from abandoned Indonesian police station and abandoned Indonesian military barracks.
Dili. East Timor 1999
Dili. East Timor 1999
Gaspar Soares, 25, told me he had joined the the militia after being threatened at gunpoint by Indonesian soldiers. High-ranking militiamen, the ones with guns, were given alcohol and a vial of liquid, he said, which made them fearless and crazed. Now, captured by Falintil, he was remorseful and said he wanted to go home, but that people would recognize him and kill him. Manatuto cantonment site, September 1999.