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Healing & Reconciliation

A Challenging Quest for Its Meaning in East Timor*

by Nina Nayoan[1]

*This article was published in the Journal In God’s Image, Vol.27, No.3 and republished in Praxis with modification.

Reconciliation and healing are quite hard for me to understand. But I believe they are very important words. I will share my struggle to understand these two words through my personal experience as a woman and as an Indonesian woman, living in East Timor (Timor Leste).

In April 2007, I watched a documentary film in Buruma village, Baucau district, Timor Leste on the history of East Timor since its colonization by the Portuguese, occupation by the Japanese, then illegal occupation by the Indonesians, until its formal independence in May 2002. (It should be remembered however that East Timor declared its independence on 28 November 1975 while 20 May 2002 was only the day of restoration of independence.) Watching the documentary was for me a significant moment to learn the history of the relationship between East Timor and Indonesia, particularly through the eyes of the Timorese.

Before watching the documentary, I learned from my school history that East Timor was integrated into Indonesia. But the film taught me that it was an invasion or illegal occupation, full of violence, pain and suffering. I came to realize that there was something wrong in the relationship between Indonesia and East Timor in the past and this new awareness struck me and disturbed my feelings. From that moment, I could not stop thinking about what would be the implication of such people’s history, filled with violence and suffering caused by the military political regime’s interest, upon the future generation or at least my generation?

From that moment I continued to learn about the Timorese people’s story and it made me sad, angry and fearful. I learned that the Indonesian illegal occupation, or invasion, in East Timor through military aggression in 1975 had brought a lot of negative impact upon the Timorese. The document, East Timor 1999 Crimes Against Humanity—A Report Commissioned by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR), mentioned that from 1975 till 1983 Indonesia committed brutal military aggression or operation in East Timor by using OV-Bronco battle-cruisers from the US to bomb the rural areas and to displace people, and which resulted in the spread of disease and starvation. The report said that about 200,000 people from 700,000 population (before invasion) died in 1980 caused by starvation, disease and killing.[2]

The number of human rights violations, such as illegal execution, torture and violence against women, also took place during the 24-year Indonesian occupation. The resource kit, The CHEGA[3], mentioned that the Indonesian military operations in East Timor between 1975 and 1999 had resulted in civilian deaths and injuries and damage to property.

These include operation Seroja and massacres of civilians in Dili on 7 December 1975 and the killings thereafter; the military encirclement and annihilation campaigns of 1977-79; the removal of civilians to the island of Atauro from the early 1980s; the Santa Cruz Massacre in Dili of 12 November 1991, which caused the death of 270 Timorese people and the subsequent killings and disappearances; the formation and funding of East Timorese para-military groups by Indonesian military and/or other state agencies between 1974 and 1999; and the involvement of the Indonesian administration and military in the operations of 1999, which resulted in killings and displacement of more than half the population of Timor Leste, including massacres in several districts, the killing of two students at Hera on 20 May 1999 and the murder of church personnel and journalists on 25 September 1999.

Mr. Aniceto Guterres Lopes, former chairperson of the CAVR (Commissão de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliação) or the Commission of Reconciliation, Truth and Reception mentioned in his opening speech during the national public hearing on women and conflict held in April 28-29, 2003 that in highly militarized societies there is always a higher proportion of violence against women.[4] This is the context that Timorese women had to contend with for nearly 25 years during the Indonesian military occupation. Here I would like to share and reflect few stories of Timorese women that how women have been used as objects and being victimized within the context of war and conflict. But at the same time these women have also played significant roles in the independence struggle of Timorese. I personally feel that the violence against women during the war history of Indonesian military occupation is something that, we need to acknowledge, repent and be transformed.

Story of Mrs. Amaral Soares
(1979, 1983, 1996-1997)

She spent four years in the forest of Manatuto and Viqueque with Falintil between 1975 to 1979. This is her story how she survived in the worsening conditions in the midst of danger situation without food and medicine. Her story is one of repeated illegal detention by the Indonesian military, of torture and sexual abuse.

I surrendered to Batalion 721 in Rai Hun, Viqueque in March 1979. Every night Commander L forced us to sing and dance on the back of the truck between Buikaren and Viqueque. After one week I was released but few days later Commander L’s people caught me again. They held me in a chicken coop until July 1979. I was released after six months but it was not long before they caught me again this time with two friends. Every day we were called to give the Head of Intelligence Section (Kasi I) a massage in his room. That time we were in deep fear and were holding hands because we were scared of being raped, and when we walked in the room we saw him lying on the bed naked.

We cried every night as we were treated like animals. In 1980 Father D arrived in Viqueque. He was known as a priest who had contact with Fretilin (Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor) in the forest. Father D asked his former students, including myself, to teach at the Luca Wetudo Primary School. In 1983 we moved to the Viqueque Catholic primary school. It was in August that year the Kraras massacre happened, which took the lives of many men, women and children. As because we were church members we were closely watched. One evening, in November 1983, I was taken by a member of Nanggala (a codename of Indonesian Special Forces Command/Kopassus), Sub-district Administrator B (name suppressed), my first husband, and five Hanships (Indonesian civil defence) to the Nanggala’s house in Boramata, Viqueque.

That night I was hit, kicked, shoved with a rifle and stomped on with army boots. My hands were put on a table and then I was beaten with a rod. I found out that I had been captured because someone had seen me walk with Father D and Bishop Belo, who were conducting the resistance fighters in the forest. When there was a bit more laxity in the prison, I took the chance to see my friends in other cells. When my family brought rice or soup I would share it with the other prisoners.

My friends were beaten so badly. Some had their legs broken, others their hands, backs. Some of them died. Some have disappeared until this day. At that time the Sub-Distric Administrator B (name suppressed) had a lot of influence in the military command center in Viqueque. He stomped on me with military boots and punched my cheeks. He slapped me and told ABRI (Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia) to shove me with the rifles from midnight until morning.

From 1983 to 1987 my life was never peaceful. I was always suspected of engaging in clandestine work, which I did. In 1996-1997 I moved from Dilor to the transmigration area SP-2 in Sungai Welolo, Luca. Even there, my life was not safe. Every night I was spied on by ABRI. Sometimes I did not sleep at home, but in the forest or in the tall grass. Sometimes I was held up by military on the way and they would threaten to kill me. I am grateful to God that I am still alive today.

In 1998 and 1999 it was not safe to go to anywhere. Many died and their bodies were secretly disposed off. In 1999 my family was ready to kill me because of all the problems with my ex-husband. We all know that in 1999 we were all separated because of the Indonesian militia. I want to give witness in this public hearing as a women who experienced violence and whose name has been tainted everywhere because I was caught by ABRI so many times. Even though I have never been raped, I will always be known as ‘smelling bad’ because of the arrests...[5]

Story of Mrs. Natalia dos Santos

Her testimony was about her experience being forced to participate in the Indonesian state family planning (called KB) program. As wife of a Timorese soldier in the Indonesian armed force she was required to take part in the program even if she wanted to have children. From her marriage in 1979 to September 1999 she was forced to use various forms of contraception under threat that her husband would be punished if she didn’t cooperate. She went through horrible suffering including loss of her two unborn babies.

Each time I was told to switch from one method of KB (family planning) to another by the doctors, I felt depressed, because I was being treated like a guinea pig to make KB programme a success.

But I could not do anything about because of my husband’s status, so I had to allow the ABRI doctors to do whatever they wanted with me. I am very sad because I have never had any children. The negative impact of all kinds of birth control experiments has left me with many side effects. Today I am suffering with the inflammation in my vagina that can’t be treated, and I continue to lose weight.[6]

Story of Mrs. Olga Corte Real

She told the story that after the Indonesian military attack of 1977 her family fled and dispersed. Her father who was a Falintil (Armed Forces of the National Liberation of East Timor) commander in the Mount Kablaki region, her mother and a younger sibling were killed by the Indonesian military, and her six-month-old sibling disappeared. In 1980, she said, her younger brother died from being beaten in prison and only four girls survived and left in her family. She was an activist of the clandestine movement and testified how she was repeatedly captured, interrogated and tortured by Indonesian soldiers because of her work.

On 19 November 1992, the TNI (Indonesian National Army) district commander and a car full of his men came to my in-laws’ house in Datina, where I was living. He forced me to tell him about some documents and a Fretilin flag which he said my brother-in-law had hidden. I told them I knew nothing about any documents or Fretilin flag. They forced me to take apart the prayer cabinet to find the document and the flag, all the while shoving me with riffles. If they found the flag and the documents, they said, they would kill me right away. I really did not know anything, and my heart started trembled. I was hoping that those items would not be hidden under the prayer cabinet. They searched all day, but found nothing, so they went back to their base camp late in the afternoon.

There were people, even some people in my family, who distanced themselves from me because I was helping with clandestine work. However I remained strong and continued my father’s fight to achieve victory for this nation (East Timor), already full of blood and tears.[7]

These three stories happened during the history of Indonesian military occupation in East Timor which began through invading the land in December 7, 1975 until 1999 revealed the truth of Timorese women’s pain and suffering due to the war conflict. On the other hand, these stories also reflected how Timorese women have also played their roles, risking their lives for the struggle of liberating their nation.

When I read these stories of suffering and brutality meted out to the Timorese women, as an Indonesian woman, I did not know how to deal with this. My immediate feelings were sadness and anger over the human suffering and brutal behaviour. Then I began to fear being an Indonesian citizen living in East Timor. A fear that emerged from knowing the wounded history between Indonesia and East Timor and from realizing that Indonesia bears serious responsibility for the human rights violation during its 24 years of occupation from 1975 to 1999. This fear made me ask, “Am I going to be safe here in Timor Leste given that past story of relationship between two countries?”

I have tried to overcome this fear by telling myself that I was not part of that story; so why should I be fearful? But I could not simply dismiss my feeling. I discovered, since the beginning, that my identity as Indonesian poses a difficult factor in my effort to build or renew a relationship with Timorese people. I have experienced moments or expressions of rejection of my presence or my involvement with the Timorese just because of my nationality. There were times when I felt treated as an invisible person. One such experience took place in a formal church gathering where I was invited as a participant, together with ten guests from four other nationalities. At that moment, I was the only person not acknowledged and taken into account because of my nationality. It was a painful moment for me not because of the rejection of my nationality (not at all) but because I felt discriminated against as a person. Through this experience, I came to realize how difficult it is for the Timorese to deal with their past wounded memory caused by Indonesian military occupation.

Another experience was that of being harassed by a taxi driver on my way to work. At first the taxi driver thought I was a Malae (Timorese for foreigner) from countries like Philippines, Korea or Japan. He tried to speak to me in English while I replied in Timorese. Realizing my limitation in Timorese language and his difficulty with English, I shifted to Indonesian language and told him my identity as Indonesian. Suddenly his attitude changed and through his words he seemed to think that I was a prostitute since, according to him, many Indonesian women came to Dili as prostitutes. He even asked me whether he could meet me again. I was angry and began to fear that he would bring me elsewhere. I responded that I was working with the church of IPTL (Igreja Protestante iha Timor Lorosae), to safeguard myself and avoid further confrontation. Since that experience I felt uncomfortable taking a taxi in Dili when alone. So I was put in a situation where I had to deny or hide my nationality as Indonesian for the sake of my own security.

As I learned more about the Timorese people’s stories, more questions came to my mind. How will I understand Timorese families who lost their husbands or fathers during the war? The mothers and daughters or women who became victims of sexual violence or abuse during the military’s occupation? Were the Timorese people being discriminated against and marginalized socially, economically and politically for 24 years under Indonesian occupation? How will I understand the rights of the victims and survivors of the 1999 incident, when their rights seemed to be ignored and neglected by the elite for the sake of amnesty?

Is forgiveness just something abstract and has nothing to do with people’s daily life, with people’s feeling, even people’s moral, social or political identity?

I felt that it was not really helpful or liberating for me to ignore the history of the Timorese and what Indonesian military had done in East Timor. I was urged to accept the fact that my identity had something to do with my national background. Yet, I would like also to raise questions: Shall I ignore discriminative acts against me due to my national identity? Should I be blamed for the wound of the Timorese caused by the 24-year illegal Indonesian occupation? I was struggling to find the answers in order to feel free and I wondered if I could really find them.

I tried to share this struggle with some Indonesian women who are married to Timorese men and whose children were born and raised within the culture of East Timor. Three women shared almost similar story on their experiences of being rejected or marginalized in their work places including being treated as invisible persons due to their Indonesian origin. They told me that they did not have any choice but to accept the situation as a consequence of the history of both countries. As a result, most of them resigned or quit their jobs and looked for other possibilities that had nothing to do with their origin and identity. One woman shared that she wished to change her nationality, following her husband’s nationality, for the sake of the unity of their family and for the purpose of getting rid of the historical burden. Another woman felt that changing nationality did not guarantee that they would be freed from the historical burden. One incident that became very sensational in the capital, Dili, in September 2007 was that of an Indonesian woman who was married to a Timorese man and committed suicide together with her two daughters. Her friends from the same national background never knew what she was going through with her and her family but her husband testified that it was his fault and he was put to jail. Although her experience of struggle was never heard due to her silence when she was alive, most of us thought that she was one of those women who felt they had no other choice than to take a bitter pill, even a death pill.

As we shared together our stories we finally put the same question on the table: How are we going to deal with this ‘historical burden’ that I tried to share this seems to imprison us by belonging to our nation? Is there any possibility to transform this historical burden?

I could not stop thinking about rebuilding human relationships based on one’s openness or consciousness to humbly seek forgiveness in the context of hurting relations between Indonesia and Timor Leste. Christianity teaches that forgiveness is mercy from God through Jesus Christ, but how can one define forgiveness in the context of human relation? Indeed, I also remember from the Gospel that Jesus taught the disciples to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”. My question is: Is it really true that we have forgiven those who did wrong? Why does it seem easy to say that we have forgiven? What evidence could we see that forgiveness has taken place? What then is the meaning of human forgiveness?

One of the church leaders in Timor Leste once mentioned in his sermon that the Timorese may forgive but they will never forget what happened in the past. I knew that I should be happy to hear the statement that the Timorese would forgive us but why do I still feel the hurt inside myself? I wonder why.

What hurts me most is when people from Indonesia say that what the Timorese need right now is to forgive in order to be free from the post-conflict or recent economic crisis and to be healed as a faith community. I heard this kind of statement from an Indonesian missionary who preached during a huge Christmas gathering in Dili in December 2007. I heard the same from a businessman and politician from Indonesia, and also from a religious Moslem leader who spoke at the national interreligious conference on “sofrimento no perdaun” (Suffering and Forgiveness) in Dili last 21 May 2008. Why do all these religious, economic and political leaders seem to have similar voices, asking the Timorese to forgive? Why do they easily throw such statement? Is it because they have power to say this? Are they really concerned about the healing of the Timorese or is it just their way to forget the mistakes that had been done in the past by a nation that they belong to?

But what kind of change can we see or what implication can we expect to happen with the forgiveness? Or is forgiveness just something abstract and has nothing to do with people’s daily life, with people’s feeling, even people’s moral, social or political identity?

I just realized that the notion of forgiveness could be used politically according to human intention to either heal or erase the bad memories of people’s or nation’s life. Yet, on the other side, people are extremely longing for peace and comfort for themselves. I also realized that I need peace and serenity for myself too. I need to be healed from the nightmare of my nation’s past. And the idea of forgiveness seems to be something that can meet such longing. Is forgiveness something offered or given or is it something to be sought after?

Reflecting from such anxiety, I was thinking that instead of asking the Timorese to forgive, why not think seek for forgiveness? How is seeking for forgiveness a reflection of one’s repentance? Because seeking forgiveness requires one’s sincere consciousness about mistakes that created the reality of people’s suffering or pain and even though it is sometimes not easy to be confronted with the pain of the vict ims, it may reflect our openness to the truth. In the context of relationship between Indonesia and Timor Leste, I have realized that our past history has created sorrow, even pain for the people of both countries. Also, our past history made me think how desperately people, including myself, need healing. Seeking forgiveness—in the sense of repenting from the sins of painful history—could become an effort of healing our memories, and even transforming those memories into actions of loving, caring and uniting people or human beings. What if the virtue of humility is important for healing and reconciliation? What if repentance is something that Indonesians should do instead of asking the Timorese to forgive us in order to heal our wounded memories? Seeking for forgiveness could be a continuous and dynamic effort to build and heal relationships. This could also be seen as spiritual effort so that repentance and truth can truly become reality.

Despite some painful moments which I cited earlier, my experience of living in Timor Leste for almost two years also brings me a sign of hope of transforming our past unhappy memories together into something where we could see each other as sisters and brothers, as one family. I always thank God when my Timorese friends or colleagues call me “mana Nina!” (‘mana’ is Timorese word for ‘sister’). The way of calling ‘mana’ for me is already a sign of hope of the embracing love and care shown by the Timorese people. Nevertheless, to build a renewed and genuine relationship is still a long journey to go.

  1. Nina Nayon is an SCMer from Indonesia. Presently, she is doing her internship with the Frontier Internship in Mission in Timor Leste.
  2. Geoffrey Robinson, “Timor Timur 1999 Kejahatan terhadap Umat Manusia” (translated from East Timor 1999 Crimes Against Humanity – A Report Commissioned by the United Nations Office of The High Commissioner For Human Rights (Los Angeles, California: July 2003)), perkumpulan HAK, Dili – Timor Leste dan Lembaga Studi dan Advokasi Masyarakat (ELSAM), Jakarta-Indonesia, 12-13.
  3. Patrick Walsh, ed., The CHEGA! Resource Kit – Making the CAVR Report Work for Non-Violence and Human Rights (Dili: Post-CAVR Technical Secretariat, 2008), 69-73. CHEGA is Portuguese word meaning “stop, no more, enough!” and is the title of the document prepared by CAVR which reflected the wish of the Timorese people that there should be no more violence. The CHEGA report is a call for action not only by the parliament and the government but also by the community. CHEGA contains recommendations that need to be implemented by government, civil society, women, faith communities, teachers and international organizations in order to build the culture of peace and humanity in the country.
  4. CAVR, Timor Leste Women and Conflict, National public hearing April 28-29 2003, Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in Timor Leste, p. 8-9.
  5. Ibid, p.30-31
  6. Ibid, p. 32
  7. Ibid, p. 33-34