Celebrations this year in Timor-Leste of the 1999 decisive ballot for independence reminded me of the terrible journey the East Timorese took to get to that historic moment.
The young girl pictured above is an icon of that journey. She personifies what became of hundreds of thousands Timorese after just four years of Indonesian military occupation. By late 1979, somewhere between 100-200 thousand people were dead from killings and starvation, the Fretilin-led resistance was decimated and almost all the population came under direct Indonesian control for the first time since 7 December 1975.
Chega: Compulsory reading
The most definitive account to date of the evolution of this great disaster can be found in Chega, the report of Timor’s Commission for Reception Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR). Combining media and NGO research and reports of the time with personal testimonies of Timorese who endured and survived, Chega tells the story of a ruthless Indonesian military strategy, a dividing and failing resistance and the harrowing consequences for all Timorese. Chapter five of Chega – Forced Displacement and Famine – is compulsory reading.
Journalist Peter Rogers’ reports and photographs from Laga in 1979 offered rare confirmation of what the Fretilin-led resistance had been reporting for years – that Timorese were being held in “concentration camps” and starved. Fretilin’s claims at the time were routinely rejected by governments and media as ‘unconfirmed’ or ‘exaggerated’.
Less easy to ignore was research material coming out of Australian NGOs – particularly from the humanitarian aid agency community’s peak body, the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA). Months before Peter Rodgers’ reports, an ACFOA report – innocuously titled Aid and East Timor – had already concluded that a humanitarian disaster was occurring inside Timor.
Aid and East Timor is historically significant for several reasons. It demonstrated that, with careful research, it was possible to learn what was happening inside East Timor despite it being closed to the outside world. The report proved to be the beginning of the re-establishment of the credibility and authority of ACFOA on East Timor issues in the following years.
While not credited in the report, it was largely written by one Patrick Walsh. The report was the first substantial product of Pat Walsh’s full-time focus on East Timor. In the following few years, his focus contributed dramatically to a higher standard of understanding, research and effectiveness in Timor solidarity and advocacy circles, both in Australia and internationally.