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Mountain fighters celebrate victory

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Dili, East Timor

Commandante Lere, the rebel chief of the East Timorese region of Punto Leste, has lived clandestinely in the mountains for 24 years. But just days before the U.N.-supervised referendum, Lere opened his mountain enclave to its first-ever group of visiting foreigners, a Catholic priest and several thousand others.

Lere was in a mood to celebrate. Aug. 20 was the 24th anniversary of the founding of Falintil, the rebel group fighting for East Timor’s independence. But Lere also wanted to mark a beginning. The historic referendum on East Timor’s independence was soon to occur. Lere was so confident that the people of East Timor would vote for independence and reject ties to Indonesia that he threw a party.

But first he wanted to pray. His men had not seen a priest since taking to the mountains, so Lere invited a priest to celebrate Mass. East Timor, the former Portugese colony, is almost entirely Catholic. At first the priest refused. “After all the killings, these people are not worthy to receive the Body of Christ,” he said. But later, he relented and made the trek to the rebel base, Atalari. Several thousand East Timorese accompanied him.

With the massive U.N. presence in East Timor, the Indonesian army did not dare to prevent the surreal rebel party in the wild mountains. During the Mass, the fighters, wearing the same uniforms as the army of their sworn enemy -- booty from killed Indonesian soldiers -- turned alternately from Lere to the priest, looking for cues on how to behave. Their questions were written on their faces: Where do I put my AK-47 when it’s time to fold my hands and pray? Can I carry my rifle when I receive the host?

After Mass, the rebels, who are normally averse to daylight, served heaps of meat and cakes and flagons of Portuguese wine to their guests. Together, they all danced into the late hours. The scene was joyous and at times heartbreaking. Family members, long-since feared dead, were found alive, and friends who had not seen each other in two decades embraced. The Commandante, with his Castro-beard and lion-like mane of hair, presided over the event in shining glory. After Communion, the people surrounded Lere, fell to their knees and kissed his hands.

“Patriots, nationalists!” Lere said when he stood to address the crowd. In the background a satellite phone rang. Xanana Gusmao, Falintil’s commander-in-chief now under house arrest in Jakarta, was on the line. With great dignity, Lere took the phone and held it to his ear. The line was dead. “The struggle goes on!” shouted Lere, undaunted. And the people rejoiced.

Except for a brief time during World War II when Japan occupied the island, Portugal claimed East Timor as a colony from the mid-16th century until 1974. In 1974, the Portuguese overthrew a dictatorship and left their colonies to fend for themselves.

Civil war broke out in East Timor in 1975, some say at the instigation of Indonesian intelligence operatives. This opened the way for Indonesia to launch a full-scale invasion accompanied by large-scale atrocities. The United Nations condemned the invasion. Indonesia, however, appeared to have tacit support from the United States, Japan and Australia. Seven months later, Indonesia proclaimed East Timor as its 27th province. The United Nations has never recognized the annexation.

East Timorese report that from a population of around 700,000 as many as 100,000 people died in the invasion and its immediate aftermath. Other sources say that another 100,000 may have died as a result of famine and disease caused by military campaigns and the trauma of displaced persons.

In the rebel camp in Atalari on Aug. 20, Albertina Gaio Ximenes, over 90 years old and barely able to walk, said, “I never thought about giving up. We have lost too many people.”

She urged people to show their scars, which she calls memorials of Indonesia’s “fence of legs” campaign. (In mid-1981, Indonesian troops began a major operation known as the “fence of legs.” Civilians between the ages of 15 and 60 were forced to march in front of Indonesian troops to flush out guerrillas still active in large sections of the countryside. For weeks on end, they marched up and down steep mountains under the tropical sun. Many died from exhaustion.)

“We have reached our goal,” said Lere. “[Who] can remember one single painless moment during these 24 years?” he asked. “But as long as a single Indonesian soldier remains here, the war continues.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999