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Andrew McNaughtan Memorial Lecture 12 February 2010 Notes from guest speaker Jude Conway
How did a woman from Newcastle like me get involved in the Timor cause and compile a book of Timorese women’s stories [Step by Step: Women of East Timor, Stories of resistance and Survival]?
It all started when I ran away from home in winter 1991, it was a mid-life crisis I guess. I reached Darwin, liked it and stayed for 15 years. I met a lot of activists at the Environment Centre and after the Santa Cruz massacre in November 1991 I was invited to a protest rally which morphed into a 3-week 24 hour-a-day protest at the Indonesian consulate. Supporters stopping by regularly, set up Australians For a Free East Timor (AFFET) and working with the long-time activist Rob Wesley-Smith. Andy McNaughtan came to town round ‘93 and joined our rag-tag but highly motivated group.
I went on my first trip to East Timor in 1995, it is only a one-hour flight from Darwin, and experienced their fear of the Indonesian military – no one out after dark, no talking to foreigners, meeting a resistance leader to give him money and medicines in a shed surrounded by his guards and a guard dog.
When Andy moved back to Sydney in 1996 he asked me to run his Darwin house as an AFFET headquarters. Many actions were planned in that house, and some unforgettable parties.
In 1997 I was invited to work as the office manager at the East Timor International Support Center, ETISC with Juan and Ceu Federer. Andy was our Sydney rep and Information officer. Anyone who knew Andy knows that he could give out a lot of information. It was the job of a lifetime. Besides doing office work at ETISC I was also project officer travelling to East and West Timor, Bali, Java and Thailand. I had some exciting jobs – I carried photos of military torture in Timor through Jakarta airport hidden in my pants so they could be distributed to activists groups. I helped organise the escape of a Timorese man from Timor via Jakarta, to the Portuguese embassy in Bangkok, after he had secretly passed Indonesian military staff figures to Andy which showed they were lying about how many troops they had in East Timor.
In June 1998 ETISC brought 6 Timorese activists to Darwin, all recommended by Xanana from his prison cell in Jakarta. The group included the charismatic Laura Abrantes, at the time working with Caritas Dili. Laura was able to imaginatively use her small English vocabulary to evoke the brutality of the Indonesian occupation and affect all her heard her.
I had made a bibliography of publications on East Timorese struggle and realised that the voice of women, who were integral to the resistance, was rarely heard. Most Australians knew of Ramos-Horta, Xanana and Bishop Belo but, even now, the most well known woman from East Timor would be Xanana’s Australian wife, Kirsty Sword Gusmão.
The Timorese women I met, like Laura Abrantes and Ceu Federer, were passionate, effective campaigners and I thought that they should be better known. I decided to collect stories to publish as a campaign tool. I started by interviewing Ceu. I gave her an outline of what I wanted and then let her have her head. I was an inexperienced interviewer and had to plug many gaps later on. However I enjoyed hearing her anecdotes and even enjoyed transcribing and typing the story into the computer!!! Her story was put on the ETISC website. This was the genesis of the book.
In November 1998 I went to Dili to attend a conference organised by women students from the university. For the first time in Timor, women spoke publicly about their horrendous experiences at the hands of the military. A woman told how she had been forced at gunpoint to watch her daughter raped. Fellow Darwin activist Sally Anne Watson was there and she decided to collect accounts of abuse which were published in 1999 in Buibere: Voice of East Timorese Women. I contributed an interview, photos and editing advice, under the name Judy Jonas. Sometimes when I told people I was collecting Timorese women’s stories they would say ‘hasn’t that already been done in Buibere?’ As though there could only be one book of women’s stories. Actually every Timorese has a story to tell.
This book, Step by Step, is quite different. It has life stories of 13 outspoken women, strong women, which describe their daily life and beliefs, as well as the stresses and horrors of the occupation and the aftermath of the referendum. While I was in Dili I started recording Laura’s story and she also arranged for Domingas Alves, or Micato, the founder of women’s NGO, Fokupers, to tell me her story, which she did – non-stop for 3 hours in Portuguese! I don’t know any Portuguese and it wasn’t till I read the translation that I knew what she’d said. Collecting stories in other languages is a challenge.
After president Habibie announced in January 1999 that the Timorese people could choose between Indonesia and independence, my life became totally involved in the struggle, working at ETISC, attending protests, housing journalists, activists and students on their way to and from Dili. There was no time to collect stories. I helped Sally Anne finish off Buibere, and compiled A Chronology of Indonesian Military-sponsored Militia atrocities in East Timor up to May 1999, published by ETISC to counteract media reports of a civil war. My name wasn’t on it so I could continue to travel to Timor.
There was no time for the book while I was in Timor for the referendum from July to early September 99 when Andy and Sally-Anne and I were charged with ‘political activities while on a tourist visa’ for having unused legal sample ballot papers on the floor of our car on voting day. We were deported to Kupang and had the bizarre experience of being in a cafe in Kupang with Indonesian intelligence officers when the result of the referendum was announced on TV. I saw the look of shock on their faces. They had believed their own propaganda.
With other activists I set up an NGO in East Timor in early 2000 assisting local NGOs get established in the new Aid and UN environment. Our phones did not stop ringing for 2 1/2 years.
After independence I based myself in Darwin and returned to the idea of collecting stories. But to be able to meet with the women when I was in Timor was always a challenge because all the women were super busy with family and work commitments, trips overseas etc. This was symptomatic of the kind of women they are and the needs of a new developing nation. It is easy to say ‘yes I will tell my story’ but then not have the hours to give.
For example Laura has such a vivid memory that after talking for a couple of hours, and still a long way to go with her story, she would get tired and annoyed with the imposition on her time when Fokupers was being overwhelmed with supporting traumatised women and dealing with a constant stream of visitors. It was only when she took a draft transcript home to check and her family were fascinated with her memories that she became more enthusiastic.
The Timorese transcribers took a lot longer than I anticipated. One took months before he admitted that Micato’s Portuguese was too difficult for him so then I had to find another transcriber who could speak fluent Portuguese. Language difficulties were ever present but
good translators were in demand so it was difficult to find people with the skills and time to work on the stories. My main translator did not always get a translation done by the time of my next trip to Timor which was frustrating as I couldn’t prepare my questions for the next interview. I developed great reserves of patience.
There were other delays. Unknown viruses in my computer and in me. I returned from one trip at the end of 2003, after hearing the shocking news that Andy had died, with what seemed like a cold. I developed a spectacular rash and sore joints, except my elbows, which slowed me down for months! There was an African virus recorded in Timor that year and I suspect that was what it was. My eyes decided to refuse to cope with night work and I needed to earn money so the book’s evolvement went at a snail’s pace. In fact it has been 11 years gestation
I loved working on this book. I got to know all the women well and never tired of going thru their stories. it was fascinating to read and re-read the major works on East Timor. The more you learn, the more enthralling the David and Goliath story of Timor-Leste’s struggle to independence becomes. Unfortunately none of the women in the book can be here tonight – too far and too costly. I have mentioned Ceu, Laura and Domingas and I will just mention a couple more.
Cesarina Rocha, who is here in spirit tonight, was taken to Darwin from East Timor with her mother during the civil war in 1975 when she was three months old. Her father talked his way out of jail and tried to escape by swimming to Atauro island, luckily for him to be rescued by a Darwin barge. Ces grew up in a non-political family but after seeing John Pilger’s film Death of a Nation joined Australians for a Free East Timor (AFFET) and became a quietly determined activist representing Timorese youth in Australia, Korea and Portugal. [I omitted Ces from talk as ran out of time.]
Lucia Lobato’s Fretilin family ran to the mountains and were constantly on the move to find food and hide from the Indonesian soldiers for over 3 years after the invasion. One morning Lucia and one of her brothers were picking food for breakfast when they heard the sound of gunfire close by. They hid behind the trees, soon hearing the sound of a helicopter. Lucia never saw her mother or 5 of her siblings again. She is now the Minister for Justice. [Been found guilty of corruption in 2012]
Carolina do Rosario from Baucau. Even tho her husband was an unsympathetic Timorese in the Indonesian army, Carolina secretly delivered clothing and letters to ‘her brothers’ in Falintil guerrillas and encouraged young and old to participate in the resistance. At a demonstration in Baucau one of her daughters was shot in the hand and her son had to go into hiding because the military were looking for him. After the referendum Carolina became a commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Laga. I would like to conclude this lecture with Carolina’s wise words: We shouldn’t think with the old politics which was a strategy to put each other down. We have to think with cool heads about how we can prepare this new nation of ours. The youth have to work for their future. Miracles cannot be made, this has to be a slow process. We’ll get there. A Luta continua
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