Subject: FC: The Widows of Maliana

Florida Catholic Sept. 21, 2000

The Widows of Maliana

Their husbands were killed in East Timor's struggle for independence. Now, they've turned for support to the only people who can understand their anguish - each other.

Stephen Steele 
MALIANA, East Timor

When Regina Magalhaes met her future husband, Manuel, in 1977, she rejected his advances. But he told her, "You wait, because in time I'll be the winner."

Already fluent in Portuguese, Tetun and several dialects, Manuel Magalhaes mastered the Indonesian language less than a year after Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor. His fluency in languages enabled him to establish trust with Indonesia and obtain a government job. His job allowed him to spy for East Timor's clandestine resistance.

"All I have left is his shirt," says Filomena da Silva, right, as she prepares a memorial to her husband, Lorincio, killed Sept. 9, 1999. His  body was never found. 
Photo by Stephen Steele.

"He was strong and clever, and when he spoke, no one could beat him," his wife said.

It was because of this charming, authoritative nature that Regina Magalhaes readily accepted her husband's mandate following their 1979 marriage: "If you want independence, you have to be prepared to give your life," he told her.

In time Magalhaes began preparing his family for life without him.

"I always thought at some point my husband would be killed. He would tell me, 'You have to prepare our children, because I don't know about my life tomorrow.'"

By the time Indonesia announced in January 1999 it would hold a referendum determining East Timor's future, Magalhaes' support for the resistance was no longer clandestine: He was the chairman of the local independence party.

In his final conversation with his eldest son, Nivio, 19, on Aug. 26, 1999, he told the young man, "If I die, I don't want you to take revenge. I want you to build a country of peace."

Manuel Magalhaes was killed Sept. 9, 1999, at a lagoon near Maliana. Witnesses said Magalhaes was shot, his body hacked to pieces and tossed into the sea. The body was never found.

After Australian troops arrived in Maliana in mid-October 1999, Magalhaes' younger son, Fidelis, 18, a human rights officer for Jesuit Refugee Services, went to the place where his father was killed. In the mosquito-infested, thatch-filled lagoon, he found his father's trousers. In the front pocket were rosary beads and a vehicle identification card.

Maliana, a town of 15,000 about eight miles from the West Timor border, was devastated in the violence surrounding the U.N.-sponsored referendum in August 1999. The violence came early and was ruthless.

Maliana was among the first towns deserted by the United Nations, with observers evacuating early Sept. 3, 1999, in a slow-moving convoy of 59 vehicles. Militias and Indonesian soldiers taunted the evacuees, shooting over the vehicles as the convoy departed. U.N. workers said they passed bloody, lifeless bodies while fleeing the town.

In Maliana, militias began murdering independence supporters and burning their houses shortly after the voting. In most other areas, widespread killing and burning occurred following the Sept 4 announcement that East Timor had rejected Indonesian rule.

Those targeted in Maliana were at first urged, and then ordered, to go to the police station for protection. Eventually, several thousand people sought refuge there.

On Sept. 8, 1999, militias and Indonesian soldiers attacked the station, hacking independence supporters to death. The next day, Manuel was killed with 12 others.

His wife was hiding in the mountains surrounding Dili, East Timor, with their two sons and five daughters. Fidelis fled to safety in the mountains surrounding Maliana.

In all, more than 200 people were killed in Maliana following the referendum.

At a Sept. 8 memorial service at the former police station, the names of 181 victims were read. Many bodies have not been recovered, and villages surrounding the main town contain unmarked graves. Maliana may never know its final death toll.

"The hardest part is not knowing where their bodies are. The most important thing is that we know this, where they died, because now we feel as if they are missing," Regina Magalhaes told The Florida Catholic.

Traditionally, the Timorese period of mourning lasts one year, until the anniversary of the man's death. During the 12 months, the wife, unmarried daughters and mother dress in black. A commemoration is held at the widow's home on the anniversary of death, with neighbors coming to pay respects. A small memorial honoring the deceased is set up in the home.

"Although the period of mourning is 12 months, there is no time limit on grieving. Some may continue to wear black for a longer period of time, even the rest of their lives," explained Father Effren Gusmao, SVD, of Jesuit Refugee Services.

Regina Magalhaes, the daughter of a farmer who learned organizing skills from her husband, formed a group for widows in January. Initially started as a support group, the first group of 10 widows has since grown to 46, with another 27 meeting in nearby Cailaco.

The women are in the process of forming a cooperative. Their plans call for starting a vegetable or rice farm and a sewing project where they'll design traditional Timorese cloth, called tais.

"When we came back from Maliana, all of us - the widows - we didn't know each other. We never sat together in unity," Magalhaes said.

"But our husbands died together because they wanted independence," she said. "I started the widow's group so we can share our stories. Our objective is to come together to serve history."

Father Gusmao said the widows talk at length about how their husbands were killed and tortured, but find it difficult to discuss their own suffering.

"Many of them were beaten also, and raped. One was raped while her husband was being killed. They've suffered a great deal; their pain is enormous. But they know they must go on living for the sake of their children," he told The Florida Catholic.

The proposed microeconomic projects are necessary for the families' survival. The widows have anywhere from five to 13 children in their care, Magalhaes said, and are surviving on handouts.

Magalhaes, a serene, dignified woman whose dark skin is pulled tightly over her thin frame, said she wanted to start a rice farm immediately, but a lack of supplies and resources forced the group to stall their plans.

She's hoping that a nongovernmental organization or foundation will help the widows begin their projects and is confident that in time they will be self-sufficient.

The World Food Programme has been providing emergency food provisions for Maliana residents. But discrepancies in the recorded size of the families have left some with an inadequate amount of food.

In her half burned-out home, Filomena da Silva, 44, prepares a memorial to her husband, Lorincio. A portrait of the slain man rests on top of box, flanked by statues of the Blessed Mother.

"I think after they killed him they burned his body. All I have left is his shirt," she said of her husband of 25 years.

Her husband worked for the United Nations, helping to register the Timorese for last year's referendum and educating them on their rights.

Da Silva receives a food allotment for a single person family, although she has eight children.

"My husband died because he worked for the U.N. They asked for his help and he helped them. Now my husband has died. Whose responsibility is it to help my children; what will the U.N. do for me? Our situation is very difficult. We don't have anything," she said.

Early Sept. 10 the day after her husband's commemoration, Regina Magalhaes was outside her home washing clothes. She was wearing a floral print blouse.

"She's no longer wearing black," said Peter Jacobson, a field worker for Jesuit Refugee Services, "I guess that's a good sign."

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