Subject: Guardian/East Timor: Return of the Revolutionaries

The Guardian [UK] Monday January 15, 2001

Return of the revolutionaries

The conflict may be over, but for the women of East Timor, there is another battle to be won. Maggie O'Kane reports

The discovery of the bodies of four women murdered with machetes in different parts of the country last summer passed almost unnoticed in East Timor. Yet the Indonesian occupying army, which killed an estimated 200,000 people in its 24 years there, has gone, driven out by the UN cavalry over a year ago.

The tragedy for the women of East Timor is that those killed in the machete attacks were murdered by their own husbands or brothers. In a country with a population estimated at around 720,000 - roughly the same as that of Leeds - it is a shocking statistic.

After years of a cruel and brutal conflict, the violence learned by the revolutionaries has now been turned on their women. Domestic violence has soared in the past year, according to Milena Pires, 34, a Timorese political lobbyist funded by the Catholic Institute for International Relations. Last year, 169 cases were documented and domestic violence is now the country's prevalent crime, making up 40% of all offences.

"It may simply be that women are speaking out about it for the first time - but it is probably the single most important issue facing Timorese women today," Pires says. "In the summer we had our first women's conference and it was the thing that came up again and again."

The problem lies in the tensions that have arisen following East Timor's return to an independent state. In the autumn of 1999, violence erupted throughout the territory following a victory for the independence movement in a UN-organised referendum. Supporters of the Indonesian regime ran amok and hundreds were killed or forced into camps across the border in west Timor. By the time the Indonesian army had left, almost everything had been destroyed.

After the immediate violence abated, deeper, more lasting tensions were revealed as the men of East Timor's rebel army, the Falantil, returned to the homes they hadn't seen since 1975. When Indonesia invaded, they left their families behind in the towns and on the farms, and headed for the mountains and jungles. Five hours' drive from the capital Dili, in the Ulimori valley, the battle for an independent East Timor was fought by men surviving on a diet of deer, buffalo, monkey and fruit. On a visit there in the last days of the Indonesian occupation, servile silent women served me a dinner of what looked like grey cannelloni - buffalo intestines with tomatoes. The year before they had been roasting dog at a camp built entirely of bamboo. Codes of behaviour were strict - no sex for revolutionaries and the only women present were cooks.

Among the men who joined the fight was Adtik Lintil, who admits he barely saw his wife and children in the 17 years he was with the Falantil. "I don't have any regrets," he says. "We had to fight for what was right."

Now, after 24 years of Indonesian occupation, men like Lintil are returning home, to a world that has moved on. While the men were in hiding in the mountains, Timorese women were either furthering their education in exile or holding the fort at home, just as British women had done during two world wars. "Women were involved at every level," says Pires, whose own family went into exile when she was nine years old and who subsequently studied sociology and English literature in Australia. "They helped run the camps, sent supplies, smuggled information. And now, as the men come out of hiding, they don't want to return to their traditional roles."

Inevitably there are problems. Last month, five women wearing short-sleeved T-shirts were stoned in the central market of Dili for dressing inappropriately and talking on mobile phones. And only last week, violence broke out on a family beach when a gang of young men attacked two women dressed in bikini tops and sarongs.

"It is a very traditional Catholic society which has been frozen by the years of war," Pires says. "The men are trying to reassert their authority."

In the past year, over a dozen organisations have been set up in East Timor to tackle this growing violence towards women. "It is a time when we have to be very, very sensitive," Pires says.

Last week, she was in London seeking support for pro-women measures she hopes to see put in place when the UN hands over to the new East Timorese government next year. Her aim is to help create a society in which 30% of parliamentarians and 30% of public servants are women. The carrot Britain has is money. Pressure from other donor countries, such as Japan, Portugal and Australia, to introduce women-friendly policies has worked thus far and women's groups in East Timor have already succeeded in securing a deal in which local councils are made up of 50% men and 50% women.

Meanwhile, the cost of the UN's current babysitting of East Timor is estimated to be over $700m, yet there is very little rebuilding going on, no new industry and the country is proving a tough place to run. There may be hundreds of white UN four-wheel drive vehicles on the roads, but only three fishing boats were left in a city that depended on fishing for its survival. The independent East Timor was left with no electricity, no schools, no universities - even the saw mill machinery had been ripped out and taken back to Indonesia. The only jobs are with the UN - at a daily rate of $5 for locals, New York salaries for its own staff. The only thing being built is a floating hotel in the harbour, commissioned and partially funded by the UN, where its visiting staff can stay at a cost of $160 a night.

The result is 80% unemployment. Men are humiliated at being without jobs in a country in which white foreigners seem to have everything going for them, and their disillusionment has resulted in the rise in domestic violence.

"There is a lot of anger now," Pires says, "as people see that what they were fighting for hasn't happened. Now they just want the UN to go." Even Mary Robinson, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, criticised the international community in East Timor during a recent visit to the territory. "There is not that empathy of really understanding how much the people of East Timor suffered," she said.

During the Indonesian occupation, women were separated from their husbands and sons, harassed and often raped. In the refugee camps, populated mainly by women and children, living conditions are terrible, with food shortages, poor sanitation and rampant disease.

Now there is a determination that in the new society being built in East Timor, women will suffer less. Last September, for the first time in East Timor's history, a woman went to court to accuse her husband of violence against her. It's a start.

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