Subject: 'People are still scared of expressing themselves' - Bella Galhos

'People are still scared of expressing themselves'

Against calls to make Suharto a national hero, human rights activists want the world to remember his deadly legacy. Bella Galhos, who escaped to tell the world about the genocide in East Timor, says very little has changed

Tim Shufelt, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Sunday, February 17, 2008

When Indonesian soldiers and doctors walked into a small East Timorese schoolhouse one day around 1985, 13-year-old Bella Galhos tensed up, sensing danger. The girl already had plenty of reasons to fear the Indonesian military.

During the 1975 invasion of her country by Indonesian forces led by regional strongman Suharto, Bella's two brothers, aged four and six, were beaten to death by rifle butts. Her father was jailed for two years, placed in solitary confinement where he lived in his own filth on a ration of rotten food, occasionally having fingernails and toenails removed with pliers during interrogations.

During the years of occupation, there was frequent gunfire in the tiny island country, the constant threat of rape and the mysterious deaths or disappearances of friends and family.

So Bella was suspicious when the visitors to her class pulled out syringes for what they said were immunization shots. She knew something was wrong when all the boys were escorted from the room.

"I was struggling," recalls Galhos, now 35. "I was so afraid." It took five or six soldiers to get a needle in her shoulder. Two more injections would follow during the next year.

Galhos later found out the shots contained Depo Provera, a contraceptive drug the Indonesian government used in its forced contraception and sterilization program. The drug's effects are temporary, but if not used properly, can cause serious side effects, including sterility.

The atrocities of Galhos's early years gave rise to an intense drive to help advance the liberation of her country, and to experience for the first time life without military occupation. As a teenager, she got involved with the underground resistance, risking imprisonment, torture or death.

In fact, after each wave of violence, Galhos stepped up efforts to free East Timor from Suharto's grip. When a young political organizer was killed in 1991, Galhos helped organize a massive funeral procession and demonstration in Dili. When that event erupted into a mass killing, Galhos enlisted in the Indonesian military while secretly supporting the resistance. And when she endured the constant sexual assault at the hands of soldiers in Jakarta, she resolved to win the trust of the Indonesian government to represent East Timor in the Canada World Youth exchange program as an example of a compliant, pro-integration East Timorese youth.

Galhos was granted refugee status after arriving in Canada in 1994, and spent four years in Ottawa, studying English at the University of Ottawa and speaking across the continent about the brutalities of the Suharto regime. So when Suharto died last month of multiple organ failure at the age of 86, reports that Indonesians were mourning the leader, in spite of his faults, were greatly exaggerated, Galhos said.

The Indonesian Embassy in Ottawa opened a book of condolence for signing. "Even though there was a lapse of human rights, (Suharto's) still in the hearts of the Indonesian people," embassy official Aang Iswayudha told the Citizen.

"Bullshit," Galhos scoffs. She attributes any public displays of grief to Suharto's lingering legacy of oppression. "People are still scared of expressing themselves."

Last week in Jakarta, Indonesian activists held a protest against calls to make Suharto a national hero.

"We held this protest to refuse the calls for the hero title for Suharto as he committed a lot of human rights violations when he was a president," an activist named Mustar told Reuters news agency.

Unlike Suharto's victims, the former leader had the luxury of dying humanely, Galhos adds.

"So many of my friends, there are bodies we have still not found. But he died in a nice hospital, in the hands of good doctors, good technology."

On Dec. 7, 1975, Suharto put into motion Operation Komodo, a plan to invade and annex the Portugese colony. By the end of that month, an estimated 20,000 Indonesian soldiers had been deployed to the island, and by the following summer, East Timor was formally annexed as a province of Indonesia. Nearly a quarter-century of military occupation would follow, and estimates of the death toll range from 100,000 to 200,000 East Timorese. Portugal's last census figures in 1974 peg the pre-invasion population at 680,000, by some measures making the killings in East Timor the worst genocide since the Holocaust.

Every family, without exception, has stories, she says. "Some lost most of their family. Some lost half. Always one or two or more. Or all of it, gone." In addition to losing her brothers, her aunt was also "raped to death," Galhos said.

The rape of locals by Indonesian troops was fairly common, in a society that was patriarchal to begin with, Galhos explains. "If there's 20 people there, the whole 20 are going to rape you." And for many survivors, including Galhos's father, imprisonment and torture left lasting physical reminders. "Some parts of his body don't really function well because of too much kicking. They hit him so much." Her brother was tortured after being rounded up in the aftermath of what would come to be known as the Santa Cruz massacre.

It started as a funeral procession to the grave of 18-year-old activist Sebastian Gomez, who was shot by East Timorese agents for Indonesia in October 1991. Galhos, then 19, helped organize the demonstration, which was timed to coincide with a Portugese parliamentary delegation to Jakarta, to raise awareness of the horrors unfolding in East Timor.

The procession of about 5,000 made its way slowly through the Dili streets on the morning of Nov. 12, 1991. As the group arrived at the cemetery, three military vehicles pulled up, each carrying 20 to 25 soldiers. Soldiers jumped off each truck and aimed their M-16 rifles, Galhos recalls.

She was reassured, however, by the presence of U.S. journalists Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn. "I said to my friend, 'You don't have to run. I don't think they're going to shoot us." The soldiers opened fire. "I thought they were firing into the sky to give us warning," Galhos said. "That was a moment I can never forget."

Thousands scrambled to get inside the walls of the cemetery. Galhos ran to the nearest entrance, but could not get through the small door as people clambered to escape. "That's when I saw my friends killed," Galhos said. "I tried to close my eyes because there were bodies all over."

She made it into the cemetery, climbed the wall and, in clothes soaked with the blood of her friends, was taken in by a stranger in a nearby house where she camped for three days. In the days following, she learned that 271 had been killed, an equal number "disappeared," many more wounded and still more detained and interrogated. Goodman and Nairn were beaten almost to death.

A week later, Galhos's brother was released from jail, battered from numerous beatings. "He came home, but man, he changed. He didn't want to talk about any politics. He was absolutely traumatized."

Galhos soon realized it would be impossible to work toward freeing her country from inside its borders. "I kept telling myself, if I want to help liberate East Timor, I would have to get out." She hatched a plan to sign up for the Indonesian military's youth corps while keeping a clandestine link to the resistance, spreading information and supplying leaders with food and medicine.

Officially, she was employed by the Indonesian government at East Timor's only newspaper, producing propaganda in praise of her country's overlords. She toured around schools giving speeches on the blessings of integration. "It was very hard. Some people looked at me like they would eat me up if they could. These were people who lost fathers, mothers, whatever. And there I am talking about how nice Indonesia was."

For two years, Galhos lived a dangerous double life, until she was brought to Jakarta for a thorough evaluation and instruction on her suitability as a representative of East Timor in the Canada World Youth exchange program. During the next month, she faced endless questions about her loyalty to Indonesia. "The next day they will come back to you and ask you the same question. They want to see if anything changed. If it changed, you were in big trouble."

Galhos's resolve was again tested during her stay in Jakarta where she endured several assaults. "They touch you, they humiliate you physically. They went all over my body," she said. "It's a way to say: 'If you're not a good girl, if you don't follow the orders, this is how we show you.'"

But she maintained the charade and won the job over 200 others. On the day she was to fly out of Jakarta, she was searched thoroughly, but guards did not find her uncle's Rhode Island address she had stuffed inside her pen. Her last duty was to pledge allegiance to Indonesia. "When they asked me to kiss the flag, I did, and I cried very hard," Galhos recalls. "They thought I would be missing home and that's why I was crying."

Within days, Galhos claimed refugee status in Canada. In her Vancouver hotel room, she left a box with her military uniform and a note for her escorts, reading: "Thank you, but no thank you. I don't need it anymore." For most of the next six years, she was based in Ottawa, crossing Canada twice and visiting 33 states to raise awareness of the genocide and to decry the complicity or active support of the occupation by the governments of some of the world's most powerful countries.

In 1999, when East Timor voted for independence with the help of a United Nations peacekeeping force, she dropped everything to head home. "Canada's a nice country, it's beautiful, but no. I need to go back to the place I belong. East Timor's everything to me," Galhos says. She is now in Hawaii working toward a masters degree in psychology. Even now, her choices are guided by a desire to help her fellow East Timorese.

"The situation is still the same in terms of the cycle of violence, and people are not healing. People cannot overcome the trauma. And we do not have any psychologists."

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