Subject: AGE: When East Timor first flew its flag in defiance

The Age May 18 2002

When East Timor first flew its flag in defiance

By Jill Jolliffe

When the flag of the Democratic Republic of East Timor flutters from the mast at midnight this Sunday in Dili, some of us there will remember November 28, 1975, when it was hoisted for the first time.

The circumstances were very different. Whereas international leaders will be present this time to applaud and make fine speeches, back then we were a tiny crowd anxiously scanning the horizon for Indonesian warships. The world seemed to be against the East Timorese dream of independence, and the United Nations did not want to hear.

Dili was a charming Portuguese colonial backwater. Today, it is a chaotic Asian city bloated with refugees, prone to urban violence and teeming with fast-talking UN officials.

Then, there were only three foreign journalists present: myself, a novice freelancer for Reuters newsagency; Michael Richardson, South-East Asian correspondent for The Age (today Asian editor for The International Herald Tribune); and Roger East, a newly arrived freelancer who came to Dili chasing the story of the Balibo Five, the five television reporters killed during an Indonesian border attack in October that year.

Few people noted the presence of Jose Alexandre Gusmao, now known simply as Xanana, who tomorrow will become president of the new nation. He was to us a little-known member of the central committee of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), although he was well known to the Timorese as a soccer champion and a lad about town.

Never an armchair revolutionary, he was to join front-line fighters at the border within days, attempting to stem the Indonesian advance.

The circumstances of the declaration were unexpected.

The civil war that had erupted with a coup against Portuguese power by the UDT party (Timorese Democratic Union) in August, 1975, had ended with the Fretilin victory in late September. Crossing into Indonesian Timor, defeated UDT troops became effective hostages of the Indonesians.

The Portuguese had fled, their soldiers mutinous in the face of looming civil war at home, and Australia's Whitlam government was covertly backing an Indonesian plan to annex the territory.

In this power vacuum, Fretilin became an unwilling de facto administration - one of the few anti-colonial movements in history to entreat the former colonial power to return.

First, Indonesian troops came over the border in September, swelling to a tide in October. In early November, Michael Richardson and I observed the Indonesian onslaught on the mountain garrison of Atabae, where Fretilin troops were holding out against terrible odds.

On the morning of November 28, Roger East walked into Hotel Turismo with the news that Timorese soldiers were gathering in the town square. There had been rumours of a split in the Fretilin's ranks and we assumed there may have been a power play against the de facto government. We gathered our notebooks and walked there.

Soon familiar faces appeared, among them Mari Alkatiri, today chief minister in the UNTAET government, and Rogerio Lobato, then Fretilin defence commander. They told us they had decided to declare independence because Atabae had fallen to the Indonesian army that morning.

Atabae was only 40 kilometres away as the crow flies, and it was a last gamble for the Timorese. By declaring independence, they hoped to win recognition and force the UN to act. Given the cynical politicians who defined the international framework for East Timor, it was a naive dream. The flag that will be hoisted tomorrow night had been hastily designed before November 28 by Natalino Leitao, a Fretilin militant who was to die soon after resisting the full-scale invasion launched 10 days after his flag first flew.

On Sunday night, when it is raised again, I will be thinking of Goinxet - Bernadino Bonaparte Soares - my loyal interpreter who became a friend. ("Think of 'Gunshot' and you will get it right," Fretilin leader Francisco Xavier do Amaral had told me.) He was a passionate young nationalist with a radical afro hairstyle.

He was with me at the border during my baptism of fire in September. From that time, he had always been by my side, talking excitedly about the new Timor and asking what I thought of its prospects of freedom. I am not sure my answers satisfied, but I tried to be honest.

When Natalino's flag unfurled, he embraced me excitedly, shouting, "We're independent!" I was looking for the warships. Richardson's camera recorded my last glimpse of Goinxet, at Dili airport, as we evacuated five days before the Indonesian paratroopers landed. His face is that of a kid with ideas.

East, the other journalist to witness that first brave little independence ceremony, opted to stay with the Timorese. Eyewitnesses to his death who arrived in Lisbon years later testified that he had been dragged resisting to a firing squad on Dili wharf. Goinxet suffered the same fate, for the crime of being a journalist's translator.

On Sunday, many Timorese will be thinking of their own Goinxets, and of how much suffering had to occur before their story was finally listened to by the fast-talkers who honour them today.

Jill Jolliffe is the author of Cover-Up: the inside story of the Balibo Five.

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