Subject: Time: Timor's ex-guerrillas paying a high price

Time Asia

June 2, 2003 / Vol. 161 No. 21

War's Over, Now What?

East Timor's ex-guerrillas are paying a high price for the freedom they won


Domingos Ximenes pulls off his T shirt to reveal a body that tells the story of two decades of war and suffering. On his left arm is a map of East Timor in the grip of a fist; on his right arm and across his chest tumble rough tattoos of a sacred bird, a Bible and crucifix, and a spear. In many places scars show through the faded images, souvenirs of countless battles in the bush. Four years after the end of the war against Indonesia's occupation, this former guerrilla fighter has no job and little sense of purpose. He wonders what there is for him and his comrades in this new nation they fought so long to secure. "Where is our home? We do not have one. Where is our land? We do not have any," he says. "Who will understand our situation? Who will solve our problems?"

Unlike Aceh, East Timor no longer suffers at the often brutal hands of the Indonesian military. But now, a year after winning its freedom, this tiny nation faces a slew of daunting challenges, from constructing a viable economy to repairing lives ravaged by more than 20 years of violence and misery. None have endured more than the former members of the guerrilla group Falintil, those most responsible for liberating East Timor. For two decades these defiant fighters clung to what President Xanana Gusmao, himself a former guerrilla leader, once called the "sacred ideal" of independence. Now that they have achieved it, these same men are struggling to find a place in the country they helped create. Many are maimed and traumatized, or find themselves without a family, a home, an education or a job. "We are the people who organized the war, which is why we have independence," says Antonio Salsinha, who works on a fledgling governmental program to identify former fighters who might one day receive financial aid. "But we feel forgotten."

The government, for all its good intentions, has scant resources to ease their pain. East Timor is poor, its needs many. Of the 1,500 guerrillas who survived the war (out of some 27,000), about 600 have been absorbed into the East Timor Defense Force (F.D.T.L.), Timor's new army. The rest were too damaged in body or mind, or, like Zacarias de Fatima, considered too old. Average life expectancy in East Timor is just 57, so at 51, De Fatima should be a grandfather. Instead he is a first-time father, belatedly resuming the life he abruptly gave up in 1975, when he joined Falintil at 25. It wasn't until 2001 that he had the chance to marry. Life has been hard since independence, says De Fatima. He and his wife have no job, and they and their 18-month-old child survive on handouts from relatives. Sometimes De Fatima wonders if things weren't better in the bush. "There, my only focus was how to get independence," he says, standing in the abandoned house in the central town of Aileu where he's temporarily residing. "Now there is a lot of thinking about things, like how to look after my family."

Former Falintil commander Taur Matan Ruak acknowledges the frustration. Now the F.D.T.L.'s commander in chief, he meets regularly with ex-combatants, listening as they accuse their leaders of forgetting them. "During the war we had such large expectations of the future, that we would solve all of our problems immediately," says Ruak. "But the dream is one thing, the reality another."

Even those with jobs struggle. Mario Baptista joined Falintil at age 13 along with his father. He killed an Indonesian soldier for the first time at 15, and prayed every day for the "miracle of independence." Now an F.D.T.L. officer, the 31-year-old tries to pay for the education of five young relatives out of a salary of $130 a month. Another soldier, who still uses his code name Mausae Lary, came home in 1999 after 24 years in the bush to find that his wife, assuming he was dead, had remarried. His relatives are disappointed in him: "They say, 'You have sacrificed so much, why haven't you got a house or some materials?'"

Idleness can breed mischief, and the authorities worry that deep disappointment among former Falintil fighters could lead to unrest. In the remote Hatolia area in the mist-filled forests south of Dili, villagers accuse the shadowy group Colimau 2000, composed of ex-guerrillas and disaffected East Timorese villagers, of extorting money from them. In Hatolia town, locals tell of being robbed at night by a gang led by a disgruntled Falintil veteran. Australian peacekeepers now patrol the area. "We are scared," says Antonio Salsinha, a resident from the nearby town of Ermera, "because we hear (Colimau 2000) rejects the authority of the government."

Half an hour away in the city of Baucau, Domingos Ximenes is on security detail at a compound that houses about 200 of his fellow ex-guerrillas. Most of them are jobless and live here in a crumbling, white building with boarded windows and a high fence topped with barbed wire. Ximenes had gone back to his wife and child in the town of Laga, east of Baucau, but was told they couldn't afford to support him. With nowhere else to go, he went to the compound, which at least provides shelter for displaced former fighters like him. "I was a brave man," says Ximenes. "I am not anything now."

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