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David Alex obituary

The Guardian - July 1, 1997

The guerrilla leader David Alex who has died aged 50 after being captured by Indonesian forces, had fought in the mountains of East Timor since the Indonesian army landed in the former Portuguese colony in 1975. He was fourth in the resistance's military hierarchy and was feared by Indonesian officers for his daring raids. He had been hunted for many years.

He was a tiny man, his body scarred by old wounds and racked with ailments resulting from 22 years of living in the bush, but his moral authority was immense; his men called him katuas (the elder or father).

Born Alex David Daitula of a noble Timorese family near the coastal town of Baucau, he studied at the Salesian college of Fatumaca and became a schoolteacher. When the 1974 Lisbon coup paved the way for decolonization, he was one of the first in the Baucau region to join the independence movement, Fretilin, working on a literacy drive run by local teachers.

The outbreak of civil war in August 1975 led to the collapse of that program and the subsequent infiltration of Indonesian troops over the border from Indonesian (West) Timor, where he was in the front line of fighting. After the paratroop landing in the capital, Dili, on December 7, he was sent back to Baucau to await the Indonesian landing. He was wounded and seven of his companions were killed.

In the years that followed, the resistance suffered successive reverses. It was then led by Nicolau Lobato, a proud, moderate nationalist, whose task was hampered by the masses of refugees who had fled to the mountains behind the guerrillas. Lobato was killed in late 1978 and hordes of starving people surrendered to the Indonesian Army. Other leaders were captured and killed and nothing was heard of the resistance for another two years. In 1980, documents smuggled from Timor showed the movement was still alive. Jose Alexandre Gusmao (Xananna) described how "50 fugitives of the east" had rebuilt the organization from scratch. Among them was Alex, who became increasingly important in the struggle, commanding a zone around his birthplace. An Indonesian military handbook captured in 1982, authenticated by Amnesty International, set out guidelines for a new psychological warfare policy, described the resistance structure and profiled Alex, saying he was one of the resistance's most able leaders who had widespread popular support.

One of the last outsiders to see Alex alive was the British film-maker, Dom Rotheroe, who made contact with him in August last year to shoot a television documentary. Rotheroe spent several weeks with the guerrillas and filmed Alex commanding an ambush in which two Indonesian soldiers were shot and one guerrilla died.

As the most accessible of the resistance fighters, Alex had been photographed and filmed many times, but Rotheroe returned with the first full-blooded portrait of the wiry veteran. He emerged as a disciplined, tough character impelled by nationalist beliefs, commanding the operation with total fearlessness.

In a briefing before the ambush, his words anticipated his death last week. "As the Portuguese say: What you give you get back", he told his men, " Bear in mind that if we set out to kill others, others can injure or kill us, too. That's nothing new for us.. If someone's killed we must accept it."

He was critical of external delegates of the resistance, vehemently denouncing the renegade wing of Fretilin that had begun talking to the Indonesian government, but also attacking the more orthodox mainstream, whom he saw as having abandoned those doing the real fighting.

"For them, it makes no difference whether the war ends today.. or in 20 or 30 years", he declared. "They don't suffer the daily consequences, which we feel like a thorn in our sides." Lack of external financial support contributed to Alex's death: he was forced to engage in ever more frequent contacts with the towns because of his dependence on supplies and was captured in a suburb of Baucau.

Indonesia's hunt for him quickened after Alex's successful disruption of elections on May 24 - 14 people were killed - and leading Western military analysts called for a re-evaluation of the resistance threat.

The exact circumstances of his death are unclear: the Indonesian military commander Colonel Slamet Sidbutar says he bled to death from injuries but representatives of the resistance say he was tortured or poisoned. After his capture he was taken, wounded, to the elite Kopassus commandos in Baucau, which has a notorious reputation as a torture centre. He left there by helicopter for Dili and was taken to military intelligence headquarters, where he was held for about 3 hours. He entered the military hospital at about 7pm.

A resistance source reported that he had bullet wounds in a leg and an arm, and a graze in the stomach area, but his condition was stable. His room was isolated and next morning the Indonesian military authorities announced that he had died from loss of blood. A quick funeral followed, after his family was denied access to the body, which was formally identified by an ex-guerrilla.

[This unsigned obituary was reprinted in Sydney Morning Herald, July 1, 1997]