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My family lost Timor in the war. I found it in their memories

The Guardian - August 31, 2019

Luke Henriques-Gomes – In my family, the thought of Timor always lingered in the air.

At birthday dinners, or Easter or Christmas with the cousins (like all Timorese, cousins is an imprecise term), we would talk about the football or our jobs or studies.

But the night would always turn to Timor, usually just as the coffee was brought out (who drinks coffee at midnight?).

Timor. For me, it was just an idea, really. Something that told me about my family, about why I might be how I am, and how I came to be here. For my Timor-born parents, uncles and aunts, there were real memories before they fled in the 1970s.

My grandparents have vivid memories of the war in 1975, but also when Australian commandos entered Timor to fend off the Japanese in 1942. I realise now these conversations were as close as they could get to their homeland during the long years of Indonesian occupation.

Things changed 20 years ago. The Timorese filed into polling booths, despite the threat of violence, and demanded their independence. Outside the country, the diaspora community was overjoyed at the result, and then felt helpless and horrified at the violence that followed.

This week, the conversation in diaspora families like mine turned again to Timor.

30 August 1999

In 1999, there were 451,792 people registered to vote in the UN-sponsored ballot. That included 13,279 in Australia, Indonesia, Portugal and the United States.

Days before 30 August, my mum's brother, Gui, flew from his apartment in Paris to Lisbon to vote. In 1975, he had fled with his aunt Elisa and my mother on a Norwegian cargo ship, the Lloyd Bakke, as the civil war that gave way to a full-scale Indonesian invasion intensified.

"I was living in Paris when President Habibie announced that there would be a referendum for the Timorese," Gui says. "It seemed too good to be true. I remember being in such a feverish state, excited by the prospect... but not 100% sure the result would be in favour of independence."

Dad's family voted in Dandenong, in Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs. They arrived in the afternoon and the line was long. My aunt Carmelita says she'd never been so happy to be standing in such a long queue, "because every one of us was there for the same reason".

For two decades, a dedicated group of Timorese and Australian activists had sought to keep the Timor issue alive in the minds of people in this country.

They staged sit-ins at the Indonesian consulate in Melbourne; Carmelita and her elder sister Elizabete were arrested. They went to Canberra to pester anyone who would listen. My grandfathers were among those who held meetings in living rooms across Melbourne, working on new ways to raise awareness and money to send to Timor.

Most held ordinary jobs across Melbourne. At night and on weekends, they were the overseas arm of a resistance movement.

Dad's family left Timor for Mozambique in 1972 when my grandfather Amandio's opposition to the Portuguese dictatorship had him fall foul of local authorities. Mum's dad, Abilio, fled Timor for Darwin in 1975 on a hijacked Australian air force plane after the sudden departure of the Portuguese led to civil war.

My mother recalls going to vote by herself. "Timor was always there at the back of my mind," she says. "Those emotions: sadness, gratitude, anger. "It was like, finally, get them out of there. Not the Indonesian people, but the government."

Mum did not become an Australian citizen until recently. At 32, she cast her first vote at a polling booth for the independence of her country.

4 September 1999

When the then UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, shared the outcome with the world, my uncle Gui, back in Paris, called my uncle Danilo, who was at work in Sorrento, a beachside holiday town south of Melbourne.

"I could hear the tremble in his voice, it was cracking," Danilo recalls. "And he said, 'We did it.' And I just remember crying. I just cried and cried. There was nothing to say.

"It was a culmination and an axis point of all of the feelings, for a long long time."

My grandfather Abilio became a tram driver when he came to Melbourne. He would put up pro-independence stickers in his tram car.

On 4 September 1999, he was in the cockpit when he learned that 78.5% of the votes had been cast for independence. "I stopped the tram," he says. "I wanted get out completely and go celebrate. The result was tremendous."

In Timor, there had been violence heading up to 30 August. It was nothing like what followed.

Throughout September and October, what was known as the Scorched Earth Operation led to the destruction of about 80% of Timor's infrastructure, while nearly 1,500 Timorese were killed and more than 250,000 were forced into the Indonesian territory of West Timor.

Carmelita was working at a restaurant in Halls Gap when an Australian peace-keeping force, and then a multinational force known as Interfet, were finally sent in to stop the bloodshed.

"All of a sudden people knew where Timor was," she says. "They would say, 'Aren't you glad the Australians are there?' And I would just go bright red. I thought, 'It's too late.'"

Gui says he lost total sense of time, watching the reports of protests in Lisbon where buildings were draped in black sheets. Danilo was so affected by the violence, he vowed to return to Timor to work. Months later he was in a Caribou plane flying into Dili. They let him sit in the cockpit as he saw the island come into view.

Since those days, most of my family has visited Timor. I haven't. These conversations are as close as I have gotten.

I hope to visit with my grandparents – the true believers. After all the prayer vigils and rallies, Abilio says he never doubted. "I had a colleague [at the tram depot] who was Indonesian, who told me to give up," he says.

"He said to me I could be a rich man if I supported Indonesia. I said to him, 'My children will never call me a traitor.' We have a saying, '"Deus escreve certo por linhas tortas.'"

Literally, it translates to "God writes straight on crooked lines". A better translation is God works in mysterious ways.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2019/aug/31/my-family-lost-timor-in-the-war-i-found-it-in-their-memories