A Postcard from Dili
Celebrating an independence vote in the country I called home
Dili in August is always dry, dusty, tired; parched brown after months without rain and still facing weeks before the wet season rains arrive. The wide flat land at Tasi Tolu on the city’s western edge is a dustbowl; we’re walking there from where we parked at the airport, picking our way by pebbly ground and potholes in the darkening dusk; trying to make it through the traffic before the dancing and fireworks and speeches begin. My landlady, Eufrazia, tiny and lipsticked, finds a serviette in her purse and carefully peels apart its two thin plys; hands one to me and tells me to wipe my sandals down.
“They’ll get dirty again on the way back,” I tell her.
“Yes, but you can still clean them now.”
We walked for half an hour to stand here, on the edge of a huge grandstand pavilion erected at Tasi Tolu for tonight’s celebration of the independence vote—20 years today since Timor-Leste officially voted for independence, in a deeply risky and determined act of defiance against its occupier and neighbour, Indonesia; announcing itself as the very first new country of the 21st century on a hot dry afternoon at the very end of an August not nearly as long ago as it seems.
After 450 years as a Portuguese colony, Timor-Leste—which occupies the eastern half of Timor island, a pebble of a place tossed just off Darwin’s north coast—enjoyed a brief nine days of independence in 1975, as Portugal’s emerging anti-fascist revolution quickly sought to cast off the country’s colonies. The local Fretilin party—a gristly band of beardy Communist thinkers—declared victory over a pair of rivals and inaugurated its leadership into Timor-Leste’s first-ever independent government.
But that joy was short-lived.
On 7 December 1975, Indonesia surged across Timor island’s western border; day one of a brutal invasion that would last for 24 years, end hundreds of thousands of lives, tear families apart, and almost grind the Timorese into the ground.
Tasi Tolu, where we stand tonight with near-clean shoes, was a well-known site for Indonesian soldiers to rough up dissidents. The Timorese journalist Naldo Rei, a dreadlocked polyglot from the country’s far-eastern tip, wrote of being dragged over Tasi Tolu’s spikey shrubs and cacti, tied behind an Indonesian-driven car; skin ripped apart until red-raw and bleeding. He was lucky, he wrote—they’d dug his grave in the Tasi Tolu dust before changing their minds.
The public line Indonesia gave to watching outsiders was that it was developing Timor-Leste; building roads and bridges and water pipes and schools, styling itself as a benevolent neighbour deeply concerned about the fragile, new baby state on the edge of its island; perhaps one susceptible to the Southeast Asian communists then deeply feared by Australia and the United States; and oh, isn’t it good that old friend Suharto’s here to help.
In the mid-1960s Indonesia had brutally murdered 500,000 of its citizens suspected of being members of its Communist Party; so they were more than prepared, they reassured the world, to stem any commie spread to Timor Timur; the new name they’d given to Timor-Leste.
Timur means ‘east’ in Indonesian; Timor comes from the word ‘east’ in Malay. Leste also means east—in the Portuguese of the country’s first colonisers; a language which remains one of Timor-Leste’s two official tongues.
At the independence vote celebration at Tasi Tolu, it’s littered throughout the program.
Eufrazia and I peer at the final event listed in the jpeg schedule a friend’s texted to me—after traditional dancing, music performances, a long speech from the President, the granting of Orders of Timor-Leste, everything running an hour behind schedule already but no one ever in a rush—there’s listed something called brinde no fogu de artifisu; a mysterious combination of the Tetun word for ‘and’ and the Portuguese words for ‘cheers’, ‘fire’, ‘of’, and ‘artificial’, which we only learn after a ponytailed Portuguese tourist, three days into the country and taking selfies with the giggling kids sitting next to us, translates to English for me. Cheers and artificial fire.
The fireworks are spectacular; cracking high and bright and brilliant over the night sky; dusting us with smoky residue that smarts in our eyes and mixes with the dry-season dust that has returned to our clothes, our shoes, our hair, everywhere. We walk back to the Pajero with a crowd of thousands, through honking motorbikes and along the skinny stinking drainage canal, tired and hot and sweating and proud.
Eufrazia was just 15 in 1999—too young to vote in the sudden independence referendum announced by a rattled BJ Habibie, the Indonesian president who ascended to power when Suharto’s regime finally fell. Dogged activism and resistance meant the Timor-Leste problem wouldn’t go away, and Indonesia’s allies were increasingly nervous about new reports of the brutality and violence continuing inside the sealed-off Timur.
The cold-blooded murder of more than 200 peaceful student protesters in a Dili cemetery in 1991—in direct and devastating contrast to Indonesia’s line that Timor-Leste was peacefully settled; that daily life was muddling on like normal, that actually only a couple of people died in that tragic accident, really, and that shh, everything’s fine here—roused Australia and the United States and turned heat onto an already-crumbling Indonesian regime. It took seven more years to fall, but mere weeks after his inauguration, a nervous Habibie was offering Timor-Leste a vote for independence.
This week in Dili, a new bridge was inaugurated: the BJ Habibie bridge. A huge, sweeping steel structure around a bend in the beachside suburb of Bidau, running in tandem with the older, smaller bridge my friends and I always knew as pig bridge, because of the old fat sows you can see snuffling round the mud below; teats swinging heavy and snouts dripping wet, past where we used to go for early-morning walks before the heat of the day’s sun set in. Habibie’s bridge is brochure-perfect brilliant, still with its sails up from the ceremony, and no one seems to find it odd that a shiny new symbol of growing Timor-Leste is named for the anti-independence confidante of the dictator responsible for the invasion.
Eufrazia’s husband, Ane, was 18 in 1999; quiet and round-faced and softly spoken. He remembers lining up at the school opposite his house in Farol, central Dili, to cast his vote, before starting the three-hour-long drive to his family’s hometown of Balibo—the town near the Indonesian border made famous for the brutal 1975 murder of the five Australian-based journalists at the very beginning of Indonesia’s invasion.
Two teams of reporters were at the border to cover the imminent invasion, and they assumed that as journalists from neutral observer countries, they’d be safe. They were fatally wrong.
Declassified intelligence cables showed that Australia’s embassy in Indonesia had advance warning of the invasion, and knew that the Australians were stationed at Balibo—but chose not to intervene. In part to keep secret from Indonesia the extent of its intelligence capability, and in part to keep the archipelago on-side: in 1972 Australia had just signed a generous treaty with Indonesia that gave it broad access to the valuable oil and gas resources in the ocean off Australia’s northern coast.
Timor-Leste—then still a colony of Portugal, who wasn’t interested in Australia’s greedy overreaching negotiating position—represented the final piece in a long thin seabed line that promised unimaginable wealth, hundreds of billions of dollars for decades, to Australia. Friendly Indonesia seemed a lot easier to deal with than reluctant Portugal or an untested, vulnerable new country.
For 24 years Australia sat just over an hour’s flight away as Timor-Leste burned. Prime ministers offered tepid, belated, hand-wringing warnings to Indonesia—do your violence more subtly; draw less attention to your genocide, was the tone—and pretended not to notice thousands marching against the occupation in its city streets. Free East Timor. Referendum now. Hundreds of thousands of Timorese and allies in streets and halls and homes and cities all over the world; marching and crying and calling out for change.
Today, Timor-Leste is peaceful. A backpacked German tourist on the shuttle bus from Darwin Airport asked me where I’d come from, and expressed her surprise that it was so safe. “When did the war finish?” she asked me.
Fires burned across Timor-Leste for months after the independence result was announced—embarrassed Indonesian troops torched the country as they retreated, and the dangerous militia groups they supported ravaged the country before international peacekeepers arrived; thick Australians in thudding boots sharing tubes of condensed milk and Vegemite with little kids on the streets, who’d teach their siblings and cousins to call out ‘Mister, mister!’ to any white person they saw. Friends ran into the hills and hid in the clothes they’d escaped in for days, bathing in rivers and waiting desperately for safety.
Slowly, they came back down, filling towns and rebuilding homes, one by one; repairing schools and churches and roads and eventually erecting big steel bridges named for the man who gave them the chance to vote. Starting work and settling down and having kids and letting them grow up. Taking out your Australian tenant and a rattling little white Pajero, bought cheap and crunched-up after a friend of a friend ran it off the pig bridge, held together with masking tape but still getting us all the way to Tasi Tolu and back again for tonight’s celebration of Timor-Leste, Timor-Leste.
Photos by the author and Andrew Mercer