Profile – By Adrian Hatwell.
Gizela’s story: A distressing film screening has brought back memories of a conflict-torn childhood, military oppression, and the death of loved ones for a young Timorese woman studying in New Zealand.
The film Balibo chronicles the 1975 killings of six Australian-based journalists in East Timor. It screened at the Reporting Wars seminar hosted by AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre. After watching Balibo, Gizela Moniz da Silva felt compelled to share her own story from that troubled territory.
Gizela is a first-year psychology student, in New Zealand on an NZAID scholarship. She said it was the dreams she once held of becoming a journalist back in East Timor that made the film especially touching.
“It made you so angry at the Indonesian people,” Gizela said. “I had heard the story a lot, from my parents, from my grandparents, from everyone… but only after independence. During Indonesian times we were never allowed to talk about those things.”
After being decolonised by Portugal in 1975 and declaring independence, East Timor endured a brutal occupation by Indonesia during which thousands of Timorese were killed while under military control.
In 1999, an United Nations-supervised referendum was held in which the people of East Timor voted to become an independent nation, prompting violent clashes with elements of the Indonesian military.
Gizela’s father was arrested by the Indonesian military and imprisoned for much of her childhood, she said it was only due to the vigilance of the International Committee of Red Cross that they were able to establish that he was still alive and hadn’t gone missing like so many other Timorese.
Growing up in East Timor under Indonesian occupation was a difficult experience, Gizela said. Having to run from school to the safety of the mountains was a common occurrence, but the most tragic event of all was the killing of her brother, Atanacio Moniz.
“Biologically he was not my brother, he was my cousin. But his Dad was arrested and had gone missing and his Mum had died of disease, so we had grown up together as sister and brother. Calling him cousin feels too far.”
In 1999, three days before the nation would vote for independence, a militia force was attacked a small village, where Gizela and her family witnessed the locals being gunned down.
“There were people all over the street, they had just gotten so angry they didn’t care whether they were going to die, they just wanted to protect their homes,” she said.
“I hoped that when the Indonesian police turned up, the situation would get better, but when they arrived they didn’t do anything. They were just standing there, hundreds of them, while the militia fired into houses trying to kill the young people.”
Her brother told Gizela to flee from the skirmish but she decided she could not leave.
“You can’t just accept people killing your people, you can’t just run away,” Gizela said. “I had to go back, I just wanted to see the truth.”
She said the local media was under the thumb of the Indonesian military and would not report the truth in fear for their safety; meanwhile foreign journalists were violently barred from doing their jobs too. For Gizela, the only way to get to the truth was first-hand.
As the gunfire increased her brother again urged her to run. Frightened, she and her younger cousin began to crawl below the gunfire towards their home when some locals caught up to them and said her brother had been shot.
“I didn’t believe it. I went back and saw him being carried by people. I could see his brain coming out of his head,” Gizela said. “I didn’t know what to do. Nobody knew what to do. I just kept screaming ‘please take him to hospital’.”
However, the militia and police had blocked the road and would not let anyone access the hospital, instead the boy was taken by a relative to a nearby UN office while the rest of the family returned home to pray.
That afternoon the family received a call to say that Atanacio had died.
“It was such a bad situation, we could not even bury him properly,” Gizela said.
“It is tradition that he has to wear nice things, he has to have a proper coffin, he has to be buried as human. But we did not have all of this for him, we could not even go out of the house, every day there was shooting all over.
“So we made do with whatever we had… we borrowed someone else’s new clothes, the neighbourhood gave us some wood to make a coffin… people would bring food, we ate together, and we buried him.”
Atanacio was killed on August 27 1999; he was buried on August 28; on August 30 the nation voted for their independence. He was 23 years old.
“He was a great person. He never knew where his father had been taken… but he kept his hope alive,” Gizela said. “He would say ‘when Timor gets independence he may return home, maybe they kept him somewhere in prison nobody knew about. When we get independence he will come home’.”
She says that since gaining independence, life in Timor-Leste has gotten much better and she is optimistic things will continue to improve despite difficult decisions facing the nation.
“We have many justice issues in our country, many people are angry that the government wants to keep a good relationship between Timor and Indonesia by just forgiving those who have killed their brothers and sisters,” Gizela said.
“In many cases the Timorese people know who has killed, there are those who were raped but still alive who know who did it, and yet these people are not taken to trial. This is why many Timorese want to have an International tribunal… to bring justice for the people of Timor.”
However there are others who disagree with this course of action, Gizela said. They fear that a tribunal into crimes committed during the occupation will destroy the fragile relationship between Timor and Indonesia.“So far we don’t know what the government is planning,” said Gizela. “For now I’m just focusing on my education, so I can go back to my country and do something good, even if it is only small.”
Before coming to New Zealand Gizela worked with Unicef in Timor doing social work and providing journalists with information and conduct training. On completing her studies she hopes to return to the organisation where she can put her education to good use.
Adrian Hatwell is a post-graduate communications student at AUT University.