Forgotten victims of East Timor's invasion demand to be heard
Source: The Canberra Times
DILI: When East Timorese voters go to the polls on Saturday to choose their new president, every candidate with a chance of victory will be a veteran of the struggle against Indonesia.
The thousands of fighters in that long war, the oldest and best known of whom are the ''generation of 1975'', were recently provided with a generous compensation scheme set up by the government in recognition of their service.
But there is another group that has gone barely mentioned by this country's tight-knit political elite: the other victims of the invasion, the people, many of them women, who were raped or brutalised, or lost parents, husbands or children during the long occupation.
Domingas da Silva was 17 when the Indonesians invaded, and 21 when they took her captive during the mass surrender in the southern town of Viqueque in 1979. Over the following years she was raped multiple times and ultimately bore six children to different Indonesian soldiers.
At 54, the pain of those events still fills her with tears.
''I felt like I lost my dignity and it was painful in my heart,'' she said last week.
Her family and neighbours rejected her, and only the local Catholic priest supported her.
Even so, Ms da Silva spent many years she can barely remember, her mind made blank by a mental illness she cannot name. ''Because of this attitude it made me think too much, and then I got dizzy,'' she says.
Her mental state continued for 20 years, until after independence in 1999, when Ms da Silva was brought to the capital, Dili, and received help from a group called PRADET (Psychosocial Recovery & Development in East Timor), dedicated to trauma recovery. She is stronger now, and able to speak out. She wants some recognition of her pain, and some measure of justice, though not financial, because her children and grandchildren support her.
The Association for the Victims of the Conflict 1974-99 was formed to lobby for people such as Ms da Silva. A spokesman, Jose Luis Oliveira, says pleas for recognition have been ignored by the veterans and politicians. A bill tabled in East Timor's parliament seeking reparation for victims has languished since 2009.
''So the victims become victims again because the state is violating them by omission,'' he says. ''This is very painful because in the past it was the victims who gave the soldiers food and helped the veterans in the jungle.''
Ms da Silva's needs are secondary, among East Timor's leaders, to two more pressing issues. The first is the veterans, a powerful lobby who pose a threat of unrest in this tiny country.
The second is East Timor's desire to have a strong relationship with its powerful neighbour, Indonesia. Despite the mutual scars, East Timor's youth have embraced Indonesian brands and pop culture, and many of the traders are Indonesian, or from naturalised Indonesian stock.
At the political level, leaders across the spectrum have gone out of their way to forgive wrongs, forget the hurt and enter dialogue with East Timor's neighbour.
The presidential candidate for the political party Fretilin, Francisco ''Lu Olo'' Guterres, said: ''As president of the republic my No.1 role would be to nurture and maintain the relationship with Indonesia.''
Mr Guterres, a veteran of the war whose wife and many relatives were killed by Indonesian troops, says now it's the responsibility of Indonesia and the UN to recognise victims and seek or provide justice.
''It is the character of the people of Timor Leste that they know how to forgive,'' Mr Guterres says.
The former Australian envoy James Dunn believes ''reconciliation is important for a lot of East Timorese people … but people still care a lot about it and feel really badly hurt''.
Mr Oliveira says that the suffering of victims has ''been traded for peaceful international relations''.
As for Ms da Silva, her plea is a simple one. ''I ask the government, please, pay attention to us.''