East Timor: a comic opera turns tragedy

For most Americans, the starvation of hundreds of thousands of humble villagers in East Timor is a rather vague sort of tragedy. Half of an island located north of Australia, east of Java, west of New Guinea -- most people have only the haziest notion where any of these areas are, much less Timore itself. It's hard to identify with human suffering in a place you've never heard of.

But for me the impact is vivid and direct, because I am one of the few Westerners who ever visited East Timor while it was still a sleepy Portuguese colony. When I look at photos of gaunt, starving children or read accounts of firebombing and wholesale destruction, it is a shock to reconcile these images with my memory of reasonably well-fed Timorese who were isolated from prosperity yet also removed from deprivation. It seems as strange to think of the desolation of East Timor as it would be to envision the ruin of New York or Chicago.

I came to the island nearly a decade ago as a young backpack traveler on my way across Asia. The view from the airplane I had boarded in Australia was my first glimpse of the Orient. Subconsciously I had pictured the East as overflowing with inhabitants, packed elbow to elbow -- so I was surprised to find myself staring over rugged hills covered with dense green forest. Here and there I spotted a clearing, ringed with thatched huts and brown footpaths leading to small fields. I scarcely imagined that four years later those hills would provide refuge for Timorese guerrillas fleeing an Indonesian invasion.

Ironically, my own few weeks' stay in East Timor would have been shorter were it not for border tensions between the Portuguese and the Indonesians controlling the western half of the island, disrupting transportation. American officials in Jakarta privately characterized the conflict as a comic-opera affair, in which a few shots were occasionally exchanged and the only casualty might be a cow.

Unfortunately there was nothing funny about the events which took place some time after I left. On Aug. 11, 1975, emboldened by a change of government in Portugal, a moderate Timorese independence party, the UDT, announced it was taking over. A bloody civil war ensued, principally between the UDT and a Marxist-oriented faction known as Fretilin. After weeks of fighting, Fretilin gained the upper hand.

Indonesia refrained from major interference during this period, though issuing warnings that it would not countnance the formation of a communist-leaning government on a "People's Republic of East Timor," Indonesia's reaction was swift. On the pretext of a call from rival factions, the Indonesians moved in and quickly quashed resistance in Dili and other towns. Timorese militants retreated to the hills. In July 1976, Indonesia formally incorporated East Timor as its 27th province.

Australian officials were outraged by the brutality of the Indonesian invasion, citing widespread looting, rape, and torture. Military operations continued in the countryside, to strengthen control. One Portuguese eye-witness has described saturation bombing of villages and accused the Indonesians of genocide. US reports have estimated the death toll through war and famine at up to 100,000; some humanitarian groups claimed it was really twice that much. By the end of 1979, perhaps 200,000 Timorese were suffering from acute malnutrition.

To assert, as some have, that the present crisis is largely the result of earlier Portuguese neglect and the practice of primitive slash-and-burn farming techniques seems, as Congressman Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa put it, "Ludicrous." The opposite view -- that Indonesia deliberately fostered the famine to starve the rebels out -- may be exaggerated. Certainly economic displacement during the colony's civil war played a part, as did poor weather conditions. Nevertheless, it appears clear that the situation never would have reached such an extreme if not for ruthless Indonesian occupation policies.

East Timor may seem remote, but its people -- and their suffering -- are very real. Yet for years their plight has been virtually ignored by the rest of the world. Even now, there is a controversy as to whether international humanitarian aid is effectively reaching those who so desperately need it.

There is no telling how many lives coild have been saved if the indonesian Government had not waited until last year -- after Fretilin's power was completely broken -- to ask for international relief aid. According to recent accounts, malnutrition in East Timor is no longer as acute as it was, although villagers still perish each month from cumulative effects. Apparently the worst is over. Let us hope, for everybody's peace of mind, that it is.

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