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Page last updated at 15:17 GMT, Thursday, 9 October 2008 16:17 UK

Timor hero still seeking a future

Many ordinary people were celebrated as heroes for the role they played during East Timor's struggle for independence from Indonesia.

Dutch journalist Tjitske Lingsma, who reported on the conflict, tracked down a young man who saved the Timorese enclave of Oecussi by smuggling a desperate plea for help inside his flip flops.


Lafu
Lafu was hailed as a hero for rescuing the people of Oecussi
The taxi stops at the arts school just off the main road in Dili, East Timor's coastal capital. A student shakes his head: "Lafu was seen here for the last time in 2004."

Later, we hear that Lafu has returned to the family home in the East Timorese enclave of Oecussi in Indonesian West Timor, the scene of brutal attacks during the independence struggle.

Twelve hours later, after an uncomfortable night on a ferry, the jungle-clad mountains of Oecussi loom.

Lafu, 25, is waiting on the quayside among a crowd of people gathered to meet the boat. On his borrowed motorbike he leads the way to a whitewashed house with an attached corrugated iron shed where he tells his story.

Flip flops and a catapult

Lafu, whose full name is Fredolino Jose Landos da Cruz Buno Sila, was a wild boy. Aged 13 he slapped his school teacher in a fit of anger and ran away from home.

He did not return for three years until 1999 when Indonesia agreed to a referendum on independence for East Timor after 24 years of occupation.

East Timor map
Lafu was too young to vote but those who could voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. In response the Indonesian army and loyalist militia groups unleashed an orgy of violence.

Lafu fled to the mountain hamlet of Kutete with thousands of refugees but with basic supplies running short he set off for a nearby village to look for a shop.

"I was wearing a black baseball cap with a ribbon in the Indonesian colours, red and white, so the militia would think I was pro-Indonesia," he recalls.

While he was away the militias came to the village, destroying it and forcing the refugees down to the beach where they huddled together in fear.

With the Indonesian army planning an assault on Oecussi the pro-independence leaders chose Lafu for the dangerous task of crossing the military lines to deliver a plea for help to the Australian-led international peacekeeping force, Interfet.

From a chest in the room, Lafu pulls out a catapult and a pair of flip flops. He takes up one of the shoes and carefully pulls apart the sole. "Here they hid the letter," he says.

'Betrayed'

In the morning he set off for Atambua, a border town crawling with militia. "They invited me to drink. With a [pounding] heart I agreed. I took my flip flops off so I could sit on them. When the militia were very drunk I ran away.

"By shooting birds with my catapult I could get closer in a seemingly innocent way - until I was stopped by an Indonesian soldier who warned me that Interfet was nearby."

Lafu bolted: "I sprinted towards the border where I saw Australians. I lifted my arms and walked towards the soldiers."

Interfet soldier
An Australian peacekeeper guards East Timorese refugees in Dili in 1999
Lafu had escaped and was taken to Dili by helicopter where he delivered his plea for help to Interfet commander, Maj General Peter Cosgrove, and Timorese guerrilla leader Taur Matan Ruak.

To his horror Interfet did not immediately decide to rescue the besieged people of Oecussi. Instead Lafu was taught how to operate a radio and taken back to Oecussi, where the foreign soldiers abandoned him on the beach. "They had betrayed me," says Lafu.

By the time Lafu rejoined the pro-independence leaders in Oecussi killings had already begun.

In desperation, with starvation looming and the militias circling, Lafu used his radio to contact Interfet to tell them that an attack was under way. "It is not going well. I have to run," he said and switched off the radio.

The next morning the refugees were awoken by the sound of approaching helicopters. "We ran towards the beach and could only cry. We were finally safe!"

Lafu had rescued the enclave and became a hero.

'Drinking to forget'

Oecussi
In Oecussi there are few jobs for young men such as Lafu
An Australian who heard Lafu's story sent money so the family could rebuild their house. Today his father rents it to UN workers for $100 (58) a month.

The income is a lifeline and pays for school fees for Lafu's brothers and sisters.

Despite his hero status, the post-independence years have not been kind to Lafu. In Dili a former bishop sponsored him through theatre school but in 2003 the money ran out and Lafu left.

"After that I tried to join the army," he says, "but I failed the physical test."

Then his mother died. "I started to get bored and became a thug.

"I joined a gang which protected the neighbourhood where I lived against other gangs. During serious fights people got wounded and even killed."

I am happy because we have freedom, but sad because we don't have work
Lafu
Disillusioned with life in the capital Lafu returned to Oecussi in 2006 just as the fragile peace was shattered again when rebels, army, police and criminals clashed. People died and houses were burned in the violence.

"I left Dili because I could not find a job. But in Oecussi I have no work either," Lafu laments. "The government is neglecting us."

Lafu belongs to a lost generation of young Timorese who do not know where their lives are going.

"I am happy because we have freedom, but sad because we don't have work. With friends I often start drinking to forget our situation.

"We drink until we get sick. Only then we stop."


SEE ALSO
E Timor's wealth: blessing or curse?
24 Sep 08 |  Asia-Pacific
UN rejects Timor attack 'failure'
21 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Indonesia regrets E Timor wrongs
15 Jul 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: East Timor
07 Aug 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: East Timor
07 Aug 08 |  Country profiles


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