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Tuesday, 14 September, 1999, 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK
The lost world of the Timor rebels
men saluting
Falintil commanders gathered to meet with a UN delegation
The rebels fighting for independence in East Timor have been at war with Jakarta since Indonesian forces invaded the territory in 1975. Jakarta Correspondent Jonathan Head visited them on the eve of the independence referendum in August:

The strains of an old Portuguese song from another era drift up from among the eucalyptus trees. Half-lit by the full moon, men with wild faces and long beards dance a slow polka with young women dressed in army fatigues.

East Timor
The party goes on right through the night. Never mind the scratchy music, and the scanty supply of beer, the veterans of Falintil, the legendary guerrilla army of East Timor, are letting their hair down. For the first time in their existence, they have stopped running.

Their camp is set in a glorious valley right in the heart of East Timor's rugged mountains. It's a tough, four-hour walk along high, grassy ridges and down secret gorges - but just a few months ago it might have been impossible to find them at all.

Fearful odds

For the East Timorese rebels have endured some of the most fearful odds faced by any military force. Isolated and largely ignored by the rest of the world, they have fought a desperate battle against the efforts of the Indonesian invaders to wipe them out - at times, they tell me, they had to move three or four times a day.

For weeks they were unable to cook the roots and leaves they gathered for fear of being spotted. Tens of thousands died. But the survivors have lived to see Indonesia's grip on the territory weaken, and the prospect of a referendum on their country's future.

I arrived to find the camp bustling with activity. Falintil commanders from all over East Timor had gathered for their first meeting with the United Nations, a moment of enormous significance, symbolising the international community's belated interest in their struggle.

They are larger-than-life characters, these commanders, held in awe by their men, whom they put through the rigours of a drill fashioned on the training they received in the Portuguese colonial army.

The generation of '75

face of guerrilla
Larger-than-life characters
Some have been in the forests ever since the Indonesian invasion - the generation of '75 as they're known. In their scarred and sun-blackened faces, I tried to understand a little of what they'd experienced.

They talk about the Fence-of-Legs operation in 1981, when they were surrounded by the Indonesian army, which drove the local population ahead of it to flush out the half-starved rebels. That, they say, was a very dark time.

Now, with a de facto ceasefire in place, the guerrillas are relishing renewed contact with the outside world. A seemingly endless procession of people from the surrounding villages bring in once unfamiliar luxuries. There is rice and coffee everyday now.

Generators power the television around which the fighters gather every night, clutching their rusty old rifles, to watch programmes beamed via satellite from Portugal.

Even more precious are the personal contacts. Lintil last saw his son when he was a baby, 15 years ago. Now the teenager is up for the school holidays, to get to know his father for the first time, and perhaps to learn some of the resilience which has kept the rebels going for so long.

Mauhunu, a former commander, is back for his first taste of life in the forest after being captured by the Indonesians six years ago.

He can scarcely contain his excitement - "Look, here's a spring where I used to drink," he says as he hands me a cup of the pure mountain water.

A changing world

un delegate
The UN's mission has few powers
But the world around them is changing fast, and they're finding it hard to keep up. I first felt this when the UN delegation arrived. The rebels marched in perfect formation for the blue-hatted visitors, ignoring the clouds of dust thrown up by the white UN helicopter.

Hundreds of Falintil followers were lined up to give a tremendous round of applause. It seemed almost enough that the UN was there at all.

But reality hit home once they sat down to talk. At one point Taur Matan Ruak, the Falintil leader, thumped his fist on the table in frustration as the UN patiently explained the limits of its mission. It's supposed to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms, while Indonesian troops remain in East Timor right up to the referendum.

Portuguese values

In their isolation, the East Timorese guerrillas have led a tough but very simple existence governed by values which come close to old-fashioned chivalry.

It's as though by keeping alive the military formalities they learned from the Portuguese a quarter of a century ago, they've kept a sense of who they are in the face of the Indonesian onslaught which aimed to turn East Timor into just another Indonesian province.

Even now, the language of the camp is Portuguese, which can be a problem for the newer recruits.

But a younger generation of Timorese still looks up to the older fighters, whose lonely struggle has inspired them to organise a broader pro-independence movement, often in the face of harsh repression by the Indonesian authorities.

Now those same students are coming up to try out the rigours of rebel life for themselves, if only for the summer holidays. And behind the camp, as they learn how to drill with mock wooden rifles, towers a mountain appropriately called Mundo Perdido - the lost world.

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 ON THIS STORY
Video
Jonathan Head reports on guerrilla activity in East Timor
Links to more From Our Own Correspondent stories are at the foot of the page.


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