In July, 1999, Abel Guterres returned to his village in the eastern mountains of East Timor for the first time in 24 years. He sat reeling off names of relatives and friends, and to almost every second name, the reply was, “he’s dead”.
Mr Guterres is one of 15 children. In the years following the 1975 invasion of East Timor, Indonesian forces killed 13 of his siblings and his father, Reciboro.
For two decades he sacrificed his spare time and money to campaign from Melbourne for East Timor’s independence. Next week he will return to help organise East Timor’s first democratic election on August 30.
The man who arrived penniless in Melbourne with no knowledge of English will serve in the new government that has to rebuild East Timor from scratch. Mr Guterres has been groomed to become a diplomat.
He spent the past year studying international law and politics on a British Council scholarship at Oxford University.
The decision to leave his New Zealand-born wife, Vicky, and three daughters at home in Murrumbeena was made more gut-wrenching by Vicky’s diagnosis with cancer a week before he was to fly to London.
He decided to go to London when Vicky’s parents flew from New Zealand to look after her. A committee of supporters raised $40,000 to look after the family while Vicky had chemotherapy.
Melburnians might recognise Abel Guterres. For 19 years, until 1999, he drove trams and buses - with a high wattage smile and easygoing nature.
But all his spare time went to the cause of East Timorese self-determination.
In 1985, Mr Guterres became the Australian spokesman for the independence body Fretilin, in 1990, the spokesman for the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT). He spoke to the media, organised rallies, pestered MPs and spent his annual leave meeting politicians overseas.
A high point came in 1977 when he helped persuade the Fraser government to grant East Timorese refugees permanent residency. A low point occurred after Labor gained office in 1983 and failed to stand up to Indonesia on East Timor.
“But it didn’t discourage us,” Mr Guterres said. “It sort of made us more determined to fight.”
It was only in 1999, on an emotional eight-hour visit to his home village of Baguia, a hamlet 170 kilometres east of Dili, that Mr Guterres learnt what had happened to his brother Miguel.
A nephew reported that one day in 1981 Miguel was forced to walk all day carrying ammunition up a mountainside for Indonesian soldiers. At midnight, tired and hungry, he refused to walk any further. The soldiers shot him in the head.
Mr Guterres had left East Timor in September, 1975. He was 19 and teaching at Baucau at the time, 140kilometres east of Dili, remote from the civil war raging in the west, but aware of the threat. “From Baucau, you could look north to the sea and see Indonesian warships,” he said.
On impulse, he and a friend boarded a Red
Cross evacuation plane at the airport in Baucau. “We said, we’ll go to
Darwin for two weeks, see what it’s like and then go home,” he said. The
Indonesian invasion two months later extended the two weeks to 24 years.
His return to East Timor in 1999 to vote and observe the referendum was exhilarating, but also risky. The day after the referendum, he and five friends narrowly escaped death when their car was shot at by militia outside Dili.
He believes he was allowed to fly out two days later because he has the same surname as the pro-Indonesian militia leader Eurico Guterres.
Mr Guterres is unsure how long he will spend in East Timor.
The next five years will be crucial. “At the moment, everything in East Timor is a problem. From building the infrastructure to building institutions, economic development and food production.
“If East Timor wasn’t totally destroyed, I would have given up and let somebody else take over, but now the country requires everybody’s time and energy and help.
“You still have to do your bit. You have an obligation to those people who died.”
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