BACK DOOR Newsletter on East Timor      home    March news

"Investigators and women’s organisations agree rape plagued both East Timor and West Timor following the ballot on independence in 1999, and in many cases constituted both a war crime and a crime against humanity. “A lot of rapes happened in the chaos,” Wandita says, explaining that women separated from their families were pounced on by marauding packs of men. But beyond that, she says, many of the rapes were planned, organised and sustained as a joint effort by the military and the militias. “There was obviously collusion,” she says." Sian Powell, Dili
See also: BD: East Timorese Women's Issues - A collection of recent information, petitions, articles and news

The Weekend Australian

Edition 1 SAT 10 MAR 2001, Page 001

East Timor’s children of the enemy

By: Sian Powell * Dili


A CHILD of the new nation of East Timor, five-month-old Rai, is much loved by his mother. He is one of the first generation born free, yet his past will imprison him. His mother is Lorenca Martins, now 23, a wistful East Timorese woman with eyes only for her child. His father is Maximu, a militia thug and rapist. Maximu raped Martins in a refugee camp near Atambua, over the border in West Timor, where she was exiled for six months. A member of the notorious Besi Merah Putih gang (Red and White Iron), he first violated her on December 8, 1999, in broad daylight, in the jungle. “It happened to many women (in the camps),” she says. “If they saw a beautiful woman, they just took her.” Shrugging and fidgeting, she explains that she now lives with her cousin and his family on the outskirts of Ermera, a hill town south of Dili.

She has never thought about abandoning Rai, even though he is the son of the enemy. “I have to accept the baby,” she says. “Because of the war, that’s what happened. And also, he was given by God.” She has no hopes for herself. “I don’t want to get married. I just want to look after my baby.  I have had a bad life, and if I marry the badness will follow.”

Martins, who in the eyes of many East Timorese is soiled, used and beyond redemption, is one of potentially thousands of victims of a concerted and violent campaign of rape that swept across East Timor, accelerating after the August 1999 vote on independence. Like so many other violated East Timorese women, Martins has managed to divorce the reality of her child’s parentage from the trauma of the rape. No one who works with raped women in East Timor can recall a single instance of a woman abandoning a child because it is the product of rape.

Rather, they often cling to their children, renouncing any desire for a normal family with a husband. The extent of the campaign of sexual assaults is only now coming to light.

“Planned, organised and sustained” by militia and the Indonesian military, according to one local aid organisation report, the damage is so far incalculable because East Timorese women often shy away from reporting the crimes. Nevertheless, the chief sex crimes investigator for the UN, former Australian Federal Police officer David Senior, says the final count will probably run into the thousands. Senior has no doubt rape was used as a weapon of war in East Timor.

“The victims of rape were the wives and children of independence supporters and Falintil,” he says. “It was to punish and torture the people for their pro-independence views.”

In the dirty conflicts dotting the globe, sexual assault and slavery have become part of the military manual. The magnitude of rape in East Timor and the extent of its use as a weapon of war is only now beginning to emerge.  Many traumatised women, who fear being spurned by their husbands, families and neighbours, have kept silent, yet even so the UN already has hundreds of cases on its books, potentially making East Timor one of the world’s worst sites for rape, joining the likes of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
Galuh Wandita, a UN human rights officer with a particular interest in women’s issues, says the cases so far recorded are a promising start. “But it’s the tip of the iceberg, that’s for sure.” Meanwhile the abuse continues unabated in the refugee camps of West Timor, with accounts of rape and sexual slavery accompanying a steady stream of traumatised women returning to the east. Two women returning at Covalima near the West Timor border in recent weeks told of being kept in sexual slavery. Bernard Kerblatt, the chief of operations for the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees in East Timor, tells of a 13-year-old who was retrieved from the West Timor camps less than a fortnight ago.

Kept in sexual slavery, she had been beaten, knocked unconscious and raped for the last time the day before she was returned to her family in East Timor. “Sexual exploitation continues to exist,” Kerblatt says. “But the people themselves won’t talk about it.” Since UNHCR’s withdrawal from West Timor last year following the tragedy in which three staff members were killed by militia, information from the camps is hard to come by. What is known, though, is that more than 100,000 East Timorese are still in exile in West Timor, many of them against their will. The scale of human rights violations is enormous, says Patrick Burgess, the head of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor human rights unit. “There’s rape, large-scale intimidation, people are not free to move, not free to express themselves, not free to return to their homes. They don’t get accurate information about East Timor, they’re told there’s a war going on here, that the peacekeepers are raping East Timorese.”

Investigators and women’s organisations agree rape plagued both East Timor and West Timor following the ballot on independence in 1999, and in many cases constituted both a war crime and a crime against humanity. “A lot of rapes happened in the chaos,” Wandita says, explaining that women separated from their families were pounced on by marauding packs of men.  But beyond that, she says, many of the rapes were planned, organised and sustained as a joint effort by the military and the militias. “There was obviously collusion,” she says.

The co-ordination between the TNI (the Indonesian military) and the militias has even been officially admitted by the former governor and district heads in the territory, and the former military chief of East Timor, Brigadier-General Tono Suratman, in interviews with the Indonesian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into East Timor. UNTAET’s chief sex crimes investigator, ex-Australian police officer Dave Senior, says that three men have been indicted for rape as a crime against humanity (although two of them remain out of UNTAET’s jurisdiction in West Timor). “The whole of East Timor is a crime scene because of what happened here,” he says.  “We’re trying to prove that the militia and military were using widespread and systematic violence to achieve their ends, which was to oppose the independence supporters.

Part of the violence was rape.” The world is slowly coming to understand the ways rape is used as a weapon of war, particularly in the tribal conflicts that have proliferated in the past 50 years or so. Civilian casualties now outstrip military deaths in these dirty little wars. Last month, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague ruled for the first time that mass rape constitutes a war crime and a crime against humanity. Three Bosnian Serbs were sentenced to between 12 and 28 years in jail for rapes.

In Rwanda, too, in 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal found a former mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide—the first time rape was found to be an act of genocide specifically designed to destroy an ethnic or tribal group. In July 1998, a treaty creating a permanent international criminal court expressly cited sexual crimes as within the court’s jurisdiction.

To date, the UN has not decided to institute an international criminal tribunal for East Timor but that time may come. Senior says there is proof that rape as a crime against humanity and a war crime was used in East Timor. He is appalled by the savagery and extent of the crimes. “There are women who were raped every day for months; they had no option, they were doing it under the threat of death,” he says. “There are others who were picked up from their homes, raped by half a dozen men and taken back, only for it to happen again the next night.” Unfortunately, the investigations into sex crimes in East Timor took a long time to get going. A Human Rights Watch report from August last year deemed investigations into rape cases “close to nonexistent....Serious investigations into rapes as crimes against humanity only began in July 2000; before then only two rape cases from 1999 were under active investigation.” The UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, has also determined that the sexual violence was organised and involved members of the militia and of the Indonesian military. “It is clear that the highest level of the military command in East Timor knew, or had reason to know, that there was widespread violence against women in East Timor,” she wrote in her official report.

Coomaraswamy also noted that elements of the Indonesian army used rape as an instrument of torture and intimidation before 1998 and that relatives of political opponents were raped by the military as a form of revenge or to force their relatives out of hiding. The pattern continued after the ballot. Yet no one can be sure of the extent of the crime and the depth of the trauma because many East Timorese women prefer to keep their mouths shut and let the wounds fester rather than risk being shunned by their families and communities.

Ubalda Alves, advocacy co-ordinator at the East Timorese women’s aid organisation Fokupers, says counsellors from the organisation go out into the villages to talk to women who might have been raped and who so far have kept their shame quiet. “Sometimes their families assault them because in our culture it’s very patriarchal and they think this is shameful for the family,” Alves says. “Their husbands don’t want to accept them again.” Wandita, though, says she knows of women who were kept in sexual slavery in the refugee camps of West Timor and who were welcomed by their husbands and families when they returned to East Timor. “They say: ‘This is the consequence of war and we accept you.’ But we also have the situation where women come back and the community accuses them of being the girlfriends of the militia.”

Wandita estimates that about half of all raped women who admit being violated return to condemnation and accusations. She describes the case of some women from Bobonaro, near the West Timor border, who were taken to West Timor and used as sexual slaves by militia. When they finally returned with their rape babies, they were not welcomed. Neighbours were hostile.  “It reflects a lack of understanding about the nature of rape,” Wandita says. “Obviously that also relates to norms in society here, the importance of virginity, that sex has to stay within marriage.” Wandita says even the women’s choice of words is telling. Those who had been used as sex slaves often referred to themselves as isteri simpanan—kept wives -- somehow sanitising the brutality of their experience with a veil of false respectability. Those East Timorese women who were impregnated by their rapists have little chance of concealing their trauma. Alves says that, to begin with, raped women who have become pregnant don’t want to accept the child. “Our society thinks it is very shameful. They think:
‘Why do you want to give your body like this?’ They think it’s the woman’s fault.”

Occasionally, that hostility is transferred to the baby—more by family members than by the pregnant women. “But we go and give counselling and finally [the women] accept it,” she says. The women’s resilience and love for babies fathered by the enemy continues to surprise many aid workers.

Wandita says the women seem to manage to keep the trauma and the child in separate boxes. “I’ve seen the women against all odds taking care of the children and becoming single mothers with all the difficult financial and social implications of that.” UNHCR’s Kerblatt says, moreover, that his field observations lead him to rank East Timorese mothers as among the least bitter towards their children. “Compared with what I’ve seen in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, there is less rejection of the children here.” The extent of the rapes has dislocated East Timorese society, rampaging hand-in-hand with terrible guilt.

In 1999, many pro-independence men and those who were members of the clandestine organisations supporting the Falintil resistance fighters fled to the hills to avoid the militia press-gang, leaving their wives and daughters vulnerable to the predations of the militia. Kirsty Sword Gusmao, wife of East Timor’s president-in-waiting, Xanana Gusmao, has been a vocal advocate of raped women for many months and most especially Juliana dos Santos, 16, who is still kept as a sex slave in West Timor by the militiaman who murdered her brother before her eyes.

Sword Gusmao says many East Timorese men will be slow to forgive themselves. “There is huge guilt about what has happened to their wives who were targeted because of [the men’s] work for the resistance.” Brutal strategy: a litany of evil RAPE became an important weapon in the arsenal of war in the late 20th century and it is certain that hundreds of thousands of women have been violated in the name of nationalism or tribal loyalty.

In the war in the former Yugoslavia, as many as 20,000 women and girls, mostly Muslims, were raped, according to a European Commission report. In Rwanda, more than 15,700 girls and women ages 12 to 65 were raped during the crisis in the 1990s, according to the nation’s department of women’s and family affairs.

In World War II, recent reports estimate, 100,000 to 200,000 women, mostly Korean, were abducted by Japanese soldiers and taken to the front lines to serve as “comfort women”. * In Bangladesh during the nine-month war for independence in 1971, 250,000 to 400,000 women were raped, producing 25,000 babies, according to International Planned Parenthood. [See the book: "The Rape of Bangladesh" - BD]

Unknown numbers of Ugandan women were raped by soldiers in the early ‘80s; as many as four in 10 Vietnamese boat women were raped in the ‘80s; and in the recent Sierra Leone civil war rape was a routinely used as a tool of terror. Hand grenade was rapist’s calling card DURING the mayhem that followed the East Timorese referendum in 1999, Francisca Soares was raped in front of five of her children, as well as other bystanders, a tactic used around the world to humiliate the victim as much as possible and steep families in shame and guilt. On September 13, 1999, in those weeks when East Timor went up in flames, Soares was sheltering with five of her children in Ermera, south of Dili. Her husband, Julio Batista, was known as a resistance supporter and he had fled into the hills with the three oldest children to escape the militia press gang.

Soares shudders as she remembers that Hilario, an East Timorese officer in the Indonesian army and the commander of the local Darah Merah (Red Blood) militia, came to her house in Ermera and shot Franky, now 8, in the leg.  That evening he rounded up the family, including a niece, and took them to Glenoe, a nearby town. “All of us were there, and when Hilario came he threatened us with a knife and a grenade,” she says. “He came back by himself; some of his friends [in the militia] stayed outside the place.” Soares, whose husband remains with her, is only slowly recovering from the shock.

She is receiving counselling from ETWave, an East Timorese women’s organisation that has also set her up with groceries for a small kiosk at the front of her house. She still tries to make sense of what happened.  “The militias suspected us because my husband ran away. Because they couldn’t find my husband, I was violated.” Year-long ordeal becomes a life sentence ISABELLE Salsinha Perreira smiles nervously as she holds on to her daughter Libania, 2, the product of being repeatedly raped.

Perreira typifies the difficulties East Timorese women have had dealing with rape, particularly when the offender had Indonesian or government connections. She was violated, sporadically, for a year, yet she felt she had no recourse. At the time she was going to school in Glenoe, a regional centre south of Dili, and living with her aunt’s family. She caught a man’s eye at a party, one Jose Maria from the Government Planning Office, and he followed her home. She doesn’t know if he was militia or if he later became militia, but other East Timorese people guess he did, as so many others in important government positions did. “When he came and knocked on the door, the family let him in because they were afraid,” she says, adding that she also suspects he paid the family. “I tried to refuse him, but I could not.  He kept coming back to rape me.” When Perreira’s pregnancy became obvious, her brother tried to report the rapes to the police, but Maria had left town. Perreira returned to her village, where she manages a subsistence smallholding to feed her mother, her daughter and herself.

Her neighbours were not kind. “They could not accept it, they said many bad words about me.” Perreira has abandoned any ambitions she once had to marry and have a family. Asked if she would now like to press charges, she just looks at the floor and doesn’t answer.

Caption: Mob: Violated: Picture: Anastasia T. Vrachnos Neighbours unkind: Picture: Anastasia T. Vrachnos Section: FEATURES


See also:
BD: East Timorese Women's Issues - A collection of recent information, petitions, articles and news

especially the section on Sexual & Other Violence


BACK DOOR Newsletter on East Timor      home    March news
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