Orphan grows up in the arms of rebels
NALDO Rei was nine or 10 when he crept into the hills on his first clandestine mission for the East Timorese guerillas. His father had just been killed by the Indonesian military and the boy was furious and despairing.
Asked to deliver a package of bullets and clothing to the Falantil guerillas, he set off early one morning and soon smelled the smoke of Indonesian soldiers’ cigarettes. He knew that if he were caught his life would be forfeit.
Calling on his ancestors’ spirits, he successfully evaded the patrol and eventually delivered the package.
These days the casual reader may raise a quizzical eyebrow when asked to believe the tale of a child soldier who braved the enemy at an age when an Australian boy would barely be permitted to run to the corner shop. But Rei’s story mirrors the bloodsoaked history of his homeland, a place where few were spared and almost everyone was war fodder: children, pregnant women, the elderly, the infirm.
Born six months before Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975, Rei’s first years were spent with his family in the jungle, hiding from the enemy. An easterner from a farming family, by 14 he had moved to the capital, Dili, to co- ordinate a network of clandestine couriers.
He was at the Santa Cruz cemetery when the Indonesian military massacred dozens of his compatriots, a slaughter caught on film, which finally turned international opinion against the occupation. He didn’t see his mother for 16 years during the occupation. He was imprisoned at least 15 times and, according to his account, routinely tortured: his toenails crushed or pulled out, his ribs broken, his genitals electrically shocked.
Along the way he acquired a series of new names. The much- loved resistance leader Xanana Gusmao called him ‘‘ Puto, Oan Kiak Funo’’: young son, orphan of war. The name Naldo Rei came from an East Timorese woman who cared for him in Dili and it means missing a mother’s kisses. He also had several aliases for his underground work.
After spending some time in Jakarta, where he occupied the Dutch embassy on Gusmao’s orders, he fled to Australia. The 1995 embassy occupation was a desperate attempt to publi- cise the oppression in East Timor and it was covered by the Western media. Rei was finally arrested and dragged away to South Jakarta police station.
In Australia, where Rei arrived as an asylumseeker in 1997, life was easier. He learned English and made some firm friends. After the East Timorese voted for independence in 1999, Rei returned to a free nation, found his family and finally wound up working as a press attache for prime minister Mari Alkatiri.
According to the book’s frontispiece, Rei has a masters in international communication from Sydney’s Macquarie University, but if he wrote it unassisted he is obviously a language prodigy: the book is clearly and cleanly written, even though Rei did not begin to learn English until he was an adult.
Regardless of the niceties of the grammar, Resistance is a portrait of a brave and resourceful young man who was willing to risk his life time and time again during many of the bloody years that shaped a new nation. Resistance is the history of East Timor’s liberation writ small, layered over Rei’s extraordinary life.
Now the heady first days of independence are long gone and the tiny nation has been beset with a domino fall of disasters: civil strife, tent cities of refugees who refuse to shift, a locust plague, floods, drought and, most recently, the attempted assassination of leaders Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta. Yet, despite everything, many East Timorese remain stubbornly positive, hoping for a brighter future: ‘‘ Viva Timor Leste’’, as Rei might say. Sian Powell covered East Timor’s transition to independence for The Australian and was the paper’s Indonesian correspondent from 2003 to 2006.