Or­phan grows up in the arms of rebels

Sian Pow­ell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.