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Independence breeds resentment in East Timor

Dream of a better life eludes former fighters

LAGA, East Timor -- On a narrow road strung perilously along a rock ledge above the beach, Cornelio Gama stopped his jeep and motioned to the spot where his rebel band had ambushed a column of three dozen Indonesian soldiers.

"This is where we destroyed them," Gama recounted, his wild, unkempt hair standing on end in the sea breeze, the fingers of his outstretched hand turned into stubs years ago by an Indonesian grenade.

"We killed them all," he continued, relishing the 23-year-old memory. "We took their guns. We took their money. We didn't lose a single man."

But today, a year after East Timor gained independence, this resistance commander is waging a losing battle along the same stretch of road. The fields of corn he planted last season have been ravaged by drought. The coconut palms are blighted, sickly brown leaves dangling from the lower reaches. The yield from his rice paddies is barely enough to provide for the former guerrillas he has taken under his wing because they cannot find work.

"Our dream was to get independence, but the reality is so different than what we thought because we're short of everything," said Gama, 58, a slight man with a bushy mustache. "Our mission was to win our liberty. Now it's the mission of the government to build the country. We are waiting for the government, but nothing has happened."

Known by his nom de guerre, Commandante L7, a reference to a long-lost ancestor, Gama now leads a secretive, quasi-religious movement of former rebels and other followers that fuses Catholic and animist practices. The villagers in this remote eastern end of the country believe he has magical powers.

But he also gives voice to the frustrations of a population that has seen the idealism of its 24-year struggle against Indonesian occupation run aground on the realities of independence in one of Asia's poorest lands. Two out of five people in East Timor live on less than 55 cents a day, deemed the bare minimum for food, clothes and housing. Three-quarters of the population of about 800,000 is without electricity and half is without safe drinking water, according to the World Bank.

"These are tough times and not just for me, but for all the people," Gama said.

The sacrifices to reach this point were tremendous, especially for the fighters of the National Liberation Armed Forces of East Timor, known as Falintil, who took to the jungle after Indonesia's 1975 invasion. Of the 152 guerrillas from his village, Gama said, only he and four others survived. His three sisters and two of his three brothers were killed. For years, he said, he subsisted on leaves, berries, and the occasional meal smuggled into camp by sympathetic villagers. He saw his wife only during trysts in mountain caves arranged by clandestine go-betweens.

It is impossible to confirm the details of his travails or his battlefield exploits. But fading tattoos on his arms and chest attest to his passion: the national flag, an open Bible, and a figure crying "Revolution!" The four stub fingers on his mutilated left hand were long ago healed with traditional medicine from tree bark.

What Gama said he needs now is a tractor for his rice fields, but the government has not made one available. He has asked officials to spray the diseased coconut palms, but again, no response. He has urged them to collect the bodies of fallen rebels and build a proper cemetery. And he has appealed for the government to provide jobs for those who survived. Officials have pleaded poverty.

"My followers fought for our liberty," he said. "We're asking that the government pay attention to them so their families can live."

Gama has found room for a few unemployed followers inside the creaky metal gates of his hilltop compound, overlooking a brown expanse of barren rice fields rambling down to the teal-blue sea.

Hector Alves, a stocky 30-year-old with a short black beard, is one of several veterans languishing in the shadows of the compound. He waits for odd jobs: driving Gama to town, helping in the rice paddies.

After joining Gama's forces, Alves had hoped to be rewarded with employment. But his time in the jungle -- and the tattoo of East Timor across his chest -- were not sufficient credentials. He has been turned down for government jobs given to others, including some who he says collaborated with the Indonesians. And he is bitter about those East Timorese who have found work with the United Nations or foreign development organizations.

"In the past, if I had learned to speak English or Portuguese, I could have a job," he said, scowling. "But instead I sacrificed myself for the resistance."

Some conditions have even deteriorated since the Indonesians withdrew. To subdue East Timor, the Indonesians sought to win popular favor by subsidizing a bloated civil service of local workers that is no longer affordable, according to local and international officials. Indonesia also provided cut-rate electricity and offered guaranteed prices to rice farmers that the new government cannot match, officials said.

To ensure that the military could operate in East Timor, Indonesia maintained the roads. Now, many of them are cratered and partly washed out by rains.

East Timorese officials say they are aware of the seeping disappointment.

"We have a frustration with the lack of understanding by our people, and by some leaders outside government, about what development takes," said Jose Teixeira, secretary of state for tourism, the environment and investment. "Their expectations are far too unrealistic."

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