On June 1 the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the troubled personal history of the leader of the rebel soldiers in East Timor, Major Alfredo Alves Reinado. Captured and enslaved by the Indonesian military, he spent seven years as a porter for the army.
During that time he witnessed “vicious brutality against Timorese civilians by the Indonesian military”, including rape and murder, and was “forced to participate in military operations”.
Reinado told his story before a public hearing of the Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CAVR in Portuguese), which was set up in 2002, among other reasons to establish the truth regarding human rights violations in East Timor between 1974 and 1999.
How Reinado’s history might have influenced his current role as a rebel leader is, of course, a matter of conjecture. But what is clear is that his is not an uncommon story. This is a nation born out of mass trauma.
Independent research carried out for the CAVR estimates that the number of conflict-related deaths between 1974 and 1999 was a minimum of 102,800 (18,600 killings and 84,200 abnormal deaths due to hunger and illness) and as many as 183,000 out of a total population of well under a million. This is in addition to the forced displacement of most of the population and widespread evidence of rape, torture, summary detention and other human rights abuses.
Contrary to the opinion expressed by Jim Morris in On Line Opinion yesterday, this independent research, involving both qualitative research and quantitative statistical analysis, concluded that ninety per cent of the killings were carried out either by the Indonesian military (58 per cent) or their East Timorese auxiliaries (32 per cent). Only 10 per cent could be attributed to fratricidal violence between political factions within East Timor, mostly in the period between April 1974 and the Indonesian invasion in December 1975.
In its impact, this makes the genocide in East Timor far worse than the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and more comparable to Rwanda in 1995 and Cambodia under Pol Pot (1976-1979).
A survey in 2000 by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims found that 96.6 per cent of those surveyed had suffered trauma during the Indonesian occupation. Three-quarters had experienced a combat situation, more than half had come close to death, and more than a third had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Common symptoms of untreated trauma include passivity (what American psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness”), high anxiety levels (“hypervigilance”) and high rates of child abuse and domestic violence. These have all been reported among the people of East Timor.
Recent events have provided further evidence of how deeply the population has been traumatised. The rapid collapse of authority, the flight of thousands in response to rumours and the emergence of gangs based on dubious ethnic identities are all evidence of a society beset by fear and mistrust.
From 2000 to 2002 an AusAID-funded program called PRADET (Pyschosocial Recovery and Development in East Timor) treated East Timorese for PTSD, trained local mental health workers and began an education program in schools.
PRADET and its successor, the East Timor National Mental Health Project, had treated 2,400 people by the end of 2004. So how - given that time alone does not heal all wounds - can everyone else be helped?
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