Participatory Research Gives Voice to Women’s Experiences
The Eastern half of a small island, with a population of just 1.3 million, Timor-Leste gained independence just 20 years ago. Independence didn’t come easy; after two hundred years of Portuguese rule Timor-Leste declared independence, only to be invaded by Indonesia nine days later. The occupation lasted 24 years, with a strong and persistent resistance. Much of the resistance happened in mountaintop villages, such as Rotuto, in the Manufahi municipality.
Rotuto currently has a population of 1,540, with 400 families, and is known for its coffee plantations. It is so small and remote that it does not appear on maps. But a lot happened here during the Indonesian occupation.
In 1975 the Indonesian armed forces arrived in Timor-Leste via land, air and sea. Many people of Rotuto fled to Kablaki Mountain, which was a support base for Falintil; people lived in the mountains and would come down to the base for food and supplies. In Rotuto, women organized communal farming, made baskets to take food and supplies to the resistance fighters under the Organisação Popular de Mulher Timorense (OPMT), with youth also participating under Organisação Popular de Joventude Timorense (OPJT).
Two years later, the support base area was taken over by the military, forcing many of the people of Rotuto to return to the village and surrender. Most of population of Rotuto by this point were elderly and children, as the younger, stronger adults continued to resist in the mountains.
After the capture and killing of Nicolao Lobato in 1978, many lost faith in the possibility of independence, but after an uprising in Marabia in 1980, people gained the courage to return to fight.
On the 20th of August 1982, at dawn, civilians with the help of Falintil, broke into the Indonesian military post in Rotuto and stole seven guns, using them to fire back at the Indonesian military. As a result, three people died; one civilian, one Indonesian teacher, and one Falintil member.
Around midday of the same day, the population of Rotuto was forced to form two lines; one for men and one for women and children. They were forced to march to Same Vila, where they were loaded onto trucks, taken to an uninhabited area, and left there. Many died as a consequence of eating roots and wild plants. Research participant Carolina Pacheco, now 90 years old, remembers, “Because there was no food, we had to eat leaves and roots, and because we weren’t used to eating roots, my three daughters Domingas, Maria, and Asika, died.”
“For Rotuto, there was no official record or documentation of the uprising, and the village is therefore left out of commemoration days, no official acknowledgement of the people’s suffering, nor their role in the resistance”, said Jose dos Santos, Head of the Village of Rotuto. Rotuto celebarated their first commemoration day in 2020 with activities such as an exhibition with the community of Rotuto, a quiz competition on the history of the Rotuto uprising for the local primary school students, and amovie screening with the local community.
For this reason, alongside Asosiasaun Chega! Ba ita (Acbit), AJAR has conducted participatory research with the women of Rotuto, on request of the National Victims Association.
Conventional historical research often promotes individual heroism, however the research conducted by AJAR and Acbit is based on human rights principles and values, with all participants considered equal.
Due to a highly patriarchal society, these Buibere – a name given to female FRETILIN militants, encompassing their spirit of resistance, pride, and patriotism – are often not acknowledged, and are rarely heard about in public spaces, nor are women compensated in the same way male veterans are for their role in the resistance. For this reason, the research was focussed on women’s experiences of the conflict.
Many of the participants still live in Rotuto, and after initial hesitation due to the unique nature of the research methods, they participated with enthusiasm.
The project focused on 25 women, using several research methods.
- “Fatuk Aifunan” meaning “Stone and Flower”, to aid participants in identifying both negative and positive experiences of the past and present.
- “Métudu Rekursu Moris”, or “Livelihoods Potrait”, in which participants analyzed their past experiences reflecting on how they used their own resources to survive.
- “Métudu Mapa Isin” or “Body-mapping” was a method used to analyze the impact their past experiences had on their bodies.
- “Métudu Komunidade” or “Community Mapping” was used to identify places where they went, sites where they were punished and tortured in the past
- “Método Liña Tempu”, meaning “Timeline”, was used to identify important events in the past.
AJAR and ACbit also took photos of the participants in their daily lives, and two more methods, “Metodu Kaixa Lembransa” (Memory Box) and “Kartaun Postal” (Postcard) were used used to finalize the research.
Through the research, it became clear that women were indeed, by choice, very active in the resistance, and they faced many consequences for it, from human rights violations like imprisonment in shackles, torture, sexual abuse, starvation, as well as social, economic, and cultural discrimination.
Compared to people in other villages in Same municipality, Rotuto was left behind with institutions like schools not being functional during the Indonesian occupation.
The wish of these survivors is for their experiences to be recognized, and for various entities to develop programs in Rotuto to help the community recover from the trauma caused by the human rights violations.
With the support of Bread for the World, AJAR and ACbit launched a publication containing the stories of survivors as well as research report at Centro Nacional Chega (CNC) on the 2nd of October 2020. When the participants were asked how they felt about the book launch, Carolina Pacheco said “we don’t ask the government to give us veteran status, but we ask that they value our stories as a national asset”.