Oct 18, 2021 Last Updated 1:13 AM, Oct 14, 2021

Hiking Timor's tops

On East Timor's rugged mountains, hospitable farmers, hidden guerrillas and Indonesian soldiers live uneasily together.

Mike Davis

My two weeks in East Timor at the end of October 1998 followed a previous visit in 1996, when I had been writing a BA dissertation on clandestine resistance to the Indonesian occupation. The purpose of my return was primarily to have a holiday and to explore parts of Timor which were new to me, but also to indulge a strong sense of curiosity about how things might have changed in two years.

I was keen to visit the most mountainous parts of East Timor. After brief stays in Dili and Maubisse I travelled to Hato Builico, a village near the summit of Mount Ramelau. Located 40km due south of Dili, this is at nearly 3000m the highest peak in Timor. Hato Builico has no accommodation for tourists. I was told I should stay with the Indonesian soldiers stationed in the grounds of the old Portuguese rest house. Here I was greeted by a longhaired, tracksuited figure, clutching a bloodied meat cleaver in one hand and part of a dead animal in the other. He turned out to be one of fifteen or so soldiers posted in Hato Builico, all of them from South Sumatra.

The soldiers were surprisingly laid back. During three days in Hato Builico I only once saw any of them wearing full military uniform, and even then the two who did remained unarmed. On my arrival one soldier immediately insisted on acting as my guide. He took me around the village, and then to a hamlet across the valley, where an animist festival was taking place. I was amused by the rather paternalistic interest the twenty four-year-old squaddie from Palembang took in the festival. My impression was that he associated such (as I suspected he saw them) quaint rituals exclusively with East Timor, and he seemed slightly disconcerted when I told him that I had seen similar events in parts of Kalimantan and Nusa Tenggara.

I climbed Mount Ramelau on my first night in Hato Builico, hoping to watch the dawn breaking from the summit. As soon as the sun rose the cloud descended, but at seven o'clock it lifted very suddenly, offering spectacular views of rugged countryside stretching from coast to coast. Walking back down the mountain I fell into step with a man bearing a selection of plastic jerrycans. After initially trying to convince me that he had climbed the mountain to water potato plants, the man said that he had actually been carrying water to a group of Falintil (East Timorese resistance) guerrillas camped near the summit. He told me that the soldiers in Hato Builico were well aware that local people took water to Falintil, but did not harass them for fear of receiving an unwelcome visitation from the guerrillas.

After descending the mountain I made my way back to the animist festival. When accompanied by the soldier the previous day, they had treated me with considerable suspicion. The same people now behaved completely differently towards me. Behind closed doors their attitude to the Indonesian soldiers proved to be entirely one of contempt rather than of fear. They spoke with great enthusiasm of 'reformasi', of Xanana Gusmao, and of the student dialogue planned for Hato Builico the next week. One student present suggested that I return for the dialogue and then accompany him on a visit to the local Falintil unit. However, sensing that he had misplaced hopes of me publicising such a meeting after my departure from Timor, I declined the offer.

After returning to Dili I travelled east to Veni Lale and Baucau, and then on to Baguia. Mindful of the fact that this village had been effectively off limits to tourists when I came to East Timor in 1996, the warmth of the welcome I received struck me. Within a couple of hours of arriving I had been given lunch by one family and offered a place to stay by another. My hosts for the night turned out to be the family of an uncle of Falintil guerrilla commander Taur Matan Ruak. He was the 'raja' of several small villages near Baguia.

Despite their friendliness, people in Baguia seemed more diffident than those I met in Hato Builico, and there was the tangible sense of an ongoing conflict in the way they spoke about the Indonesian armed forces Abri, and about East Timorese working for 'Intel' (Indonesian military intelligence). One group of people I met wanted to take me to see Falintil. Although tempted, I felt uncomfortable about the possible ramifications of such a visit coming to light and decided not to go.

Matebian My main purpose for going to Baguia was to climb Mount Matebian, which I duly did, in the company of a cousin of the raja. Matebian, which means 'Mountain of the Dead', was the final piece of territory to fall to the Indonesians in the last days of 1978. It had provided sanctuary to many thousands of East Timorese during the final months of Abri's so-called 'Encirclement and Annihilation' campaign. It was eventually captured after weeks of aerial bombardment and massive civilian casualties.

The mountain's bulk had dominated the landscape for much of my three-hour journey from Baucau. Closer, it revealed itself as an awe-inspiring tangle of cliffs, crags, gullies and ridges. The impression of sheer wildness was compounded by the extraordinary rock formations covering Matebian's upper slopes. Thousands of huge stones resembling broken teeth cluster along the ridges leading up to the summit. In places they are set so close together as to be practically impenetrable.

Before making the climb we were told by people in Baguia that near the summit we might encounter either Falintil guerrillas or Timorese Intel agents, and I had been puzzled by the notion of these two groups being camped in such close proximity to one another. Upon seeing the terrain high up on the mountain, however, it became clear how easily potential aggressors might be evaded in such an environment, and how futile hunting for small groups of guerrillas over the endless folds of boulder-encrusted land would surely be. As it happened we saw not a soul.

Coming back down Matebian we lost our way and ended up in Quelicai district. Making for the nearest sign of human habitation we came upon a village of only about a dozen inhabited houses and five or six traditional adat houses on stilts. The adat houses were beautifully constructed, and in some cases decorated with pictures and small wooden figures. Most appeared relatively new. At least one commemorated those who died in the late 1970s. The people in the village, obviously very poor, were extraordinarily hospitable. On our arrival they insisted that we stay to have a meal. They invited us to stay overnight, but I was keen to get back to Baguia, which we finally reached the next morning after an overnight stop at another tiny village on the slopes of Matebian.

I spent my last few days in East Timor in Baucau, Lospalos and Tutuala, all places I visited in 1996. During my brief stay in Tutuala I walked to the easternmost point of Timor, a beach facing Jaco Island, and on my way met Bishop Belo returning after a stroll along the shore. According to people in Tutuala the bishop was convalescing after a recent bout of malaria.

I made a foolish attempt to swim to Jaco, but thankfully was given a lift from about half way across by a group of local fisherman. On the beach on the island they had assembled a huge stinking pile of pieces of dead cuscus, which they unsuccessfully pressed me to sample. Later, as we motored back across the channel we encountered a boat from the neighbouring Indonesian island of Alor, and a brisk trade was done in cigarettes and freshly caught squid. While the East Timorese fishermen expressed a hatred of Abri, they said that they saw these men from Alor as their friends.

Most people I met during my two-week stay were daring to hope that East Timor might finally be on the brink of peace. It was so refreshing to find people free to speak their minds without fear. Yet I could not help feeling that expectations were dangerously high, and the scope for disappointment very considerable. From my perspective as a visitor the atmosphere of mounting optimism had its advantages. The superficial calm allowed me to concentrate on enjoying the beauty of the countryside and the generosity of the East Timorese people. These are aspects of East Timor that one hopes will not be permanently obscured by its tragic conflict.

Mike Davis <mikedavis@bigpond.com.kh> lives and works in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


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Flesh trade of Sumatra

Children are lured to brothels in remote places by slimy operators. International pressure can help free them.

Ahmad Sofian

Trafficking in underage girls for prostitution is a growing problem in North Sumatra. The children do not understand the risk of early pregnancy or of sexually transmitted diseases. They are usually sold to the government-licensed prostitution areas (lokalisasi) at Sicanang Island or Bandar Baru near Medan, and as far as Batam Island near Singapore. About 200-300 girls are employed in the Bandar Baru lokalisasi alone. The industry is driven by growing market demand, especially for girls aged 14-18 years, who are considered free of disease. The high price a virgin fetches makes the search for them a highly profitable business. Organised trafficking syndicates present themselves as employment agencies who also offer the opportunity of enjoyable travel.

'Collectors' usually operate in crowded places such as a shopping mall. Trained to recognise soft targets, they begin by simply befriending a girl making it difficult for police to act against them. Parents, too, report the problem only after the child has gone. The typical candidate is a teenager from a lower to middle class suburban family. The children seldom refuse an invitation to visit a luxurious place, where they are brought to a madame. Here the collector gets a tip of Rp 100-200,000 (AU$20-40), depending on the beauty and virginity of the victim.

Girls who refuse to satisfy the passion of their clients invite the anger of the madame. One girl had her head smashed into a wall so that she suffered concussion and later went insane. If the guard should catch them trying to escape he will beat them up. The madame, meanwhile, routinely cuts the money the girls earn by up to 50%.

The cruelty child prostitutes suffer was exposed recently in the case of two girls who managed to escape from remote Tanjung Balai Karimun after their parents bought their freedom in February 1998. The parents took the case to the police, resulting in some prosecutions. In September 1998 police from West Java succeeded in saving another 100 children or more from the same place.

Dewi (16), who ran away from a brothel in Tanjung Balai Karimun, explained how she escaped with the help of her mother (see box). Consumers paid her Rp 150,000 (AU$30) a time, but half of that was taken by the madame. The other half was hers only in the form of vouchers, which could be exchanged for cash after working for four months. In the meantime, Dewi practically had no money. She paid for her meals, clothes and medical checks out of extra tips her customers occasionally gave her.

Similarly Fitriani (16), a beautiful girl with white skin from Sujono Street in Medan, was lured to Bandar Baru with an offer of a highly paid job in a restaurant. She did not know that Bandar Baru was a brothel lokalisasi. After asking permission from her parents she went there with her friends Afrida (15), and Kiki and Florida (both 16). Arriving in Bandar Baru she felt suspicious because she was put into an all-girl house. She wanted to go home, but was unable to leave. That first night she was forced to surrender her virginity to a man of Chinese descent. For a month she was used by guests who queued up to book her. She made Rp 2 million (AU$400). She was released after her friend Florida fell pregnant and developed a craving for martabak, the spicy Medan pancake. When the madame permitted Florida to go to Medan, she contacted her parents and the police, who prosecuted the madame.


The arbitrary harassment child prostitutes suffer as the weak partner in a highly unequal relationship often leaves them with post-traumatic stress that can last throughout their lives. They are part of a unique work system ungoverned by any law. The government only half recognises their work and considers they are acting at their own risk. They do not understand the high danger of HIV/ AIDS infection to which they are exposed. Nor do their guests, who do not use a condom because they think the prostituted children are healthy.

In the West, adult men who have sexual intercourse with underage girls (even when they are in love), are considered criminals and can be punished. Indonesia has no such law. Child prostitution cannot be prosecuted as such. Even those laws (such as unlawful detention) that do exist are poorly implemented due to official collusion. It will require the cooperation of many parties to eradicate the problem of child prostitution. International support to put pressure on the Indonesian government in this matter can be very effective.

Ahmad Sofian is executive secretary of the Study Centre for Child Protection (Pusat Kajian & Perlindungan Anak, PKPA) in Medan, North Sumatra. Contact: Jl Mustafa no. 30, Medan 20238, North Sumatra, Indonesia, tel +62-61-611943, email pkpa@medan.wasantara.net.id. Names of girls are fictional to protect their identity.


'Aunt Merry is a devil'

My name is Dewi. I am now 16, but this happened to me when I was 15. I am the oldest in my family, and have three brothers, all still at primary school. I only finished grade five and do not go to school anymore, because I was lazy and wanted money. My father died in 1993. My mother has no work. We are a poor family. I went to Tanjung Balai Karimun because a friend of my mother's, Aunt Meta, offered me work in a restaurant with a high wage. She said she was a close friend of Aunt Merry. She sold me to Merry. I heard later that every girl Aunt Meta sold to Aunt Merry got her Rp 850,000 (AU$170). Aunt Meta said I would get Rp 200,000 (AU$40) every day. My mother, of course hoping I could help the family, agreed.

I travelled there with two friends, Opi and Melisa. It is located on a remote island near Singapore. When we arrived we went into Golden Million Hotel, and were welcomed by some beautiful young girls. 'Why do you want to work here?', they asked us. 'If you can, run away. Here you will become a prisoner!'. This surprised me. Opi and Melisa even cried. But what could we do? At last I was brough to see Merry by her guard, Sitepu. We were all asked to sign a four-month contract. Then we were employed as whores. Every girl was given a breast number. Mine was 20.

In Golden Million, Merry and her people never called anyone by name. If they wanted me, they would just call: 'Hey, twenty…'. There were about 300 people working there, all with a breast number. We worked from 9pm till early morning. We were kept in a plain room under the direct supervision of two men we called Daddy, and a Mummy. A guest would first speak with Daddy and Mummy, who would then call us.

Working in Golden Million was hell. If anyone made a mistake, Merry's people kicked them. The lightest punishment was 'charge'. That meant paying a fine. If we were sick, we had to pay for medicine ourselves. If a girl fell pregnant, the fine was Rp 500,000 (AU$100). If we menstruated suddenly while serving a guest, the fine was Rp 75,000. A doctor came to give us an injection each week that cost us Rp 200,000 each time. Golden Million provided a room for us to take a rest. Our room was for 12 to 15 people. It was very small and hot. It had no window, and no ventilation. Our meals were supplied by Aunt Merry. Every meal was crowded and rushed. Every girl owed money to Aunt Merry. She pretended to be a good woman but she was very bad. She is a devil.

Throughout the time I was at Tanjung Balai Karimun I never sent money to my mother. When she came to see how I was she had to pawn the tape recorder to our neighbour to get travel money. As soon as my mother saw my condition she wanted to take me home to Medan. But Aunt Merry said my contract still had two months to run and would not let me go. Then my mother went back to Medan without me. Two months later she came back for me. It was about April last year. I do not know how or where she got the money for her bus fare. Aunt Merry promised my mother to cash my vouchers, but she kept delaying, and my mother became scared that Merry's people would kill us.

At last we chose to run away and just forget about the money owing to me, Rp 5 million (AU$1000). The important thing was to get away from Aunt Merry. As it happened I had Rp 300,000. It was not enough for the whole trip home, so on the way I sold my necklace for Rp 60,000.

Now I am back home, with my family. I never want to go to Golden Million again. If I have the money I would like to sell rice or fried noodles from my house. If God blesses me, I want to get married to a good man who loves me and my family. I heard that Aunt Merry was arrested. I was pleased to hear it, but I would like her people to be arrested as well Daddy, Mummy, and the gangsters who protected her. I also want the money I earned there returned to me. And I want all of my friends working there to be set free as well. I pity them.

Forgotten refugees of Buton

The Ambon crisis produced tens of thousands of Muslim refugees. They desperately need help.

Elizabeth Fuller Collins

Mr Laode Kamaluddin calls them the ‘forgotten refugees.’ According to local government figures compiled by the Bupati (Regent) of Buton, Mr H Sahiruddin Udu, 37,000 refugees from Ambon fled to Buton, an island off the southeast arm of Sulawesi, 600 kilometres west-southwest across the Banda Sea from Ambon.

Frustrated that the central government had not provided any assistance to these refugees, Mr Laode Kamaluddin, Inspector General of Development for Backward Regions, decided to personally lead an expedition of reporters from Jakarta to Buton at the end of March. He wanted people elsewhere in Indonesia to know about the problem and provide assistance or pressure the central government to take action. At the last minute, one reporter was unable to join the team of observers, and I was invited to be a foreign representative.

On the afternoon of our arrival in Bau-Bau, the capital of Buton, the bupati presented us with the data he had collected on the exodus from Ambon, detailing the number of families that had sought refuge in villages throughout the region. That night we visited the refugee centre in Bau-Bau city. It was an open market next to a sports field. Between five hundred and a thousand refugees were crowded under the roof on a cement platform. It was difficult to see how they all found space to lie down at night.

The refugees in this centre were those who knew that some time in the distant past their ancestors had migrated from Buton to Ambon. But they no longer knew which village they had come from in Buton, or even whether distant relatives might still live there, so they had nowhere to go. Many were women with small children, who had no way to earn money. Their children crowded around them, and their babies sleeping on the floor looked exhausted and poorly fed. Several older women crouched over gas burners making snacks that could be sold the next day, but most people seemed to have no energy and no idea how they would manage.

The terror

The people I talked to had been traumatised by the violence that they had witnessed. They spoke of ‘the terror.’ They told us that their families had lived in Ambon for generations. It had been their home. They could not comprehend what had happened. One young man, the youngest of seven children, had been a driver in Ambon. Last January 20th he returned home to find the bodies of his parents and all his brothers and sisters cut to pieces. In Bau-Bau he earned a bit of money when he could as a becak (trishaw) driver. In this way he was able to supplement the meagre supply of rice that was available to the refugees. He was hoping he might find relatives somewhere.

Heavy rains have now flooded out the people in this refugee centre. The tarpaulins that we bought to keep out the rain were not enough. These refugees have probably been moved to the already crowded centres into an orphanage next to a mosque, and into a state Islamic institute (STAIN) dormitory near Bau-Bau, which we also visited. The refugees in these camps were somewhat better off because, although most slept on the cement floor, they were protected from the weather. However, the refugees complained that they did not have enough food.

They had not eaten rice for some time, nor were they given any protein. At noon that day they had been given noodle soup, all the food that was distributed that day. We saw a listless baby suffering from malnutrition. Another child had a high fever. Seven children have already died of diarrhoea.

The bupati and his wife have done the best they could to organise help for the refugees, but their resources are limited. The bupati explained that it would take several tons of rice a day to feed all the refugees. All he could do was provide some boiled rice and milk for pregnant women and babies. There was also a shortage of medicine and doctors.

Over the next two days we visited five villages, each with between 700 and 1,500 refugees. Most of these refugees lived on the ground under houses owned by relatives. Village resources were strained to breaking point. The teacher at a village primary school reported that formerly he had been responsible for just over one hundred pupils. Now he had over two hundred, and many of the refugee children had no books and no change of clothes. They were hungry and traumatised.

There will be no simple solution to the problem of the refugees from Ambon, as there is no simple solution for the problem of the (equally Muslim) Madurese refugees from West Kalimantan. Some are farmers who need land, and Buton is a harsh and rocky landscape with no empty land. Fishermen are better off, but they need boats and nets. We bought small ‘koli-koli’ canoes for the refugees in several of the villages we visited, but we knew that more than twenty families would have to share each of these boats.

The merchants whose shops in the city of Ambon had been burned have lost everything, even the deed to their property and the cash they had kept to do business. Yet many of these refugees said that they would return to Ambon if peace returned, but they needed help to start over again. One woman demanded to know what the government would do to help them. University students wondered if they would be able to finish their education now that their families had lost everything and they could not return to take their exams.

We met with the governor in Kendari, the capital of Southeast Sulawesi province, after returning from Buton, and learned that he had directed aid be sent to the region. He said that just before our visit to him he had learned that the aid had not arrived. (Later we learned that the money was used to buy land, said to be for the refugees.) The central government has yet to establish any program to help the refugees of Buton. The bureaucracy seems to be paralysed.

Ordinary citizens

The beginning of a solution to the problem of the Butonese refugees lies in civil society, in the actions of ordinary citizens channeled through non-governmental organisations (NGOs). While in Buton, the team I travelled with collected funds among themselves and from friends in Jakarta to buy tarpaulins, small koli-koli fishing canoes and nets, and to build portable toilets. Since returning to Jakarta they have established the ‘Foundation for an Enlightened World’, Yayasan Nurani Dunia, with the motto ‘People to People Aid.’ I will serve as an advisor to the foundation.

As a result of publicity by reporters on our expedition, the refugees of Buton are beginning to receive some limited help. Dompet Duafa, a non-governmental agency associated with the newspaper Republika, has established a post in Buton for emergency relief and to collect more data on the refugees. They report that there are now more than 50,000 refugees, and more continue to arrive as conflict spreads to other areas in Eastern Indonesia. The refugees are still in dire need of food, mattresses, access to clean drinking water, clothes, tarpaulins, toilets, school books, small boats, and fishing nets.

Nurani Dunia is now working with Dompet Duafa to raise funds for emergency aid to refugees in Buton. In this way there will be no administrative costs. Reporters will continue to report on the situation in Buton to ensure that the aid goes directly to the refugees.

I have a particular reason for wanting to be part of the effort to help the refugees in Buton. Over and over again, I have been asked by friends in Indonesia why it is that people in the West always seem ready to help when Christians are the innocent victims of violence, but not when the victims are Muslim. Every university student I talk to seems to have read or at least heard of the Huntington thesis that the future enemy of the West will be Islam. They wonder if Western governments are trying to weaken Islamic nations by ignoring the plight of refugees and the poor in a time of economic crisis. Just as I remind students in the US that there is no such thing as monolithic Islam, I try to explain to people here that scholars in America and elsewhere vehemently criticise Huntington’s arguments. I would also like people in Indonesia to know that Americans are ready to help refugees, whatever their religion.

The twentieth century has been a century of refugees. We are becoming numb to the seemingly endless campaigns of ‘ethnic cleansing’- in Europe, Africa, South Asia, and now Southeast Asia - and to the streams of traumatised, poverty-stricken people who flee from violence. But we cannot afford to ignore the problem of refugees. Refugee groups that are not helped to start life anew in one way or another are fodder for extremist political movements. They are angry and powerless. Their emotions can be easily manipulated so that they seek revenge. And the plight of refugee groups can become the excuse for another violent episode and another exodus of refugees.

A small (one man) koli-koli fishing boat and nets cost about US$100. Emergency assistance to mothers of US$25 per child will buy food (especially milk), clothes, and school books. All assistance will be most welcome. Temporarily (until I can set up a matching non-profit organisation in the States), Gene Ammarell has agreed to help collect funds for the Buton refugees. Contact him at: Dept of Sociology and Anthropology, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701, USA, tel+1-740-592 9697, email ammarell@ohiou.edu. Or cheques may be sent to Nurani Dunia, c/o Imam B. Prasodjo, PhD, Dept of Sociology, Fac. of Social and Political Sciences, Univ. of Indon. (home: Jl Proklamasi 37, Jakarta 10320, Indonesia, tel/fax +62-21-391 3768).

Dr Elizabeth Collins is Director of the Southeast Asian Studies Program at Ohio University.

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