Apr 17, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Left over from death

Galuh Wandita

After the attack on the [Suai] church, we were taken to Manumutin, Betun, in West Timor. We slept on the verandah of the cooperative because there was no other place. On 11 September [1999], about two in the morning, six Laksaur militias came in a car.... They asked about my daughter. My son-in-law called me and I came. His name is OB, a Laksaur militiaman. He took out a sword and said: 'Look. This sword is covered in the blood of four people I just killed.' They told me to get in the car.... They asked where my husband was; I said I didn't know.... They said: 'Do you like me?'... I had no choice, because they had a weapon... OB pushed me. I was raped in front of my son-in-law. I cried and cried, and felt so powerless, as if I was dead. 

An East Timorese woman told this story to the women's organisation Fokupers after Indonesian militias ravaged the country for voting against Indonesia on 30 August, 1999. An authoritarian regime has fallen. An occupation has ended. In the new openness, we are hearing stories of human rights abuse that have long lain buried. They outrage our sense of justice. Old debts must be paid.

Transitional justice is the first hurdle for an often-fragile new democracy, to separate the dark past from a democratic future. But how can it be done, effectively yet in compliance with international human rights standards?

In a conflict situation, women suffer a special kind of violence. The men in East Timor were (often forcibly) recruited by the militias, leaving the women alone to look after the family. With the men gone, the women became vulnerable to 'proxy violence' by those who saw them as representing the defiant life of a whole society or of a group within it. Raping them was a way of crushing the enemy.


Fokupers spent the first half of 2000 documenting cases of violence against women that happened in the weeks around the East Timor ballot. We uncovered 255 cases of human rights violation, including 46 rapes, five attempted rapes, and sixteen other cases of sexual abuse. We know of at least four pregnancies caused by rape, and two where contraceptives were forced on the victim to prevent pregnancy. Eight of the rape cases involved sexual slavery - rape on a daily basis. Some of these involved children. In others, children were forced to watch their mothers raped. Nine of the rapes were done by TNI soldiers, nine by soldiers and militias together, and all the rest by militias themselves.

Fokupers also has information on the murders of eight women. Many of these occurred in the Suai church massacre, but some were specially targeted. Ana Lemos, for example, chairperson of the resistance organisation OMT in Ermera, was raped and murdered because, as one of her killers said, 'she was the most courageous woman in Ermera'.

The 1949 Geneva Convention does not list rape as a war crime. One reason why rapes were not included in the Nuremburg trials and those held in Japan after World War II is that both sides had committed them. The absence of women is a serious blind spot in the post-World War II trials. But the Yugoslavia trials of the 1990s introduced a new element. They linked rape to the crime of ethnic cleansing. New rules of evidence, now internationally accepted, also in the East Timor trials, make it more likely for rape survivors to obtain justice.

However, many problems remain. How is the victim to be identified in the first place? Especially in a society that tends to blame the rape victim, few are willing to stand up in court and relive the trauma in front of their rapist and his defence team. In East Timor, UN investigators are also facing serious communication difficulties as they attempt to get an accurate account, especially as the event recedes into the past. Time is another problem - the Rwanda genocide had a million victims, and only a tiny fraction of cases have been resolved. Yet, as one of my friends told me, a survivor cannot begin to live again until justice is done. Moreover, East Timorese have hitherto had little reason to trust the courts.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is another possibility. Less bound by legal procedure, such a commission can more quickly document a greater number of victims of authoritarian repression than the courts. Similar commissions in Guatemala and South Africa heard the testimonies of thousands of rape survivors. However, after much debate, the South African commission decided that rape was 'criminal' and not 'political' and therefore its amnesty offer did not apply to rape. This removed the incentive for rapists to confess, and for survivors to testify, and thus produced an ironic conspiracy of silence on rape.

Another important issue is compensation. The Chilean transitional justice mechanism offered comprehensive material compensation, including lifetime pensions, for families of those who died in prison under Pinochet. An important non-material form of compensation could be a national day of commemoration. In East Timor, 25 November, UN Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, is an important day for rape survivors.


In Indonesia, we have to expose New Order violence against women in the militarised areas of Aceh, West Papua, Maluku and East Timor. We have to look also at the 'anti-PKI' killings of 1965, at the 'petrus' killings of the early 1980s, at the May 1998 riot; also at women political prisoners, and at the impact on women of the militarised family planning program.

In my opinion we should attempt to use all three transitional justice paths - criminal sanctions, truth confessions, and compensation. Considering the political situation, perhaps it should be a staged approach that begins with the last two while preparing for the first. This must be a survivor-centred approach, where they themselves are involved from the start.

A Truth Commission must have strong powers - be able to subpoena documents, and offer protection and compensation for the survivors. Also, ordinary people must be able to hear the stories and thus feel moved. Civil society can play a role in investigations, too. Then there must be a serious effort to rehabilitate the victims, making sure to involve them at every stage. We need to create a safe space for women survivors. In East Timor, widows and survivors have set up several non-government organisations to document crimes and rehabilitate victims. In Indonesia, the new law on human rights needs to be tested to see if the courts will take cases from the past. Perhaps other courts - even commercial ones - can be utilised creatively?

The road to restoration for the survivors, and for us as an Indonesia nation, is a long one. Sometimes people ask me why I am doing this. Isn't it better to forget the past and look to the future? Such questions leave me speechless. It is precisely to the future that I do look.

Materestu, 'Left over from death', is the name of a group of women survivors of the massacre in the Suai church on 6 September 1999. Galuh Wandita (gwandita@hotmail.com) is an Indonesian volunteer with the East Timorese organisation Fokupers. Extracted from a longer paper in Indonesian.

Inside Indonesia 66: Apr - Jun 2001

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