Bone collection: community healing in Timor-Leste

The 1999 withdrawal of Indonesia and its army from East Timor finally ushered in a process of truth and reconciliation mandated by the Timorese and the United Nations. In 2005, the Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported on its findings and recommendations, but for various geopolitical reasons the report was tabled but never debated in the national parliament of Timor-Leste.

Of course, the process of truth, reconciliation and community healing did not end when UN funding for the commission ended in the mid-2000s. Centro Nacional Chega! (National Center for Remembrance) was established in 2016 in part to continue documenting the local voices, experiences and practices of everyday Timorese during the occupation. Its mandate is to preserve the history of Timor-Leste from 1974 to 1999 and to promote and promote human rights, solidarity and a culture of peace.

In rural areas, the search for the missing is underway. Countless Timorese remain missing as a result of conflict and displacement during Indonesian occupation. According to the customary beliefs of the Timorese people, while the bodies of family members cannot be found, the health and well-being of the living cannot be guaranteed.

In September 2018, I was conducting research on customary healing practices among the several ethnolinguistic groups living in the municipality of Baucau in the northeast. Accompanied by my Timorese husband, Quintiliano, and retired mental health nurse Senhor Fransisco, I traveled deep into the hinterland of Baucau to interview a local healer.

The healer, Senhor Domingos, met us at the agreed location and led us down a steep and narrow path to a house and yard full of people. Tarps were draped in a marquee at the front where many people were gathered, some eating and others working on what appeared to be carpentry. A sort of monument was being built just upstream from the house. More people were seated inside around a long table covered with a shut up a woven Timorese fabric.

We were invited to the veranda and many men quickly gathered to sit with us. All this activity made me think that someone must have died and that we had come to the beginning of a my mate uma (funeral). What an unfortunate moment to arrive for an interview, I thought.

It soon became apparent that something else was going on. Instead of a coffin, as one would expect to find in a my mate uma, many grouped materials have been neatly arranged along the table. We learned that these 23 sarongs contained the remains of the war dead from this original house. As we were shown later, each contained the actual bones – or rocks, as symbolic bones – of men, women, and children who died in the early years of the invasion.

As Indonesian troops took control of the area, many fled through the valley to the relative safety of the Matebian Mountains. Some were hunted down and killed by the Indonesian army; others died of starvation. Their bodies had never been found and buried. Until now.

After a recent consultation with nature spirits, the deceased’s family members had a bone-retrieval party and for two months followed a path through the valley and through the forests of the Matebian Range. The remains they recovered were temporarily stored in the health clinic in the mountainous village of Kelikai before being transported from the mountains to the coast and up to Mount Ariana.

As we were invited to pay homage, each sarong was carefully opened to reveal the name of the deceased inscribed on a piece of cardboard.

In two days, a Catholic priest would come home to posthumously baptize each of these people in accordance with contemporary expectations. Their individual remains would then each be “dressed” and placed in the tiny chipboard coffins that the young men were busy making under the marquee. Two days later, the community gathered in the cemetery overlooking Matebian for a full Catholic mass. A large tomb with 23 separate compartments had already been prepared.

It was a moment of palpable emotion for everyone gathered. The property was packed with people, from cripples to newborns. I could feel the powerful aura surrounding the task at hand and the determination to honor their loved ones and to rest them respectfully. The monument under construction outside the house commemorates two fallen heroes, fighters of the FALINTIL resistance movement who died in combat. For this process, they were supported by reparations available from the government sponsored Resistance Veterans Fund. But the reburial of family members, ordinary victims of war, fell to the survivors of the conflict. An original house, comprising more than 200 people, had 25 corpses to rest.

As we sat with the men on the veranda, I was struck with a wave of emotion and overwhelming sadness. I was not sure I could pass the interview. But this pain exerts its anger on the world I usually live in and which grants me great privileges.

Here we were in a blatantly impoverished community coming together to try to recover from the ravages of the war waged over 40 years ago.

My own country had secretly supported the invasion and occupation of East Timor. The weapons used by the soldiers and the bombs dropped by the planes were supplied by the American and British governments, Australia’s allies.

Now, these distant Western powers congratulate themselves on having overseen the independence of Timor-Leste and its status as a new nation-state. At the same time, they increasingly express their exasperation at the lack of Timorese “development” and capacity.

Yet those affected by these bloody campaigns continue to tap into their collective cultural capacity to try to cope with their loss and trauma and move forward in the most intimate and physically connected way possible. Their daily lives are a far cry from boards of directors where development experts seek advice on overcoming “cultural barriers” to development.

Burying these physical remains is not the end of the journey. On the contrary, it opens a way to the future. It gives the living a way to continue with their lives and allows the deceased to regain their rightful place as protectors of the living.

The original house exchanges that surround a death ritual help settle unpaid debts and close past events by creating new paths and openings. But it all takes a body to collectively cry and rest. This process had not been possible. Until now.


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