Collecting the bones: community healing in Timor-Leste

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

Of course, the process of truth-telling, reconciliation and community healing didn’t end when UN funding for the commission ended in the mid-2000s. Dili’s Centro Nacional Chega! (National Centre for Memory) was established in 2016 in part to continue documenting the local voices, experiences and practices of everyday Timorese during the occupation. It has a mandate to preserve Timor-Leste’s 1974–1999 history, and to promote and foster human rights, solidarity and a culture of peace.

In rural areas, there’s an ongoing search for the missing. Countless Timorese remain unaccounted for because of the conflict and displacement during the Indonesian occupation. According to the customary beliefs of Timorese people, while the bodies of family members remain unaccounted for, the health and wellbeing of the living cannot be ensured.

In September 2018, I was carrying out research into customary healing practices among the several ethno-linguistic groups living in the Baucau municipality in the northeast. Accompanied by my Timorese husband, Quintiliano, and retired mental health nurse Senhor Fransisco, I travelled deep into the Baucau hinterland to interview a local healer.

The healer, Senhor Domingos, met us at the agreed location and directed us up a steep, narrow path to a house and yard full of people. Tarpaulins were draped in a marquee arrangement out the front where many people were gathered, some eating and others working on what looked to be carpentry. A monument of sorts was under construction just uphill from the house. More people were seated inside around a long table that was covered in a tais, a woven Timorese cloth.

We were invited onto the veranda and many men quickly gathered to sit with us. All this activity made me think that somebody must have died, and that we’d arrived during the early stages of a mate uma (funeral). What an unfortunate time 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 at a mate uma, many bundled materials were lain carefully along the length of the table. We learned that these 23 sarongs contained the remains of this origin house’s war dead. As we were later shown, each contained the actual bones—or rocks, as symbolic bones—of men, women and children who had died in the early years of the invasion.

As Indonesian troops took control of the area, many had fled across the valley to the relative safety of the Matebian mountains. Some were hunted and killed by the Indonesian military; others starved to death. Their bodies had never been recovered and laid to rest. Until now.

After recent consultation with the nature spirits, family members of the deceased had organised a bone-recovery party and over two months followed a path down across the valley and into the forests of the Matebian range. The remains they recovered had been temporarily stored in the health clinic in the mountainous village of Kelikai before being transported from the mountains to the coast and back up to Mount Ariana.

As we were invited to pay our respects, each sarong was carefully opened to reveal the name of the deceased written on a scrap of cardboard.

In two days, a Catholic priest would attend the house to posthumously baptise each of these people in accordance with contemporary expectations. Their individual remains would then each be ‘dressed’ and placed in the tiny chipboard coffins the young men were busily making under the marquee. Two days later, the community would gather in the graveyard overlooking Matebian for a full Catholic mass. A large grave with 23 separate compartments had already been prepared.

It was a palpably emotional time for everyone assembled. The property was crowded with people, from the infirm to newborns. I could feel the powerful aura surrounding the task at hand and the determination to honour their relatives and respectfully lay them to rest. The monument under construction outside the house commemorated two fallen heroes, fighters of the FALINTIL resistance movement who died in battle. For this process, they had support through the reparations available from the government-sponsored resistance veteran’s fund. But the reburial of family members—ordinary victims of war—had fallen to the survivors of the conflict. One origin house, comprising more than 200 people, had 25 dead bodies to lay to rest.

As we sat with the men on the veranda, I was struck with a wave of emotion and an overwhelming sadness. I wasn’t sure if I could go through with the interview. But this sorrow trains its wrath on the world that I customarily inhabit and that grants me great privileges.

Here we were in an obviously impoverished community coming together to try to recover from the ravages of war waged more than 40 years ago.

My own country had covertly supported the invasion and occupation of East Timor. The guns used by the soldiers and the bombs dropped by planes were supplied by the US and UK governments, Australia’s allies.

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

Yet the people affected by these bloody campaigns continue to draw on their collective cultural capacity to try to deal with their loss and trauma and to move forward in the most intimate and physically connected way possible. Their everyday lives are a world away from the boardrooms where development experts seek advice on overcoming ‘cultural barriers’ to development.

The burial of these physical remains is not the end of the journey. Rather, it opens a path into the future. It gives the living a way to continue with their own lives and it allows the deceased to take up their rightful places as the protectors of the living.

The exchanges between origin houses that surround a death ritual help settle outstanding debts and bring past events to a close as they create new paths and openings. But all of this requires a body to collectively grieve over and lay to rest. This process had not been possible. Until now.