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Stories from The Past for Future Hope: Commemorating Torture Sites and the Experiences of Women Victims of Torture in Dili, Timor-Leste


Dec. 6th, 2015.  A male student of Saõ Jose Operario High School couldn’t hide the shock in his face when he told us how he never knew such stories of women who were detained for their resistance to Indonesian occupying forces. He said, “Perhaps moms and aunties [I know], were once detained in one of those places.” His schoolmate, a female student, then said, though she was extremely sad knowing about women suffering for the independence, she thought they (the younger generation) must know about these stories of women in Timor-Leste.

With persistent effort the stories of victims of torture will be acknowledged by the state so that their narratives can be told to the new generations of Timor-Leste as ones of justice.  As a series to commemorate 16 days of violence against women ACbit facilitated a commemoration walk to six former torture sites in Dili together with students from two high schools in Dili, students from University, 15 women who were once political prisoners, former male political prisoners, and representatives from different government bodies on December 6th, 2015.

The first place we visited was a building located at the corner of a junction in Colmera, known as Sang Tai Hoo—an ex-Chinese store during Portuguese colonization. When Indonesia occupied Timor-Leste, the building then changed to be one where people were informally detained by Indonesian military. According to the CAVR report (The Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation), Sang Tai Hoo was known as one of the cruelest detention centers among ex political prisoners. Through discussion with former prisoners we learned that rooms to detain people were never locked so guards could bring in and out prisoners with no chance to escape as interrogations took place at the corner of a corridor. People were terrorized by this corridor method. Today, Sang Tai Hoo is an office building that one can still easily identify as there is “Sang Tai Building” written at the top of the office entrance.

From Sang Tai Hoo, we walked to the Tais market where ex SGI (Indonesia Intelligence Unit) office was once located. Today it is a residence area with several housing-units that according to ex-female political prisoners were previously used as detention sites.  SGI was well-known as a detention center where people were tortured more severely to confess. Before functionalized as a SGI office in 1990, it was used as RPKAD (Indonesian Army Special Forces) base.[1] Rain dropped quite heavy when we were just about to leave the site, so we stayed a while at the kiosks that sell Tais (traditional woven cloth of Timor Leste) before heading to an ex obgyn clinic.

When the sky was clear, we walked again to a place known as Kartikasari, still located in Colmera. Before functionalized as an obgyn clinic in 1990, the building was an Indonesian military boarding house. Ex-political prisoners called the boarding house as Kartikasari. A woman who was detained in Kartikasari for 1.5 months old CAVR that after the great fight in Marabia (June 10, 1980)—popular among Timorese as Levantamentu Marabia—she was brought to an Indonesian Military Base, then moved to Kartikasari before it was an obgyn clinic. Every night, those who were detained, women and men, were interrogated with torture methods at a yard surrounded by hardwood. Later, in 1990, the building was changed to an obgyn clinic and named Kartika Candra Kirana (Kartikasari). Today, in this historical site, a learning center named “Rumah Pintar Timor-Leste” (Timor-Leste Smart House) is still in the process of being built.  In 2014, the ceremony for the project’s commencement was attended by previous President of the Republic of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Standing under the large project sign written in Bahasa Indonesia, an ex-female political prisoner who was once detained there strongly stated:

“We [women] have fought for our independence. We hope there is no more violence. You [younger generation] must unite. Enough violence in the past. It must not happen again.”

After the strong speech given by the ex-female political prisoner, we then continued our walk to Farol, to a building that has become the New Zealand Embassy. An ex-male political prisoner remembered it as Senopati I building, the name he read when he was brought there. Meanwhile, an-ex female political prisoner remembered it as Opstik 1 office—she remembered Opstik as the acronym of Military Operation. From here, we continued to a house located near Farol Elementary School. The man who remembered Senopati 1 remembered the house as a house belong to an Indonesian military officer that was also used as place to keep important documents, whereas the woman who remembered Opstik 1 remembered the house as Opstik 2 office. We intend to write this way, acknowledging all positions, as we think the ex-political prisoners who attended this commemoration activity might have different memories about the places visited, due to various reasons such as state of consciousness at time of detainment and/or what they were told by people around them at the time.

After leaving the house, we carried on to a building,still located in Farol area, in front of Indonesian Embassy. Similar to Senopati and the Opstik 1 officer’s house/Opstik 2, the building is remembered in different ways. The male political prisoner remembered it as a house which belonged to a colonel, meanwhile the female political prisoner remembered it as the Kotis (Tactical Command) office. Regardless of the differing memories, that building is very historical as it witnessed the suffering of people who were detained there after the Marabia tragedy—the greatest detention operation undertaken by Indonesian military. Many women and men were detained there before they were moved to other detention sites. An-ex female political prisoner could not withhold her tears when remembering she and her four female friends were once detained in this building.

At the end of our trip, a female student of St. Madalena Canossa said she learned a lot from the trip. She became aware that there were women who were also detained. “From this activity, we know about detention places. There was such tragedy, and women suffering.”

Another student from St. Madalena Canossa said, “We do appreciate this activity, it reminds us of what happened in the past and to take the lessons for the future.”

There, at the building in front of Indonesian Embassy, we finished our commemoration and continued on together, young and old, to build a new future for Timor-Leste.

[1] Commonly known as Red Barrette Troops

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