Nora Hammond, class of 2020, spent her summer internship in Dili, Timor-Leste, where she worked for Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR).
Before a recent long weekend, a coworker casually asked me if I had any plans. I replied that I was taking a ferry across the Banda Sea from Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste where I am completing my summer internship, to the island of Ataúro, a popular place for residents of Dili to escape city life and enjoy a laid-back weekend on the beach. She replied that she had grown up there in the 1970s. I paused.
Normally, I would ask someone about their experience there or if they had any tips for my visit, but through my work with AJAR (Asia Justice and Rights) and ACbit (Asosiasaun Chega! Ba Ita, “Enough for us!”), I learned that the island was used as what was essentially an open-air prison for dissents and their family members during Indonesian occupation from 1975-1999. The conditions on the island were terrible, and there was widespread starvation, torture, and public executions. The island housed mostly women and children sent there by the Indonesian government for long-term detention without trial because they were from an area of the country where members of the opposition were suspected to reside or because they had family members in the resistance. Had this coworker spent part of her childhood there as a political prisoner? How do I ask her to share her story? More importantly—do I even have the right?
These kinds of conversations happen often during my internship in Timor-Leste. As I have learned from reading the Chega! report—the official report documenting the conflict, researched and published by the UN’s Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation in East Timor—the history of the occupation can be seen and felt throughout the island. The place where I buy phone credit used to be a torture site, and the nearby primary school is rumored to have been one as well.
Despite these sentiments, the history is not always known by the Timorese or foreign visitors. Timor-Leste has one of the youngest populations in the world, with a median age of 17.4 years—meaning most of the country was born after the Indonesian occupation. While most of this information is available in the Chega! report and at the museum highlighting the information in the report (the CNC, Centro Nacional Chega), the report is an academic document, and many Timorese—especially in rural districts—do not even know of the museum’s existence.
During my internship I have attended many commemoration events, as this August is the twentieth anniversary of the referendum that brought independence to the country. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from veterans about their experiences but have learned that I need to be particularly aware of how to approach these conversations, especially as I do not speak Tetum, the local language. I know that asking questions about these experiences in English or through a translator is inherently a different experience. Despite being curious, I have come to believe that my curiosity alone is not enough reason to ask people to share their stories.