Buras Vertimor was 6 years old in 1975 when Indonesian invaders dropped from the sky above his home in East Timor.
Now he is 21, part of a new generation of East Timorese who continue resisting Indonesia’s annexation of their half of the island. West Timor is part of Indonesia, but East Timor formerly belonged to Portugal.
Vertimor, who fled Timor in September, belongs to an underground youth movement linked to Timorese guerrillas who are trying to focus international attention on the largely forgotten conflict.
Guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao has described the youth movement as Indonesia’s “fundamental problem” in East Timor.
Robert Domm, an Australian trade unionist who met with Gusmao in September, says young people have been radicalized by the struggle.
“A whole new generation of Timorese are in some ways even more militant than the older generations,” he said during a visit to Lisbon.
The resistance campaign, which young Timorese liken to the Palestinian uprising in Israeli-occupied territories, has taken advantage of Indonesia’s cautious efforts to open the impoverished territory to outside scrutiny. East Timor was closed to outsiders after the invasion and annexation.
Reports after the invasion told of massacres, famine and epidemics.
Diplomats in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, say 60,000 people died and Roman Catholic Church officials say up to 100,000 Timorese were killed. Human rights groups estimate that nearly one-third of the population, put at 650,000 by a Portuguese census of 1974-75, died in the years following the takeover.
Indonesia has not provided casualty figures. It says East Timor is peaceful now and Indonesia is introducing economic and social improvements.
Vertimor helped organize a student demonstration during the visit of Pope John Paul II to Dili, capital of East Timor, in October, 1989.
Security forces arrested him shortly afterward. He said he was beaten and tortured before his release and flight to Portugal.
Indonesia accuses Portugal of running a propaganda campaign against it. The United Nations still considers Portugal, the colonial ruler of East Timor for nearly 500 years, the legal authority in the territory.
The Indonesians say they invaded after Portugal’s withdrawal in 1975 left East Timor in chaos. The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, known by the acronym Fretilin, won a brief civil war with conservative and pro-Indonesian forces and declared independence 10 days before the invasion.
Fretilin is the main political force behind the guerrillas, who Indonesia says have been reduced to about 200 poorly armed men who raid villages for food. Officials of Fretilin claim to have 4,000 guerrillas with logistical and moral support from almost the entire native population.
Vertimor said he began working actively for the underground in 1985 after four cousins were killed for aiding the resistance.
“I’m a Christian,” he said, “but I have the right to hate.” He said nearly all his generation supports independence.
After the communist victory in Vietnam in 1975, the West backed Indonesian President Suharto as a bulwark against communism in Southeast Asia. The United States and Australia classified Fretilin as communist.
Cristiano Costa of Fretilin said the leadership includes centrists and conservatives as well as leftists. The guerrillas in East Timor also have the support of the conservative Timorese Democratic Union, Fretilin’s foe in the civil war.
Gusmao, the insurgent leader, has urged a cease-fire and negotiations with Indonesia. He says the guerrillas will accept the results of a U.N.-supervised referendum in the territory.
In November, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas of Indonesia rejected negotiations. Alatas said his government does not consider Fretilin the sole representative of East Timor’s people.
Resistance leaders acknowledge that Indonesian investment in the last several years has improved the economic situation, but say the main beneficiaries are thousands of Indonesian immigrants sent to East Timor since annexation.