On a ship leaving East Timor, a wrenching conversation about the US-backed Indonesian conquest and slaughter of East Timorese.
I stood on the deck of Pelni, an Indonesian ocean liner leaving Dili, East Timor. It was almost dark. High waves were sending foam over the deck. I kept cleaning my glasses.
A woman looked my way, standing motionless, close to the railing. Her husband was washing his feet, ready to enter a small Muslim praying room. I looked back at her, unable to determine where she was from.
I felt lucky to be alive; to be on this ship which was taking me away from East Timor. I carried several used rolls of film in my small equipment bag, two Leicas and five pairs of dirty underwear.
I had seen enough; more than I had expected to see and I felt exhausted, outraged, paralyzed. I had to think about what I had witnessed, I had to think how to begin to write the story, but my brain was refusing to function. I felt empty and sick.
The woman was wearing a long Javanese dress, falling almost to her feet. Her fingers were long and slender, ink-black hair covered her shoulders.
I had no idea why she was looking at me with those huge black eyes. There was no smile on her lips, no expression of friendliness. It was as if she were waiting for something, as if she were trying to read something written on my face.
A few minutes later her husband went to pray. He said nothing to her; he just left her standing on the deck, alone.
Almost immediately, she approached me.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“You saw it?”
“Your husband is an official,” I said. “He is from Java, isn’t he?”
“Yes,” she said. “Don’t judge me, please. You don’t know anything.”
“Where are you from?”
“From here. From Dili.”
“I enjoyed my visit very much,” I said. “Wonderful place. Very beautiful scenery and friendly people.”
“Stop it!” she screamed, but the sound of the waves muted her voice. “Don’t torture me, please. You saw everything. You know…”
“What do you want from me?” I asked.
“Nothing. I just want you to tell the truth. To say what you saw.”
“Nobody cares,” I said. “Nobody gives a damn.”
“I don’t know. A few people, maybe.”
“But you care…. You came here,” she whispered, desperately.
“Yes,” I said. “But it doesn’t count. I go to many places. Nobody has any influence on me, but in turn, I have no influence on anybody.”
“But you have to…”
“You speak good English,” I said.
“Thank you. I studied English for years. I wanted to leave. But that doesn’t matter. You saw…”
“Yes,” I said. “They raped the whole village; from children to grandmothers. They carved obscenities into women’s bodies; with the knives. They burned their clitoris with cigarette butts. They cut off ears from several men; they killed others. Just for fun. Should I go on? It gets worse.”
“I know all this,” she said. “One third of the East Timorese are dead. Since the invasion.”
“That’s about the correct estimate.”
“They don’t know it in Java.”
“They don’t?” I said. “They prefer not to know. Maybe they don’t know anything about 1965 and about Aceh and Papua and hell knows what.”
“They pray,” she nodded toward the room in which her husband disappeared. “They pray because they are scared. Because otherwise the whole nation would have to howl in horror from its own guilt. They need it to be blasted loud, every day, for hours, so they can’t hear their own hearts. They need it to overpower their own consciousness. Their children are being orphaned by the millions; their children prostitute themselves and beg. Their cities are like purgatories, but they still don’t see. They prefer not to see. They are deaf and mute.”
“He is going to come out, soon. He will not be happy to see you talking to me.”
“Yes,” she said. “I will find you later.”
“It may not be wise.”
“I have to.”
She moved away. I sat on the bench, opening another pack of salty crackers. The bench had to be my home for two days. The ship was sailing to Alor and than to Maumere in Flores. All the private cabins were taken by government officials. The alternative would be one of the overcrowded, dark, communal rooms, packed with broken chairs, people and plastic bags. I had tried to enter one, but was immediately repelled by a powerful stench. It smelled like the entire modern Indonesia – of unwashed bodies, repulsive spicy food, dirt, illness and decay. I preferred to stay on deck, ready to be exposed to the strong wind and waves, but also to fresh air.
I had a ten pack of salty crackers and five liters of bottled water to keep me company. And I still had two packs of cigarettes left in my bag.
Her husband appeared. He said nothing; just nodded at her and she followed him upstairs, a few steps behind, to one of the cabins. She never looked back at me.
As the lights from the shore disappeared, total darkness embraced the ship. The sky was overcast and I saw no stars and no moon above us. The waves were increasing in size, but I felt fine, just tired and still absolutely empty.
Somebody was throwing up from the upper deck. Puke was carried by the wind and parts of it hit my face. I poured some water over my head.
People kept coming.
“Hey mister! Where are you from? Hey, how much money you make? Where are you going? Indonesia, bagus!?”
“Bagus!” I would respond. Then some puke from above hit my face again. Men laughed. They came to piss on the deck; the toilets had covered an entire floor below deck with urine and excrement up to the ankles. “Bagus!” I would repeat.
She came back later, almost at midnight.
“He is asleep,” she said. “I don’t have much time. He sometimes wakes up.”
I said nothing.
“Do you scorn me?”
“No,” I said. “For heaven’s sake, of course I don’t.”
“I scorn myself, sometimes. But most of the time I am dreaming about being strong enough to kill him. It helps.”
“I understand,” I said. “How many years have you been married?”
“I don’t remember. I don’t want to remember. Five years, maybe. Or maybe longer. He took me when I was nineteen.”
“Yes. One day I came back to East Timor from Bandung. I was studying there, at the university. I stayed in my house for two weeks. They raided our house, very late at night. They killed my older brother and they took away my sister. Then he came back, for me. He had his way with me for two days and three nights. He never shared me with the others. He did things to me, you know…. I don’t want to say it…. Then he said I would soon marry him. I said I would kill myself but he replied that if I did, who knew what would happen to my mother and my younger brother.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Then I had to convert. He took me to Java. I began to live with his family; he is hardly at home. They torture me, you know…. Not my body, but they still do, in their own way. I have two children.”
“Two children…” I repeated.
“I wish they would die,” she said. “They are his children, not mine.”
“Damn,” I said. I gave her my card. “Run away,” I said.
“There is no place to run,” she said. “This is Indonesia. If you run away and you can’t return to your own home, you end up as a prostitute or maid, or both. If you are lucky.”
“I’ll try,” I said. “I will try to write, I promise. It’s true that nobody cares, but I’ll really try.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“I wish I could do more.”
“Do you have a passport?”
“No. I have nothing. I’m just his slave.”
“Damn,” I said. “I really hate this country.”
“So do I,” she said. “But I have never been anywhere else. Almost no one from here has been anywhere else. And those who travel are already programmed. They see but they pretend that they don’t see. They teach them how to be proud to be Indonesians. Instead of telling us how it is outside, they come back and say that they are happy to be back in this country. We never learn anything from them. But I hope there is a world outside. And I hope I will see it one day. And I will never come back, no matter what. They killed so many people. There are so many people who are still alive but dead inside.”
“You will see it; you will see the world outside,” I said. “But maybe it’s not as pretty as you imagine.”
“But it has to be better than this…”
“Yes,” I said. “Almost anything is better.”
“I knew it.”
“And one day, your country will be free.”
“I have almost nobody left, there. Please tell them, please tell the world outside what they have done to us.”
“I will,” I said. “I swear I will. I will always remember you.”
I was too exhausted after not sleeping for two nights. I wasn’t sure what I was saying, but I kept speaking, anyway.
She made a cross with her fingers before leaving me. “May Jesus protect you,” she said. I followed her with my eyes. I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could take. She had passed her pain to me and now I had to carry it inside; I had to live with it for the rest of my life. With her pain and with the pain of so many others.
I ran after her, I stopped her, I took her hand, I pressed her with all the strength against me, I felt every inch of her fragile body responding, I begged her silently for forgiveness. I was apologizing for my country which had allowed this to happen, for humanity and for all of us, storytellers, who had failed her as well as those countless millions like her, all over the world.
excerpted from Point of No Return