‘We can rip apart white man’s head with our bare hands’



Our Sunday Times Correspondent spends three days with the notorious Aitarak militia in its jungle hideout in West Timor to file this report

Hidden in the hills next to a Catholic cemetery is a piece of barren land surrounded by burnt trees and a rough shelter of three shanty-looking makeshift houses, all displaying the Indonesian flag on their rusty rooftops.

When dawn breaks, a motley bunch of 730 men, many of them in their late 20s, are brought to this secret militia training ground in 10 trucks from nearby refugee camps.

Here, they will be trained as guerilla fighters for the next two months, before being sent across the border for periodic attacks against their enemies in East Timor.

The daily eight-hour routine is simple for the initial phase of military-style training that started only a week ago: It is physical fitness, discipline and acute indoctrination.

Watched by eagle-eyed instructors with SKS rifles slung over their shoulders, the aspiring warriors of the pro-integration militia Aitarak run around this scorched land under the blazing sun, heaving and puffing.

They are coaxed and cajoled occasionally by their observers into singing patriotic songs in the local Tetum dialect.After four laps around a field laden with nothing but cow dung and other animal waste, they perform the routine push-ups and sit-ups. The fitter ones start to learn the leopard’s crawl.

Then comes indoctrination. Militiamen are assailed psychologically about all the injustices they have suffered in recent weeks, at the hands of Australian peacekeepers and others who are now occupying their homeland of East Timor. They are also taught to identify Australian troops by their uniforms and methods of operation.

But it is still early days for these exiled East Timorese rebels in Atambua – and other areas like Mutaain, Naibonat and Tibar in West Timor, where secret militia training camps have sprouted.

Their commanders acknowledge there is still some way to go for them to fight a protracted guerilla war with foreigners, particularly Australians, for more than a year.

One of the Aitarak platoon commanders, Lieutenant Mariano Goncalves, told The Sunday Times:

“Most of my men have very little basic military knowledge. Many are bandits with little discipline. But they display a willingness to kill and also a willingness to die for East Timor.

“Psychologically, we are prepped up more than the average Australian soldier, who is probably thinking about what a nice life he left behind in Australia for the horrors in East Timor.”

Shooting lessons, grenade training and tactical strategy will follow in three weeks’ time, when the strong are separated from the weak.

Out of a battalion of 730 men, for example, about 400 will go into battle, while the remaining number will form the logistics and administrative support base.

The pro-integration forces (PPI), which group together some 7,000 militia members from the Aitarak, Besi Merah-Putih, Laksur, Sakunar, Ahi and Saka, is run in conventional military fashion.

The PPI is the nerve centre, run by chief Joao Tavares and his deputy Enricuo Gutteres, who is also commander of the Aitarak battalion.

There are six battalions divided along regional lines. Each, with more than 700 men, is divided further into companies and platoons.

Nearly all of them are led by ethnic East Timorese soldiers who defected from the Indonesian armed forces when it pulled out from East Timor last month.

The PPI has two broad aims. One is to make regular “hit-and-run attacks” across the border – to destabilise an independent East Timor and prevent it from taking off.

The other goal is to capture areas in East Timor which it believes are integration strongholds. These include Liquica, Ainaro, Ambeno, Bobonaro, Ermera and Kovalima.

Already, 1,400 men have been sent behind enemy lines to stir up trouble.

The militias use a collection of World War II weapons such as the SKS, G3, SP and Moser. They also expect to get more M-16 rifles and AKA weapons used by the Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus).

Sipping ice water after three hours of training, exhausted recruit Roberto Gama is quietly confident that the militias have what it takes to go to war.

“We don’t need sophisticated equipment to rip apart a white man’s head. We can do it with our bare hands,” says the 30-year-old.

“Many of us are dressed in shorts and T-shirts and look like bandits, compared to the professional soldiers who are occupying our country.

“But remember this: We are fighting a war on our own turf. We know every corner of East Timor much better than our enemies and can easily cause problems for them.

“And all of us are willing to die for our land. Wouldn’t you want to die for your land that has been stolen from you?” Martyrdom is more than sacrifice. The militiamen are assured that if they die in war, their families’ welfare would be looked after.

But observers have argued that high morale now could dissipate in months to come.

They are doubtful if guerilla fighters can launch a sustained attack over a long period, unless they are given “covert backing by external elements”.

The poor record of guerilla wars of the 70s is also instructive.

Said a Western analyst: “They don’t seem to know what they are getting into.

“The emotional adrenaline might not last and the bravado now could give way to pessimism, when casualties begin to mount.

“It remains to be seen whether their commitment can stand up to reality.”

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