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The two reckonings of Maternus Bere

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23 February 2012 09:18

Gordon Peake is a Visiting Fellow at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, ANU. He is writing a book entitled 'Beloved Land: Stories from Timor-Leste'.

Maternus Bere remembers well when he was forgiven for being a pro-Indonesian Timorese militia leader. The trial did not take place in a court but in the course of a vivid dream which, he says, was much more important as it was probably sanctified by a higher authority.

Bere described his supernatural-religious vision to me. He was on an altar with an Indonesian flag behind him as a baying crowd from his hometown decided his fate. A priest stood ready to plunge a sword into his heart but the people changed their mind and then beseeched that he be spared. He woke up in a sweat, but knew the slate had been wiped clean. 'I felt that I had been absolved', said Bere, who is named in an indictment for serious crimes in 1999 that include extermination, murder, enforced disappearance, rape, and torture.

There are apparently nearly four hundred Timorese indicted for serious crimes that took place amid the end of Indonesian rule, including crimes against humanity. Many of them live freely just over the border in West Timor.

Bere is among the most infamous, not just because of the severity of the charges against him but because, in 2009, he was caught and subsequently released by Timorese authorities, allegedly under severe pressure from the Government of Indonesia. Their decision to free him prompted outrage from opposition parties, civil society, human rights NGOs and even unusually direct reproach from the UN. The Justice Minister justified the decision in terms of the 'national interest'.

Since then, the man himself has disappeared back into obscurity. As far as I am aware, this was his first interview since the 2009 saga.

To hear his story, I traveled a few weeks ago to his small, unremarkable house, up a rutted mountain road on the Indonesian side of the border. He lives so close that mobiles automatically roam onto the Timorese network; he works as an civil servant on community development. He was happy to talk and many members of his extended family gathered around as he told his version of events.

Bere accepts he was a senior figure in the militia in the border town of Suai during 1999 but nothing more. His involvement, he says, extended to no more than spirited advocacy for Timor remaining a part of Indonesia. 

But the militia he commanded stands accused of a catalogue of terror, including firebombing and strafing a church in which hundreds of Timorese had sought sanctuary. At least thirty people died. Bere said he was not involved and did not know who was responsible, a claim some might find a little hard to credit in this tightly knit society in which nothing is secret for too long.

He returned to Suai in August 2009 to attend a religious ceremony for his godson. He traveled on his Indonesian passport and Timorese immigration authorities issued him with a visa. UN advisers to the Timorese border police also appeared not to notice anything untoward. He spent three days in the town and says he lost track of how many people met him in the street and hugged him. When he went to Sunday mass, he said that the choir changed the words of the hymns so they sounded like cantos of forgiveness.

He was arrested a day later and says neither he nor the public defender or court officials – all former students from his days as a schoolteacher – could understand why. Nor apparently could the Timorese police that drove him to Dili who said there was no need for handcuffs as he was a 'good and well respected man'. He spent a few weeks in jail in the capital and has fond memories of playing volleyball with fellow prisoners, among them those accused of attempting to assassinate the President in 2008.

On the morning of 30 August 2009 – the ten-year anniversary of the vote his militia so vehemently opposed – his jailers told him the President had ordered his transfer to the Indonesian Embassy in Dili. Nearly two months later, he was spirited out of the country on the grounds he needed urgent medical treatment. He looks the picture of health these days.

The issue of what to do with men like Maternus Bere is something both governments prefer to remain in the background. The leadership of both countries decided not to pursue senior figures in the militia, a decision based on realpolitik. Many other ex-militia leaders and political figures I met in West Timor (the subject of a future post) indicated it would be much better to use traditional methods of resolution than the courts. Some said forgiveness from a priest was all that was required to absolve past sins. A few suggested they may return once the UN mission ends later this year as the threat of indictment will diminish significantly with their departure.

I asked Maternus Bere whether he would go back to Timor-Leste in the future. 'I'm happy here', he said in the evening gloom, as a family member cut down coconuts from the tree outside his house.

Photo by the author.

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