Thursday, February 22, 2024 | 11:12 WIB

A debt of honor

IO – “At the end of last November, we finished restoring our adat (traditional or customary) houses at Kewar. The money was not from the government. We found it ourselves,” declared the Loro of Lamakne, Ignasius J. Kali Mau, proudly. “After the restoration we held a Lalbelis ceremony and we sacrificed animals at our kramats (sacred places), as our ancestors once did.”

The village of Kewar is in the regen­cy of Belu close to West Timor’s border with Timor Leste. In Belu the tribes are led by chieftains known as small “rajas” and a “loro” is higher than a raja. He has several rajas under him. “During the ceremony we danced the Teberai or Likurai and the Tei,” the Loro of Lamaknen continued. “These are sacred dances. The Teberai used to be danced when our warriors re­turned from battle. In those days we were still head hunters…,” he added with a gentle smile. “And in December, the Church blessed our adat houses, kramats and graves.”

The road from Atambua to the adat village of Kewar on the slopes of Mount Lakaan (+ 1600 meters above sea level) was newly asphalted and smooth as silk although there were nearly no cars using the road. It is part of the government program to extend infrastructure everywhere throughout the Archipelago. A good program but with a fragile economy and increasing debts how useful such a road actually is for the small villages along the road is questionable. It will probably be more useful for encourag­ing newcomers such as the Buginese, the Madurese and the Javanese to settle further into the interior. It will also require funds for maintenance which will have to be taken from the region’s taxes when the villages of Belu’s most urgent needs are water, housing, health care, agricultural support and schools. The infrastruc­ture program needs very careful plan­ning as it brings problems of its own and when not well planned and car­ried out as the nation has seen, it can adversely affect the economy.

To the left and right of the road are rolling green hills and valleys, while in the distance rise blue mountains. In the lush and green rainy season, it is hard to imagine that this area is dry and arid for lack of water during the dry season. What is eye catching is that despite the green there are no real forests in the lowlands. According to the WWF most of the Timor decidu­ous forests which are amongst those with the greatest number of bird spe­cies of any tropical dry forest ecore­gion in the Indo-Pacific region, have been cut down for agriculture. Andrey Damaledo in his book “Divided Loyal­ties” describes how in 2002 reduced assistance for refugees from Timor Leste placed an increasing burden on the locals and how the forests in South Belu were chopped down and turned into agricultural land. The lo­cal West Timorese had never dared to cut down those trees as they feared being fined.

A police station with christmas tree and snowman (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Now along the sides of the road there are the paler green leaves of teak and white teak or Gmelina arborea plantations as well as trees such as jack fruit, tamarind and the white leafed candlenut. The government has planted the teak trees. Occasion­ally, one sees small stone houses or houses made from the ribs and leaves of the lontar or toddy palm (Borassus flabellifer) painted gaily in shades of turquoise, blue or green. In Decem­ber small, artificial Christmas trees stand in front of some of the houses, so that everyone may enjoy them.

In Belu, the image of Christ appears on many tombstones. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

In this province where a majority of the inhabitants are Christian the small cemeteries abound with pictures of Christ and the Holy Mother. Under banyan trees one occasionally glimps­es a small manger and crib with the baby Jesus. “The banyan trees are sacred and in the forest there are still small altars…where people may leave offerings… for the dragons who live in the forests and are sacred too,” con­fided Ignasius Kali Mau, the Loro of Lamakne.

Mama Eta Soi, the jurukunci or guardian of the adat sites at Kewar. Like the Minangkabaus of West Sumatra her tribe is also matrilieal. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

On the slopes of Mount Lakaan lies the adat village of Kewar. Mama Eta Soi is the jurukunci or guardian of the adat or traditional houses and kramats there. The inhabitants are Bunas and their traditional language is Marai although some also speak Tetun, the national language of Timor Leste but in Timor Leste, Te­tun has more Portuguese loan words making it more difficult for West Ti­morese to understand the Tetun of Timor Leste.


The sacred circle of stones known as the mot where the clans gather for adat ceremonies. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The old adat house has been new­ly restored and Mama Eta Soi states that it is hundreds of years old, each generation restoring it when the materials become damaged or simply too old. In front of it is the magical circle known as a mot. This is a place for the nobility. It consists of flat grey stones pilled one on top of the other to form a low wall that forms a circle filled with earth, mak­ing it slightly higher than the sur­rounding land. The mot lies under a large old majo tree whose wood is red when cut and which has yellow flowers in season. At one end slightly higher than the rest of the circle lie the two sacred stones where sacri­fices are presented. One stone has a hole at its top and this is deemed the female stone whereas the male stone is simply smooth at its crest. The place where offerings are laid is called Bosok Baurato Ba lili. When a fire appears here then the chieftains and their people must come and bring offerings to make the fire go out but people also come and bring sacrifices before a war in order to be given courage or for a hunt to be suc­cessful. For the hunt they will place their weapons there to be blessed. The animals that are sacrificed may be chicken or pigs or even a cow.

The female and male stones of the Bosok Baurato Ba Lili. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

“Whenever a young woman of the village no matter if she is at the vil­lage or far away – even as far away as say, Australia or America – becomes pregnant there will be a great wind and the majo tree will shed its leaves and little twigs,” explained Ibu Eta. “Her parents will place eggs in the hole of the female stone and the oth­er women will place a koba or bas­ket with betel leaves, areca nut and lime and woven cloths for women around the female stone. The men will place their kobas with betel, are­ca and lime and woven textiles for men around the male stone. They do this in order to make the wind stop blowing and to keep the baby safe and blessed.”

In November, after the village of Kewar had restored their adat house, it held a Lalbelis ceremony where all the clans were called and the heads of the clans sat within the circle of the mot and each accepted betel, lime and areca nuts. Only a clan not at peace with another clan would have refused. Then the head of the clan must make peace with that other clan for the ceremony cannot continue until he makes peace and every clan has ac­cepted the betel, areca and lime. “If a fine needs to be paid – so be it. It will be paid in money or woven cloths. Afterwards we danced the Teberai and the Tei. Pigs and chicken were slaughtered and their intestines stud­ied to understand the situation. Then we celebrated altogether,” recounted Mama Eta Soi.

Under the majo tree were also stones that had been placed upright into the ground. These are kramats: the graves of the ancestors, their loros and rajas. When asked if the stones at the center were also such graves Ibu Eta shook her head. “No,” she said slowly. “These are the graves of our men who died fighting in Timor. We brought them back here to be buried amongst their ancestors, amongst the tetek (grandfathers) and the nenek (grandmothers).”

All those years ago in Jakarta, we barely heard anything about the fighting in Timor. The censors saw to that. We saw no body bags, no cof­fins in the news, no grieving, no tears. And here, it finally comes home what that war meant in real terms to real people; to the Timorese, especially to the border people.

The newly restored adat house of Kewer Village. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)
The doors with geometric designs and knobs symbolizing fertility. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The adat house has a roof of thatch from alang-alang or long grass which hangs down till the ground so that one has to crawl inside where the roof rises to create a two-story structure. The doors are beautifully carved with geometric designs and knobs that Mama Eta said symbol­ized women’s breasts in order to en­sure fertility within the house. In the house itself is a long wooden pillar hung with maize and buffalo horns near the rafters. In front of this, a woven ikat cloth is spread out, hang­ing against a small wooden wall and before this lies a long flat stone with candles. “This is the family altar where the family may consult with the spirits of the ancestors, the tetek-tetek and nenek-nenek about signs that they cannot decipher or about problems. If they ask for a solution, there will soon be a sign. A bird might fly into the house or a lizard may fall off the wall. Once a great dark snake entered the house and simply stayed there. It would not go away; we knew it was not good.” Her eyes stare into the distance. “Four days later the war broke out in Timor Timur,” she added softly.

The family altar inside the adat house. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

In Atambua at eleven o’ clock that morning Presidential candidate Pra­bowo Subianto arrived for the Ger­indra Party Christmas celebrations which they had decided to hold there that year. There are over one hundred and twenty thousand Timor Leste refugees in Belu: men, women, children and old people. Many were once Apodeti, they voted for inte­gration during the referendum and moved to West Timor after partition. All along the West Timor border are villages with former West Timor parti­sans who supported the Army during the war. They were mainly trekkers, guides and porters who supported our Army and thousands of these West Timorese and Timor Leste ref­ugees came to the airport. Many in tribal costumes with great feather headdresses. An old lady smiled, “I came from far because I wanted to see Prabowo. I wanted to see my son’s commander.”

Thoussands in Atambua raised two fingers in support of Prabowo Subianto and the Gerindra party. (photo: IO/ARP)

Prabowo arrived by commercial jet wearing a tan shirt and hat and headed straight to the Seroja military cemetery located nearby to lay flow­ers. He fought in the Timor War. It was where he faced death and wit­nessed the deaths of close friends. He saw terrible things in that war and as everyone knows Indonesia did not win. It was a war that in the end was fought for nothing. Prabowo was once Special Forces. He never cries but as he placed flowers on the grave tears flowed down his face.

The refugees do not have sufficient housing, or water or land that is tru­ly their own. Many of the houses are built of poor materials or are still of lontar leaves. The quality of their ed­ucation is abysmal and they are so poor it is hard for them to pull them­selves out of that poverty. A woman in the crowd pushed her way bravely to the front but whispered when it came time to speak. “Many women would like to weave but we cannot afford the price of the cotton threads. If we could just have a little money to buy the thread and dyes to start a small cooperative… we could earn money…” she said hopefully.

Prabowo Subianto greets old friends and supporters. (photo: IO/ARP)

A man in adat costume spoke about the difficulties of getting a de­cent education for his son. Another young woman cried out, “Who cares about us? No one but Pak Prabowo. Remember Wilfrida Soik! He saved her! (Wilfrida Soik was an Indone­sian migrant worker from Atambua who was accused of murdering her employer. Prabowo provided her with one of Malaysia’s top lawyers).


Close to Tears. (photo: IO/ARP)

Later in a hall with seven hundred people, Prabowo spoke to these for­gotten people, “I have avoided coming here… because a commander must take care of the people under him. He must bring something good for them, to better their lives… I have asked the government so often to help you and I know that that help has too often not come or come too late for you. I have not been able to get for you what you truly deserve… I am sorry for this… In Jakarta the elite do not understand what sacrifices you have made for Indonesia and they grow further and further away from you but believe this: I know the sacrifices you have made for Indonesia. I know that you left your lands, your crops, your houses. You left the graves of your ancestors and of your families to support the red and the white. I know and I understand that Indone­sia owes you a debt of honor.”

Here Prabowo’s voice broke and tears filled the eyes of many in the room. Men and women, the young and the old, so many needed to hear that recognition of their sacrifice and loyalty from someone who under­stood and perhaps Prabowo himself also needed to share that pain and those tears with them. His voice steadied, “But I promise you that when I am elected President, I shall return to Atambua and I shall repay that debt of honor!”  (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

In Atambua the Timorese share their sorrows with presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto. (photo: IO/ARP)


Latest article

Related Articles