João da Costa


Date of birth: 9 March 1979
Place of origin: Buruma, Baucau

Participated in the training and work program of the Department of Labour organised by Mbak Tutut, the eldest daughter of President Suharto

‘I first heard about the Depnaker program from a friend who had been sent to Makassar with promises of work, but when he got there he was abandoned. After six months he came back to Baucau.

In 1995 I finished school in Dili and went back to Baucau. Soon after, an uncle of mine who worked for a soldier of at the Sub-District Military base in Baucau kept inviting me to his house and suggesting that I register for the Labour Department program. I didn’t want to because of the experience of my friend. My uncle knew that I was involved in clandestine activities and was afraid of what would happen if I refused. He had been told to make sure that I registered by his bosses.

A short time later he came to my house with the forms for me to complete. Then he took him me to the military base. Before I handed in my forms I photocopied them and changed my name to Abel da Costa. I was afraid that I might have problems if they found out what I had been doing. When I said my name my uncle didn’t say anything. In Sulawesi where I was sent everyone called me Abel.

I only told my parents after I had registered. They disagreed with me leaving, however, I felt confused and stayed quiet and just went along.

The District Military Command organised for the 30 participants from Baucau to travel by bus to Dili. We stayed at the military base in Akadiruhun in Dili. The military officers promised that we would get jobs with good wages and housing in Indonesia. We were given semi-military training referred to as Physical, Mental, Discipline (FMD). We had to get up at 3am to go running. We also did sport and parade drill. We had to sing Indonesian national songs and had to dance, though only among themselves, no outsiders were invited. We were given a health check.

We had to listen to lectures. The military instructors from Battalion 744 told us that we had been chosen to be sent away because we were unemployed and strong-willed. Military officers asked me whether I had taken part in the Santa Cruz demonstration. They also wanted to know what I knew about Fretilin. They said they knew everything about me so I should tell the truth. I was afraid but there was no physical violence. I was not involved in the Santa Cruz demonstration, but I worked for the clandestine movement in Baucau.
The military discipline was very strict. When we were on parade the soldiers hit and kicked us if we got out of step when we marched. One of our group fainted when he was kicked in the chest by a soldier with his boot. However, I was afraid and so were my friends, but we couldn’t do anything; we just had to accept it.

I know that some of my friends wanted to pull out after the training, but we could not. The soldiers told us if we did that it would mean we were Fretilin or spies.
A local Catholic pastor came to lecture us as part of the moral training. When we went to mass and the pastor was alone with us he told us he understood that leaving East Timor was not what we wanted to do. It was a political decision that required us to go. He reminded us not to forget our religion and gave us all a Bible.

That year I think there were about 75 recruits, 30 from Baucau, 40 from Dili and 5 from Same. There were five women from Baucau, the rest were young men all below the age of 25. I was 17 years old and I remember that there were several younger than me, including one 15 year old. Twenty-five were sent to Ambon and left on 11 September 1996. I was in the group of 50 sent to Sulawesi on 14 September 1996. Two Labour Department staff and one soldier in plain clothes travelled travelled on the boat with us. Adelfonso, one of our group tried to run away at this stage. He stood back when the others boarded hoping he would not be noticed, but he was grabbed by a soldier in plain clothes and forced onto the boat. After that Adelfonso was interrogated and that made us all afraid. We go paid Rp30,000 for the week of training, and Rp90,000 once on the boat.

When we arrived in Makassar representatives from the Labour Department and the police and military from the District and the Sub-District Military Commands met our boat. We all lined up like soldiers on parade. Then we were taken to a Labour Department training centre where we lived and received another week of FMD training, this time organised by the police and not so strenuous. After this we could choose to follow one of several trade courses— building, electrical, welding etc. I chose the building course. There were also other participants, not only East Timorese. We got a certificate for completing the course.
After the training course we were sent for three months to do work experience in factories related to our training. I was sent with several others to a factory in Palopo about ten hours drive from Makassar, where we lived in the dormitory accommodation supplied by the factory for workers. Travel to the factory and accommodation was all organised by the Labour Department at regional and sub-regional level. After the three months we returned to Makassar. However, there were no jobs as promised and Labour Department staff did not help us find jobs. We still received an allowance which was enough to buy food. I was lucky because I was given accommodation, with two others from Baucau, in rooms  at the back of a house belonging to a colonel. He helped us find a job after several months. The colonel asked the foreign managers of a factory to take us on. We received wages of Rp150,000/month. Many of the others got jobs in factories in Makassar owned by the president’s daughter, Tutut.

After some time I met up with East Timorese students living in Sulawesi and again joined in clandestine activities. We were a bit freer than in East Timor. Indonesian soldiers often talked with us. They would ask whether we supported integration or independence. My mouth said 100% integration but in my heart a thought what do we need integration for. From 24 March 1999 we started to return to East Timor to help prepare for the referendum. Forty-five of the 50 young people who originally went to Sulawesi in 1996 with me returned to East Timor at that time. I think there may be five still living in Sulawesi.