April 2012


Autumn of the Patriarch

By Peter Robb
Jose Ramos-Horta with school students in Ermera, Timor-Leste, March 2012. © Beawitharta/Reuters
Jose Ramos-Horta with school students in Ermera, Timor-Leste, March 2012. © Beawitharta/Reuters
Four Days with José Ramos-Horta

I got to Dili at seven in the morning and the president of the República Democrática de Timor-Leste arrived from New York via Singapore a few hours later. Seven is a great time to land in Dili. You leave Darwin in the black night, fly over the Timor Sea in indeterminate misty greyness that gets gradually lighter and by the time you’re over Timor itself, the mist has dispersed and the sun is just high enough to lend some definition and colour to the land.

The sun comes up fast over Timor and it’s good to be in the air when it does, as the folded volumes below define themselves as green, and the darker obliquities as deep narrow valleys, almost crevasses, from which tall trees grow and spread their little umbrellas of branches. Already you can see how steep a lot of the ground is, how densely forested. The rolling grassy hills, the little plateaux, the delicate clusters of rice paddies like shiny fingernails on the ridges, never go on for long. High trees and ridges jut up, forests encroach on the clearings. Human traces are hidden in the green. The land looks virginal from the air. It gets greener and greener as the sun rises higher. In the rainy season the greenness of Timor’s peaks and folds nearly blinds you. Then the plane tilts and you are circling over the shimmering water of the Wetar Strait and Dili’s harbour, dotted with cargo ships.

The SilkAir plane from Singapore landed in Dili at two in the afternoon. By the time it had taxied to the terminal the platoon of 140 soldiers in camouflage gear and green berets had, after some shuffling and jostling and distance measuring, got into impeccable lines. The steps were wheeled up to the plane, the door opened, and a grey-haired and somewhat grey-faced figure in his sixties, not tall but thickened with age and dressed in a dark grey collarless jacket which the breeze flipped up over his rump once or twice, carefully descended the steps. An officer barked orders and the guard snapped to attention. The flag of the República Democrática de Timor-Leste, bright red with a white star and arrowheads of black and gold jutting from the masthead, flapped and snapped in the sea breeze against the brilliant sky. At this point I began to cry. Arrivals and departures are always hard to handle.

Rather slowly Dr José Ramos-Horta, who in 1975 had been one of the very young founders of this republic and who, in late February of 2012, had been its president for almost five years, set foot on the ground outside the city where he was born and inspected the long lines of the honour guard. Closely followed by his aide-de-camp, Tenente Francisco Silva, also in camouflage and green beret, he made his way across the remainder of the tarmac and along a path lined by members of the government and the presidential staff who had turned out on this Saturday to welcome the president back after his speech to the UN Security Council.

He was briskly interrogated about his United Nations trip and his speech by a dozen members of the press corps, all of whom seemed to be barely out of their teens and none of whom showed any particular awe of the head of state seated a few feet away. The president’s meeting with the media was a small and very matter-of-fact event, in a small but not fragile body politic. And it was perfectly normal to these kids in shorts and sandals that the man behind the table should have been addressing the UN Security Council a few hours before on the quality of life in the streets of Dili.

What the president had said to the UN Security Council was that life in Dili, some years after the most recent aftershock of decades of violence, an episode of military turbulence that had nearly killed him, was peaceful, busy, normal. Timor-Leste was a functioning democracy. I wondered whether anyone at the UN that day had also been present in 1975, when a 25-year-old Ramos-Horta told the Security Council about paratroops of the Indonesian invasion force landing in Dili’s streets.


Media grilling over, the president went home. When José Ramos-Horta travels in representation of Timor-Leste, he travels in a black SUV with a Timorese flag fluttering from the left-hand side of the bonnet, preceded and followed by white SUVs with flashing blue and red lights on their roof. When he is merely getting himself around Dili – from his home to his office in the vast new Chinese-built presidential palace, for instance – he drives himself in his old Mini Moke, with Tenente Silva folded into its back seat.

In his garage José Ramos-Horta also has a meticulously restored white Volkswagen Beetle, a rather glamorous dune buggy, and a Jeep. An entire wall of the first reception room in his home is filled with blown-up portrait photos of Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevara, James Dean and the others. In his private study, JRH has a couple of smaller portrait photos of JF Kennedy. This is part of the iconography of that tiny window of time, between Eisenhower and Vietnam, when everything was on a knife edge and the world could be won or lost. The moment of Khrushchev and Giovanni XXIII, Dag Hammarskjöld, Patrice Lumumba, Che and Fidel in the Sierra Maestra, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. It was the moment of Ramos-Horta’s adolescence, and our own.

The convoy stopped at the Ramos-Horta home just long enough for JRH to change his shirt before heading off on the road to Liquiçá, 35 kilometres along the coast to the west. He had to open an agricultural training centre and visit a craft fair nearby. Small-time things, after New York and Singapore, but JRH seemed energised by his hour back in Timor.

The roads in Timor are narrow and twisty and constantly damaged by the torrents that come down from the skies and the mountains. The going is slow and stops are frequent, even in a 4WD. The flashing lights and the flag get recognition but not precedence. I was startled when the presidential vehicle pulled over and stopped in a deep pool of milk chocolate–coloured water, making way for a bespattered ute carrying a bunch of shirtless labourers in the back. It soon seemed normal.

Because Timor-Leste is still a poor country, and because far more Timorese are children than adults, people travel by foot between their home, work, school, friends, plantation, church, market. Every 50 metres or so the presidential SUV passed close to a knot of kids or young people walking in the dirt alongside the ribbon of blacktop. When they saw the lights, and the big black car following with the flag, the kids stood back a bit, blinking and disoriented. By the time we passed them, sometimes only inches away, they’d got it, and we heard Boa tarde! or Tarde! at full volume, singly or in chorus, and got a close-up glimpse of shining eyes and flashing teeth.

The first time it happened I burst out laughing. A couple of times more and I turned to JRH to say, You must be a very happy man. He looked at me. To have got through everything … all these years … to have achieved this … and have all the children in a country of children waving and calling out whenever they see you … JRH didn’t deny it. It happened again and again and again over the days that followed. In the morning it was Bom dia, or Dia. Never anything else. They never called the president by his name or title, not once. They never looked awed. The man in the car was just someone they knew and liked.

Standing near JRH and the Brazilian ambassador outside Liquiçá’s new agricultural centre, I found a beautiful handwoven tais draped around my neck. JRH made me taste a banana sweet steamed in folded leaves. The fair was in the grounds of a grandiose but abandoned Portuguese villa. The Brazilian ambassador showed off the hand press he’d brought out from rural Brazil, able to produce thousands of sturdy mud bricks in a single day. JRH moved tirelessly from stall to stall, and as the sun went down I watched the endless kids, kids of all ages, teeming through the grounds. Later I learnt that just before the referendum on independence in 1999, a local militia had massacred 200 local people in the church at Liquiçá under the complaisant eye of Indonesian troops. That the Japanese had a concentration camp here during the war. Everywhere in Timor there were memories, and the worse were the more recent. It was hard to imagine some of the things that lay under the green. It was well after dark when we got back to the house and JRH disappeared into the shadows of his home.


Among the world’s heads of state, JRH is distinguished not only by his Nobel Peace Prize but by having designed and in part built the house he lives in. Out of recycled materials. Using indigenous principles of design and construction. It is more a compound than a single building, and there were parts it seemed intrusive to explore. Nor was there any time. From the street you see a large sliding gate of sheet metal painted dark green, inserted in a high white wall beside a sentry station manned by very young and somewhat playful military guards, who are nevertheless rigidly at attention when the president enters or leaves. It seems both secure and discreet and not at all intimidating.

When you enter the grounds you see the essential structure. The paved ground leads between the enclosing arms of two long single-storeyed buildings, whose high steep thatched Timorese roofs cover a series of rooms on each side, rooms which have walls but not individual ceilings, so the interiors are at once private and collective. There are always little noises floating over the walls and up into the high spatial wedges of the wooden ceilings. Joining the two arms and partly hidden by the little tropical garden, the fishpond and the tiny bridge, is the high deep dining room entirely open at the front.

You reach the dark green armoured gate and the sentry box by a gently climbing road from the seafront at Keti Aut on the eastern edge of Dili. Beyond the house the hill rises more steeply, an amphitheatre of grass and small trees. A few yards before you get to the gate, which faces an area of dirt and grass foraged by a few floppy-eared goats, there is a small shrine with stone steps cut into the bank, marking the place where JRH was shot and nearly killed in 2008. JRH had been returning from an early walk on the beach at seven in the morning when he heard gunshots from his compound, which had been visited in his unexpected absence by Major Alfredo Reinado and a group of his men. Reinado was the fiery, unpredictable, insurrectionary and perhaps simply criminal leader of the Petitioners, an armed force of disaffected rebel soldiers who felt badly done by when peace came to Timor-Leste and the army was reorganised.

The question of why Reinado and his men came to the president’s home that early morning and quite what happened when they got there has been much debated, especially after autopsy reports seemed to show Reinado had been shot in the back of the head at point-blank range. Why the president ran toward his house when he heard the shooting, and why his security detail let him do it, was another puzzle, along with his later revised version of his shooting. There was no doubt that he came very close to death from his wounds. I asked him whether he continued to suffer from them, and he said some physical discomfort remained. But I don’t dream about it, he said firmly.

There are secrets along with bones hidden under Timor’s dense blanket of green. Stories and theories abound on the death of the troublesome Reinado and one of his associates and the near death of the president. One person told me it was said that Reinado was lured to his death by the promise of a meeting with the president that would resolve his claims and remove his rancour. That there had been snipers in place behind trees in the close little hillside partly encircling the compound. That something had gone wrong. Reinado and his associate were certainly found dead that morning inside the JRH compound, somewhere near the ornamental garden and the fishpond.

The reception room on the courtyard’s right wing, near the gate, with an antique coach and the American icons on the back wall, also lacks a wall to cut it off from the courtyard garden. The distinction between open and closed, inside and out, light and dark, social and intimate is not clear in this quiet place, and the extreme economy with electric light enhances the ambiguity. While I was eating alone in the semi-dark that first evening, a series of young girls began to circulate in the shadows. One would bring a plate from the kitchen, another would sit briefly nearby and ask a few questions. Another introduced her daughter. The comings and goings multiplied. How many people live in this house? I asked at last. We don’t live here, one replied, we’re just visiting. The girls knew each other and knew the girls working in the kitchen, and were entirely at home. Dona Aida, the president’s sister, who was a briskly authoritative presence ruling the household during the day, I never saw after dark.

Then JRH re-emerged from the shadows and sat down at the table with us. During the conversation I met Anacleto, who was 11 and did live in the president’s house. JRH told me he’d found Anacleto as an emaciated child struggling along the beach at the bottom of the road under a heap of fruit he was hoping to sell. Anacleto was from the interior, the youngest of 11 children, though as three had died, he pointed out, he was now the youngest of eight. He stayed with the president and went to school during the week, and went back to his family on holidays.

At this point – spurred by the splendour of Anacleto’s name, which had belonged to the third pope in the first century of Christendom – my mind was back in Brazil. I thought of the big slave-serviced family houses and the people who gravitated into their social orbit, people who were neither masters nor slaves nor employees but were sheltered in some never quite defined way by the social and economic security of the big house.

Anacleto was an agregado, and so probably were the others I saw fleetingly at the edge of vision and never got to know at all. The presidential household in Dili seemed to me to have something of the casual inclusiveness of the Portuguese colonial home, an inclusiveness which continues benignly enough and attenuated in Brazil’s north-east today. There was also a cat called Bussa, whom I only ever saw as a pale shadow leaping over a wall at night. JRH told Anacleto the visitor was impressed by his name, but Anacleto had vanished into the kitchen. I met a young niece of JRH’s, who had lately lost her husband and was dressed in black. Was she staying there too? Where had she been before? Whispers and laughter floated to the high ceiling, or in from the courtyard, long after people had retired. It was suffocating under the mosquito net.

At breakfast – it was still dark – I met Francisco, brother of JRH, who was visiting from Sydney. Francisco was airlifted to Australia from Dili by the Red Cross in the year after the Indonesian invasion and has lived in Sydney ever since. JRH had left two days before the Indonesian forces landed and began to massacre the people of Dili, basing himself in New York and trying to make the world hear the Timor story. His family were targets for the Indonesians. A brother had been killed in the invasion and in 1978 a sister was killed by an Indonesian bomb fragment while hiding in the bush in the interior. Another brother was killed fighting Indonesian troops the same year. And a brother of 16 simply disappeared. Fretilin was broken in 1978 and a guerrilla force and the occupying army took control. It was Timor-Leste’s cruellest year. The president’s mother has, like Francisco, lived for many years in outer western Sydney. The best public transport has its vagaries, and once the president’s mother found herself lost in Botany. She hailed a police car and told the driver to take her home to Liverpool. His counter offer of a ride to the nearest train station not being accepted, he did. She thinks Australia is the best place in the world, not least because the bus stops right outside her front door. She is less forgiving than her son the president of the killers of four of her 11 children.


The president was revving the Moke furiously as I pulled on my shoes and we shot off to the base where an Australian helicopter was waiting to take us to a big district meeting in Quelicai, in the high hill country east of Dili. Official Timor-Leste is meticulously punctual. Things don’t always happen fast but they do always happen on time. A German photographer and a German investigative journalist joined us, as well as the Australian pilot and crewman. I was jammed up against Tenente Silva. The helicopter followed the coast east from Dili then turned inland and floated over green peaks and deep green tree-filled crevasses. Sometimes we saw thin yellow roads, clusters of houses and farm buildings, and sometimes little clusters of small crescent-shaped rice paddies on the edge of streams or built into the contours of the hills. We flew past the male and female peaks of Matebian – the mountain of the dead – as we circled toward our landing place at Quelicai on the mountain’s western flank.

This high country was Fretilin’s last redoubt in the resistance to the Indonesian military’s three-year encirclement and annihilation campaign of bombing, burning, civilian massacre, possible chemical and biological warfare, which culminated in the killing of Fretilin president and military commander, Nicolau Lobato, on the last day of 1978. This wild stronghold was still a turbulent and sometimes violent aggregation of communities, and JRH was arriving to oversee the adjudication of a complex and long-running land dispute among six of them.

Quelicai was little more than a church, sitting on a hill like a small iced cake, and several large thatched shelters where big meetings were held. After an interminable Mass in the sweaty church and a morning coffee in its sacristy, the meeting started in the biggest of the shelters. There was a lot of walking, processing, dancing, greeting before it all started, and a glimpse of a wild splendour now mostly vanished from the world’s real life. It seemed partly to welcome and partly to intimidate the outsiders. The whole day was on a knife edge, especially for a foreigner, who was the object of an interest that was not necessarily friendly, if not hostile either. I saw a skinny 13-year-old with his arms round a magnificent scarred fighting cock and hauled out my borrowed camera. Posso tirar uma foto —? The boy recoiled in fear and anger and hugged the bird. He thought I was going to snatch his loved rooster, which was probably his family’s major source of income.

There were many old men – I wondered how old – thin and hard and bent like the polished sticks they used to get around. One said he remembered Australian soldiers from the time of the Japanese occupation – maybe it was a folk memory rather than his own. Leaders among them wore scarves of local weave on their heads, tufts of black and white feathers, horned brass headpieces with little bells on the tips, great gleaming brass discs on their chests, brass armplates and ropes of coloured beads. A lot of the older men had huge white moustaches. Bare-chested and skirted infant warriors danced when the helicopter landed, brandishing miniature curved swords, and they seemed a lot less tame than their coastal counterparts from the afternoon before.

Speeches by the power people from Dili were eclipsed by the oratory of the local leaders, who compelled attention even when you couldn’t understand a word. JRH is not a great speaker himself but he has strengths of lucidity and directness and a way of lightening things with a wry humour much enjoyed by people close enough to catch it. He talked at some length about domestic and sexual violence – there had been a gang rape in the district not long before – with enough nuance to keep attention and respect. Having spoken, he slumped back in a gilded sofa to hear the great land dispute. This was worked out in what seemed a complex dialectic of Dili’s Roman law and the tribal law of the interior arbitrated by the lia nain, the traditional lawgivers of Timor-Leste, who dress in the very acme of wild splendour and come to their role in infancy, through the portents surrounding their birth.

The leaders of the communities in dispute lined up before the president and I noticed each was holding a large white or speckled fowl. An upright old man had been standing silent and still in a corner, behind the proceedings and facing the president and the audience, ignored by everyone. He had a wide-brimmed hat, a pair of white moustaches like Mark Twain’s, a skirt of local tais, and a kind of tunic or poncho made from the Timorese flag. This silent figure was the executioner. Silently and deftly, he slit the throats of the six birds and cut the bodies open. One by one the corpses were brought forward and their smoking entrails were thrust into the president’s face for his examination. Seated behind the president, I imagined but could not see the duty performed with JRH’s usual equanimity.

At this point things got complicated. Four of the six birds showed clean and healthy livers, testifying to the truthfulness and good faith of the litigators. Two of the other birds, however, had spotted and dodgy livers, which cast their owners’ intentions into doubt. All this was written down and witnessed by the blue-uniformed head of police, who added in writing that his further investigations would be pursued in the light of these findings.

Exhausted by the heat and baffled by the proceedings, I left the shelter for a walk. The sun was almost unbearable in the early afternoon. I noticed a large number of men in different kinds of uniform – police, military, UN – carrying a large number of extremely big and scary semi-automatic rifles around the slippery muddy hillside among the peaceful people. I also noticed, crouching in the shade of trees here and there, more and more men and boys crouching with their fighting cocks. The birds were very big and already getting on each others’ nerves. Unofficial matters pressed on the day’s formal agenda, and soon we were lifting off again. Madly waving thousands seemed ecstatic to see us go. It was three o’clock and the cockfighting was ready to start.

Back in Dili, JRH said he was going to drop in on his campaign headquarters. There was a presidential election in three weeks and JRH was running for a second term. Running was perhaps an overstatement. He said he only decided to try for a second mandate when he received a petition signed by nearly 118,000 people asking him to. A niece told me he just couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to. The campaign headquarters – a small shopfront somewhere – had vanished when we got there. They were now in a suite of three small rooms a couple of streets away, filled with mostly very young volunteers. JRH spoke for a while and said nothing at all to fire them up.


Sunday night was a family night in the JRH compound. We all sat around the huge glossy table in the big dining room. A grandfather had died not long before, and relatives had gathered in Dili, some from Australia. It was like being landed in an episode of an unidentified sitcom, where everyone knew everything about everyone else except you. Your presence modified what they said, but only a bit, and less and less as dinner went on. JRH was quiet and sat at a corner of his own table and no particular notice was taken of him, or not until he started flicking bread balls at a niece who was sitting diagonally across the table and next to me. JRH has several assertive young nieces with Australian ways.

We were helping ourselves at the sideboard and demurely moving to the table when a figure appeared out of the dark in the garden, wild-eyed and tousle-haired, clutching an opened bottle. His arrival caused a hardly perceptible lowering of eyes and voices. The new arrival plonked himself in the place next to me and joined the conversation, talking louder than anyone else. He was funny and in some ways easier going than the rest, and we got talking. There was another barely perceptible shift in tone, a relaxation around the table. I realised the worry had been What the Visitor Would Think. Family life never changes.

The new arrival turned out to be Arsenio and he was JRH’s brother. Arsenio loudly and rather dismissively voiced opinions on everything anyone mentioned. From quiet, JRH in his corner became silent. The bread balls were about to start flying. Arsenio was the Wild One, the Black Sheep. I realised – it was another Anacleto moment – that I was in the presence of a Portuguese colonial family gathering. The good brother – JRH – the bad brother – Arsenio playing bad – and the amiable brother – Francisco – were playing out under the eyes of the womenfolk a domestic drama that Gilberto Freyre, the peerless student of planter culture in Brazil, would have recognised instantly.

Portuguese colonial culture had been evolving in the Lusitanian world since the sixteenth century. It vanished around the time the Portuguese melted away from Timor-Leste and the survival of this floating shred on the periphery of the vanished empire was poignant. The late grandfather had been a landowner and an ambassador. Before the dinner JRH had been showing his relatives an antique Portuguese chest of drawers he had lately acquired. JRH’s own father had been a metropolitan Portuguese, exiled by the dictator Salazar to Portugal’s tiniest and most distant colony. The restive young JRH had himself been exiled from Timor by the Portuguese governor and, barely adult, had spent 1970 and 1971 in Mozambique. It was a foolish move by the governor. JRH saw and learnt a great deal from Frelimo’s long struggle against the Portuguese empire. The thing he learnt best from Frelimo was the movement’s absolute respect for civilians, its waging war only against its military enemies. In Timor, JRH told me, no Indonesian civilian had ever been attacked, under the occupation or after liberation.

Arsenio’s arrival had set the evening irreversibly on a new course. Straight after dinner, the other family visitors silently and rapidly gathered themselves up and vanished into the perfumed darkness. JRH and Arsenio and I withdrew to a smaller table, Arsenio looking round distractedly for replenishment as he moved.


There had been another at the dinner who was not of the family. He arrived noiselessly just before the meal, sat silent in a far shady corner throughout. JRH introduced him as Tony Bello, an old friend. He too stayed behind. Tony Bello was another Timorese Australian. He’d been a friend of JRH in their youth, part of the crowd which had formed Fretilin when the Portuguese empire collapsed. Wanting to see the world outside Timor he came to Darwin, just ahead of Cyclone Tracy at the end of 1974. He was not really a political person, but he was part of that early ferment, and being in Darwin when the Indonesians invaded Timor a year later he became Fretilin’s link with the outside world, by radio.

Tony was the man – it all came flooding back – who was stopped on a road outside Darwin on the morning of 25 January 1976, six weeks after the Indonesian invasion of Timor-Leste and four days after the US government had announced it would double its military aid to Indonesia for 1976. He was on his way to make radio contact with Fretilin in the hope of getting the UN special representative into Timor, despite Indonesia’s efforts to keep him out of Fretilin-held territory. The UN man, Guicciardi, had called Bello the night before and asked to be flown from Darwin to meet the resistance leaders. Four carloads of police blocked Bello’s car and seized his radio, making the UN visit impossible. Four days later the Age in Melbourne reported that Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had ordered the seizure.

In those radio days Neil Simpson in Darwin worked with Tony on radio contact and relayed Fretilin news to Sydney which I printed in Militant. These were the days I first met JRH – not that he ever remembered – at a couple of the Timor campaign’s weekly meetings in Castlereagh Street. Arsenio now broke into our talk with a counterpoint on life on the ground with Fretilin in those days. In the drawl of a British grandee – wherever did he find that accent? – he described being bombed in the bush in comic terms, the misadventures and misunderstandings in his radio contact with Tony in Darwin. Behind the bravado I heard his four dead siblings speak. A few feet away JRH pecked at a tiny computer, not saying a word. Was he thinking of his own dreadful years alone in New York, in what he’d mentioned at another moment with a deep and spontaneous shudder as cockroach-infested little sublets.

Tony Bello’s language was entirely free of politics. I later asked JRH if Tony had ever played a political role in Timor, and JRH said he was far too eccentric for that. Yet that late night in the president’s house in Dili, Tony made me see something with great clarity that in the rhetoric of then and now I’d not realised before. I suddenly saw what it was like, in 1975 in Timor, when the Portuguese empire melted away overnight leaving nothing behind. These kids, a loose association of friends in their early twenties, with varying ideas about life and politics, surprisingly well educated in Dili’s Portuguese high school, but with almost no real experience of the larger world, suddenly found they had to work out, and fast, how to make a country and how to govern it. What kind of country did they want? What did the people want in Timor? What had they learnt from being a colony? So they discussed and organised and formed a pretty good shared idea of the free, independent and democratic society they wanted to build in their homeland.

They knew they had to act fast because they all knew about Suharto’s Indonesia and its millions of dead. They knew the farce of the act of free choice that had created Irian Jaya six years earlier. What they couldn’t know, not until too late, was the looming pattern of regional connivance that linked the fears and ambitions of the US, Indonesia and Australia, circling round the little island.

The president had vanished. Arsenio said he was going too. I asked him where he lived in Dili. Hotel California, he said, and sang a few bars before he too disappeared into the dark. Tony and I talked some more and then he left.


Ermera was high coffee country west of Dili. The roads were terrible as we wound through steep and densely forested valleys of great beauty. The coffee trees grew wild in the bush and metres high. Small children shimmied up to harvest the tender berries at the top, while their mothers gathered the lower ones. JRH was savage about the neglect of infrastructure by Xanana Gusmão’s government and predicted it would be swept away in the mid-year elections for budgetary madness and ministerial incompetence. And corruption? No response. JRH talked about Xanana’s monstrous ego and I wondered about the complex ties of love, respect, contempt and rivalry that entangled the lives of the two great survivors of Timor’s struggle. Somebody had told me Gusmão in turn called JRH a clown.

Halfway up the mountain we heard that the German investigative journalist, who’d been travelling ahead of us, had collapsed and was near death. Outside Ermera we called on the bishop, a small intelligent man who looked like a gumnut baby in his purple skullcap and voluminous starched white skirts. After another endless Mass in a tiny white church on a ridge, JRH and the bishop spoke in the town against violence to nature, to people, to animals. JRH climbed with some difficulty a ladder of trussed saplings to a high platform under a thatched roof to oversee the hearing of another dispute. As he did so water began pouring from the sky. More and more water. Today’s test of truth was to come from a water buffalo and a pig. As the knives came out, the bishop pleaded with the chiefs not to kill the animals, or not in his presence. As the blood started to flow he hitched up his skirts and ran off under the rain down a street that had become a sheet of yellow mud. JRH dived for the presidential SUV.

We descended the mountains under a cataclysm. Torrents crashed on to the road. Streams were fierce rivers. Nothing stopped the kids, who straggled by the road in sleek drenched groups. JRH offered some young girls a ride but they said they weren’t going far. He was mildly impatient about animism in Timor’s interior. Still far too much around. They killed all their animals when someone died. I asked about the executioner in Quelicai and he muttered, Probably some kind of witchdoctor. He cheered up when some other young girls waved a greeting and he heard one of them squeal, It’s Xanana!

The German was OK. He had been saved in extremis by a Cuban doctor, airlifted to Dili by an Australian helicopter, and put out of danger by the Cuban medical team. That night he and the photographer came round to talk about a Timor film festival in Berlin. JRH wanted to talk about his plans for a Dili fashion week, and the many young girls in Dili who were interested in modelling. My very good friend the former Miss Australia was most impressed, he said, with a rapid sideways glint at me.


The last day played out like a dirge. In the morning the president, before members of the government and the diplomatic corps, presented Francisco ‘Lú-Olo’ Guterres with a high honour of the Timorese state, and made a long speech praising the guerrilla veteran and current leader of Fretilin. On the morning of 28 February this seemed a portent. Lú-Olo – his resistance fighter’s name – was the candidate JRH had defeated in the last presidential election, with the support of Xanana Gusmão and his party. Now JRH praised Lú-Olo and Fretilin for their democratic loyalty and maturity in accepting the outcome of that second-round vote five years earlier, though Lú-Olo had received the highest vote in the first round. JRH was making a statement about democracy and also about himself.

February 28 was also the first day of the new presidential election campaign. Lú-Olo and JRH were both among the 13 first-round candidates, but this time neither would have Xanana’s support. The prime minister was supporting the very military candidacy of Taur Matan Ruak – Two Sharp Eyes, the resistance fighter’s name of the recently retired head of Timor-Leste’s armed forces, José Maria Vasconcelos.

The campaign opened in the afternoon with a long and complex event – centred on a debate which was really a series of prepared statements by the candidates, now 12, to a cluster of general questions. The candidates – each of whom spoke with a conciseness, seriousness and strength that would shame an Australian politician – stood behind a semicircle of podia, facing 13 lia nain – one from each of Timor-Leste’s 13 districts, in the dress of Timor’s interior – who would report back to meetings of their rural communities on the candidates and the arguments – leaders like Xanana, party members, supporters, diplomats, international observers, students, journalists. It was a vast gathering, and the preliminaries involved a long series of oaths and signatures of adherence to the electoral process by party leaders and individual candidates. Pedantic, interminable, intently followed and all riveting. The event lasted through the afternoon and into the evening.

When I heard JRH respond to the first questions I knew he was finished. And I was not alone. He radiated a kind of negative energy. He looked as if he wished he were a long, long way away. The event, for him, was a public humiliation. How could he speak on his motivation in running for the presidency? It was the paradox of a non-campaigning candidacy. This infinitely subtle and experienced political creature had not been able to accept the need to choose, to run or not. I suddenly realised he really didn’t want this job any longer. He really was only responding to the petition’s signatories.

I had to leave after the first questions, to plough through a downpour and meet with the leader of the Cuban medical mission in Timor at his embassy – an intensely informative encounter which involved a lot of delicately phrased remarks on the shortcomings of the government’s actions on health in Timor-Leste. Dengue fever was raging while I was there, but there were no figures available on the deaths. There were questions of water supply and sanitation and social policy – of bringing the birth rate into sustainable relation with the country’s capacity to care for its children.

Back at the house for the last evening, the rain abated, I found things changed. JRH had promised me a long evening of answers to things we hadn’t been able to discuss on the move. Instead I found him conversing in low voices with people I couldn’t see through the greenery. It felt like a crisis meeting. A Portuguese youth who identified himself as an adviser suggested I eat, and speak with the president later. I retired to the kitchen, where Anacleto and I wrote some things on his child’s computer and one of the girls served us some feijoada.

When we did speak, it was late, JRH was tired and I was fired up by things the Cubans had said about child health in Timor. I was also irritated by the presence of the insinuating young adviser. JRH responded benignly, almost seeming to enjoy the aggression, as if he’d shed a burden. Next morning he left at seven to meet an American delegation in the presidential palace. Over coffee in the dark, I told him I was sorry about the night before. He dismissed it quickly. When we said goodbye he started laughing. At least you didn’t have a near-fatal heart attack in the mountains like the German.

Presidente, I said, clasping his hand. My heart has never felt stronger.


José Ramos-Horta finished third in the first round of the presidential election on 17 March. The second round, between Lú-Olo and Taur Matan Ruak, will take place in mid April.

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

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