Revolutionary Appeal & Reminders from Decades of War

Post #3 for the National Geographic Explorers Journal!

Naming Timor-Leste’s first national park after the revolutionary leader Nino Konis Santana was an excellent move. Firstly, revolutionary leaders are sexy and the bureaucratic designation of protected environmental zones is one thing that could definitely use more sex-appeal. Secondly, national unity was something the post-independence federal government desperately needed and Nino Konis Santana was just the storied freedom fighter and beloved war hero that could make this togetherness happen.

The town of Tutuala Nino Konis Santana’s birthplace
The town of Tutuala Nino Konis Santana’s birthplace

Born in Tutuala in 1955, a town on the easternmost tip of Timor in the now protected zone, Nino Konis Santana spent much of his youth as a student leader and school teacher. Following the 1975 Indonesian invasion, he fled into the mountains to join the FRETILIN (translated from the Portuguese as the “Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor”) and struggled against Indonesian occupying forces for the next two decades.

After the capture of the then-leader of the Falantil, the military wing of  the FRETILIN, in 1993, Santana took up the mantle as guerrilla leader, reorganizing resistance forces and coordinating operations until his accidental death in 1998. Not only a military commander, Nino Konis was beloved throughout Timor and his diaspora for his untiring efforts as a diplomat and his drive to forge Timorese unity.

Graffiti of Nino Konis Santana in the town of Lospalos

Coming from the United States, I can’t help but being reminded of Che, with the dusty fatigues and ragged hair, the years spent struggling in the mountains, and the pensiveness of their personas. While the initial invasion of Timor was motivated in part by a Cold War, post-Vietnam fear of socialism (FRETILIN is a leftist group and was in fact initially called the “Timorese Social Democratic Association”), Konis Santana was decidedly not Marxist; his only declared and practiced political ideology was the doctrine of Timorese National Unity.

Images of Nino Konis Santana (and Che as well actually) pervade the park. Nino Konis’ face is on T-shirts, on high school buildings and uniforms, and on graffiti. A home town hero gone big, Santana’s status as the first and only resistance leader of Fataluku descent is still highly celebrated in this easternmost part of Timor, home of the ethnically and linguistically distinct Fataluku people who are much closer in descent to melanesians than other Timorese groups.

A Goat Appreciating the Ruins of the Former Indonesian Administrative Building at Com

But all romanticized visions of the past aside, the horrors of the decades of Indonesian occupation can still be seen throughout this area of the island. Many of the buildings we passed were still riddled with bullet holes or burnt out (apparently some 70% of all structures in Timor-Leste were razed as the Indonesians fled in the late 1990s). Talking to locals at Com, one of the sleepiest seaside towns you can imagine, they told me stories of the armed Indonesian troops that would patrol their one stretch of road and pointed out the now ruins of the former Indonesian Administrative building that overlooked the harbor.

A Fretilin flag painted in Com

As a visitor to this beautiful place, its hard to really understand the hardship that a lot of Timorese experienced throughout their history. Reading about things like the “Fence of Legs” operation, in which the Indonesians rounded up Timorese civilians to form an epically long human chain and marched them through the countryside in an effort to force the guerrillas out into the open, and statistics that say at least one fifth (up to one third) of the entire country’s population was unaccounted for following the Indonesian withdrawal, a National Park seems epically unimportant.

But with this difficult history in mind, I can see why a model of stewardship would work well in the Timorese context. Decades spent hiding in the mountains and living off the land would give one an intimate respect for the environment and its health. The rigorous scientific understandings of conservation practices being brought in by groups such as the Coral Triable Initiative (more to come on these efforts!) would only bolster these innate Timorese ideas.

As we spend more time exploring, I am appreciating the benefits of both peace and a park, both of which the work of Nino Konis Santana helped bring about. As we sit enjoying the view and learning more about life and history in Timor, I can’t help but wonder what this venerable Timorese hero would have to say about having nearly one tenth of the island he loved so much protected in his honor.

A breakfast reminder of the peace efforts
A breakfast reminder of the peace efforts



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