Timor-Leste’s tortuous history since the mid-1970s is a sad chronicle, alternately agonising and enraging. Even its high points seem to be characterised more by pride than joy. None of them end very well, and those few that do… well, one senses that they are unfinished, unresolved.
One of the most striking individual stories is that of Major Alfredo Reinado. Respected by all and lionised by many, he died during a 2008 firefight that erupted at the residence of President Jose Ramos Horta. The President was gravely injured during the attack and spent months convalescing in Australia.
On the same morning, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, riding in a three car convoy with his security detail, was shot at on the road to Dili. This attack was perpetrated by Alfredo’s second-in-command, Gastão Salsinha.
Reports of the incident characterised it alternately as an assassination attempt, an abortive coup and as a meeting between the rebel leader and the President that went tragically awry.
Hundreds of people attended the Major’s funeral. Ramos Horta publicly forgave him and, far from vilifying him for his role in the turmoil that displaced as many as 150,000 people, most people remember him as a patriot and a hero.
Two documentary features, produced by the excellent independent film agency Journeyman Pictures, detail the events leading up to the running street battles that pitched police against military, East against West, and the confusion surrounding Alfredo’s death.
The first, presented by award-winner David O’Shea, features an extended interview with the charismatic man. The interview is interrupted by one of Alfredo’s supporters, who rushes up to warn his commander that there are soldiers on the road below.
Alfredo, apparently relishing his on-camera role, shouts a number of warnings to the troops below, then opens fire on them.
He is the epitome of the Hollywood hero. Cool under fire, Alfredo continues to answer questions between bouts of shooting. O’Shea is soon sent running for his life as grenades begin to land closer and closer to the house the rebels are occupying. An excerpt of the incident, in which bullets can be heard zipping over the journalist’s head, is a fixture on SBS’ ads for their documentary show, Dateline.
“This,” says O’Shea in a masterful bit of understatement, “is really not good.”
It’s hard to know what to make of Alfredo Reinado. Captured by the invading Indonesian army in 1975, he spent the latter part of his boyhood in servitude as an army porter. Timorese civilians pressed into service by the Indonesian military were treated callously, often brutally. His escape to Australia with eighteen others made the headlines and for his pains, he and his companions were briefly interned by Australian authorities.
His military career shows a long list of disciplinary measures including transfers and demotions, suggesting that his acerbic dynamism and natural leadership didn’t sit well with his superiors. Certainly, the man who appears in the few available television interviews is brash and confident – perhaps too confident, given the straits he was in.
It’s also clear that he was a patriot through and through. One gets the impression of a man who has spent most of his life dreaming of liberation. When it is finally granted, he is disillusioned (as were so many others) to find that pettiness, venality, rivalry and deception were not banished along with his country’s oppressors.
Simple men seek simple answers. Reinado seems all along to be somewhat adrift in the flow of events while rival politicians take advantage of the turmoil to engage in a cycle of brinksmanship and violence to achieve their ends. His last efforts to put his stamp on events could only end in tragedy. The documentary Hunt for the Truth tells a tale of disillusionment, in which a drunken Reinado leads a gang of men to confront Ramos Horta at his home.
What happened in the hours that followed, and why? Rumours are rife, but concrete details are few and far between. The surviving participants paint a confused and conflicting picture.
Regardless, a quick youtube search reveals dozens of videos, most of which portray a revered and loved individual who only tried to do what’s right.
Right to the core, Alfredo Reinado was a soldier. He used the only tools he knew to wrest concessions from a world that was too subtle, too fundamentally impure to allow his dreams of liberation to survive.
The world that Alfredo wanted doesn’t exist. Compromises are forced on those who choose to survive. The cost to the actors in Timor-Leste’s national drama has been high. Xanana Gusmao, hero of the resistance, is constantly sullied by questions concerning the actions of his political allies. Jose Ramos Horta, gravely injured during the debacle, has of late been fighting hard to come to terms with the birthing pangs of the nation he helped to create.
But Alfredo Reinado apparently never did – never could – accept that there is no place for a soldier in peacetime. The new enemy he faced – petty jealousy, factionalism and self-interest – could never be killed with bullets. But he could.