Freedom found, still searching for salvation

Revisiting East Timor after its split from Indonesia, Fairfax photographer Jason South finds some faces from his past and a country still struggling.

It was a beautiful moment, amid despicable terror. She stood in the late afternoon light nursing her baby in a quiet corner of a crowded refugee camp in the East Timor seaside town of Liquica.

When I lifted my camera the baby stopped slurping, looked at me and blinked.

Over more than a decade, I wondered whether the woman and her baby had survived the madness of East Timor in 1999, when pro-Indonesia militia were killing, raping and burning after a referendum that led to the half-island nation's breakaway from Indonesia.

I never got her name, such was the chaos of the time, so when I returned to East Timor last week to cover the withdrawal of the last Australian infantry soldiers, I had little confidence I could find her.

There was a church service under way in the small village of Hatukesi, about half an hour's drive from Liquica, along a deep rutted track.

Villagers there soon recognised the woman in the photograph and by a stroke of luck the baby who had grown into a 13 year-old girl called Deolima had walked for hours that morning to reach the service from her mother's house high in the mountains.


Deolima led me along a steep trail into the clouds to a three-room bamboo house perched on the side of a vertical drop.

Fernanda Dos Santos, 33, recognised my shaven head almost immediately and appeared excited to see a foreigner, as they have rarely ventured this far into the mountains.

But I sensed her acute embarrassment over the circumstances of her existence, which were as bad as I have seen anywhere. The house was bare: mud floor, no electricity, no running water and no toilet.

She cooks in a hole inside, smoke filling lungs.

Dos Santos is a widowed single mother of three children aged 16, 15, and 13. Her husband died 12 months after a severe beating by militia in 1999 from the injuries that he had sustained.

''My life is very hard because it is difficult to find enough money to feed my children and pay for their school fees,'' Dos Santos said through an interpreter.

''I can sell some coffee beans once a year but it is not enough,'' she said. ''Sometimes I sell a chicken or vegetables. I might earn $5 a week but often nothing.

''Life is hard but it is better than during the Indonesian time … at least we have our freedom.''

Dos Santos said she dreamt about a better life for everyone in East Timor and hoped the government could provide a ''better education for my children''.

More than 50 per cent of East Timor's 1.1 million people live in poverty.

with Lindsay Murdoch