Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1995-1996 index

Distributed March 11, 1996
Contact: Richard Morin

East Timorese student works for the freedom of his people and family

At a UN-sponsored meeting in Austria March 19, Brown University junior Constancio Pinto will meet Indonesian officials who once had him hunted and imprisoned .

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Most college students have not been hunted, bombed or imprisoned by an invading country. Most students are not Brown University junior Constancio Pinto. His epic story is what movies are made of. But the tale is all too real for Pinto, a slight man with dark eyes and an engaging smile, who has spent much of his life fleeing the Indonesian government troops that invaded his native East Timor in 1975.

Living in Providence, R.I., Pinto is now far removed from the killing, yet he still struggles with memories of oppression. "People live in constant fear," he says. "There was killing without exception when they invaded - women, children and old people were killed. Sixty-thousand people were killed in the first few months - it was unthinkable."

To understand that fear, listen to the story of Constancio Pinto.

After the Indonesian army invaded the island nation in 1975, the 11-year-old Pinto and his family fled to the jungles. "Every hour we were bombed by the Indonesian army. We spent almost three months walking at night. There was no food - we ate leaves." Pinto watched as relatives and friends died of starvation or disease. "There was no time to help the dying, because we were all trying to help ourselves," says Pinto, now 33.

But a growing Timorese resistance effort, armed with a small cache of weapons left by the Portuguese government when it granted the South Pacific island independence in 1974, gained international attention. In response, the Indonesian military stepped up its efforts, surrounding, then capturing the resisters. "All who survived were arrested," Pinto said. He and his family were sent to a concentration camp in the city of Remexio. "It was worse than life in the mountains," he said. "At least 15 people died every day." Eventually, the survivors were released as a gesture of good faith.

After enrolling in a private school in Dili, Pinto emerged as a leader of its thousand-strong student body. He organized students and disseminated information about the occupation by the Indonesian government. The Indonesian government threatened to bomb the school if the students continued their political activities, which had now spread to other schools. "It was difficult for the Indonesians to break through our unity, though," Pinto said. For his political activities, Pinto was placed under house arrest in early 1991. Even then, however, he was able to organize a demonstration that November to protest the death of a 22-year-old man at the hands of the Indonesian government. More than 7,000 demonstrators processed to the cemetery where the man was buried. "People began to march peacefully calling for independence and respect for human rights," said Pinto. "When the demonstrators arrived in the cemetery, the Indonesian army opened fire with no warning." More than 270 East Timorese were killed, 190 wounded and 210 disappeared. "We didn't think they would open fire with U.N. observers and journalists there," Pinto said. The Indonesian government discovered Pinto's role in the demonstration. Pinto said a double agent warned him of his impending arrest two hours before the secret police were to come for him. "I was on my motorcycle heading home when my friend stopped me. He said not to go home." For the next two years, Pinto moved from one safe house to another, remaining a step ahead of the Indonesian military.

"I had planned to leave East Timor to tell the world of the killings," Pinto said. An incident with a "peace boat" filled with supporters of East Timor's cause hastened his decision. The boat left Australia in March 1992, carrying college students from more than 30 countries, a former president of Portugal, journalists and several Brown undergraduates. When the Indonesian government prevented its landing, Pinto decided to leave the country. A disguised Pinto traveled from checkpoint to checkpoint, presenting false papers. When he and his collaborators arrived at the first and most dangerous of the checkpoints, they found the guards asleep. "We waited in the car for two minutes thinking they would awake, but they never did. So we drove on." Two of the remaining checkpoints were closed. At the final checkpoint, the guards were more interested in playing their guitars than checking documents. Pinto moved undetected into West Timor, where he bribed an Indonesian official for a passport that enabled him to fly to Singapore and then Portugal.

Pinto came to the United States, where he found himself speaking of his native country to members of the Brown campus, some of whom had been on the peace boat. He applied to Brown and was accepted under the Resumed Undergraduate Education (RUE) program. He enrolled at Brown in the fall of 1993.

Associate Dean of the College David Targan, who helped steer Pinto into the RUE program, describes Pinto as a survivor. "It is incredible for someone to adjust from a Third World community that, according to the International Red Cross, is the most repressive place to live, where secret police stand on every corner and torture is a daily event, to an Ivy League institution where students do not want for much," said Targan, who was awarded Portugal's highest civilian honor, the Comenda da Ordem do Infante D. Henrique, for his service to human rights worldwide, including the East Timorese.

Now reunited with his wife and four-year-old son, who was born after he fled East Timor, Pinto is forging ahead with his studies at Brown while working to persuade international officials to put more pressure on Indonesia. "The situation in East Timor is still a terrifying one," Pinto said. "Only pressure from the United States and abroad will free my country. To see East Timor free takes time. But we will get freedom and independence for East Timor."

Pinto continues to lecture worldwide. On March 19, in a UN-sponsored meeting in Austria, he will confront Indonesian government officials who once had him hunted. Together, they will try to find a solution to the continuing occupation of East Timor.