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Bitter Dawn: East Timor: A People's Story by…
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Bitter Dawn: East Timor: A People's Story

by Irena Cristalis

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East Timor: A Nation's Bitter Dawn is an incredible contemporary account of Timor in the run-up to independence and the tragedies that befell so many of its people. It is a defining work on the subject and contains a huge amount of eye-witness account to describe exactly what happened to generally ordinary people during those dark times. Less than 20 years after the independence vote it is already hard to remember quite how violent a time it was but this work offers a gripping and detailed narrative of real people amid at times horrific events.

The book is 328 pages of small type face so there is a lot going on here. It is painstakingly detailed with every person, event, and place described thoroughly. It is a gripping real tale and the story it tells is so compelling that the attention to detail only adds to the narrative rather than making it harder to access.

It is a real description because Irena Cristalis was there. Cristalis clearly earned the right to report on these Timorese events because she saw so much of it happen and she met with the people who were involved. The narrative starts in 1994, a few years before the referendum and it speaks to a land under military occupation. Before Timor Leste had risen to international consciousness, Cristalis describes hiding in a ditch to avoid Indonesian forces. It is a fascinating opening and a reminder of just why the Timorese people fought so hard, for so long against Indonesian occupation.

Cristalis details torture, killings, and savage brutality carried out under Indonesian rule. It is horrible in its own right but it is all really a lead-up to the utter devastation wrought during the autonomy/independence referendum. The events that unfolded in Indonesia in the lead-up are not touched upon in too much detail as this is the Timorese story so there could be a bit of narrative missing for those who would want more on the international circumstances that led to President Habibe announcing the referendum.

Some of the Indonesian players are named but not in great detail. This is not the story of Prabowo or Wiranto. It is the story of Xanana Gusmao, Taur Matan Ruak, Jose Ramos-Horta and the like. Those characters crop up regularly, in particular Xanana. His iconic leadership shines through because of the way others relate to him.

Ultimately though this is not the story of leaders, it the story of ordinary people who became caught up in something terrible. It is about people of faith who tried to save others and build a better life for others while under extraordinary threat. It is about student activists desperately trying to change the oppression around them. It is about the refugees camped in the UN compound and the sense of terror that pervades the place. It is about the hotel janitor who stuck around through all the carnage. These people are lovingly detailed and their personalities shine through against a backdrop of such fear.

The other side is told lightly. Some of the militia leaders who killed so many clearly gave interviews to Cristalis. Her disdain for them is clear but she does tell their story just as she tells the story of mid-ranking Falantil fighters such as the hilariously eccentric L7.

Cristalis has a clear sense of what she perceives to be right. She is strongly critical of the Australians. She is critical of the UN under the leadership of the late Sergio Vieria de Mello. Cristalis devotes a fair amount of time to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (CAVR) even though its eventual report is now just sitting dustily on various shelves of worthy people. Having seen such violence, Cristalis clearly wants justice but her view is not the accepted Timorese view which clearly just wants to move on from a terrible past including by building bridges with Indonesia.

The writing style is fast paced and gripping. It is easy to read despite having so many words. The chapters are well spaced and bookend nicely. It is mostly deeply serious which is right as this is such a serious subject matter. It can be a bit hard going at times when there is just more grief but Cristalis tries to highlight the heroism of ordinary people which does offer some respite.

The rebirth of Timor Leste was an horrific experience even if it drew only small protests in the west. Cristalis rightly sets her work in the context of an oppressive Indonesian occupation, seeing the militia violence as merely the next step in what was a brutal process. Ultimately though it was a rebirth and the country now exists. It may have problems as Cristalis points out through her description of some of the violent episodes post-independence but it is now a surprisingly safe and tranquil part of the world. Even though the events Irena Cristalis retells are from fairly recent history, it is still already becoming a thing of the past so it is a great asset to have such a detailed and human description of what happened during the dark days in Timor Leste. ( )
  Malarchy | Apr 17, 2017 |
FROM FIRST EDITION:

'The author's knowledge, understanding and love of the country shine from every page. This will surely become the definitive account of East Timor's most traumatic years.' - Fergal Keane, BBC Special Correspondent and author of Season of Blood

'If there is another journalist who knows as much about East Timor as Irena Cristalis, I haven't met them. Bitter Dawn is informative, vividly written, and acutely observed.' - Jonathan Mirsky, ex-East Asia editor, The Times

'Irena Cristalis's account stands out as a literary gem. A tale of courage and humanity on a colossal scale - a truly riveting book.' -
Peter Carey, Trinity College, Oxford

'Irena Cristalis writes as a committed witness. Her portraits of many of the individuals, high and low, who steered the struggle to its final victory give her account a special feeling of immediacy and warmth.' - Carmel Budiardjo, author of Surviving Indonesia's Gulag

'This is the book to read. Possibly the best account of the tragic events that preceded and followed in the wake of the ballot on August 30, 1999.... A highly readable book full of drama and tenderness for the victims of those terrible events.. [and] studded with beautifully crafted portraits of individuals trying to adjust to the situation' - TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, August 2002

'A highly readable book full of drama and tenderness for the victims of those terrible events' - Jakarta Post

FOR NEW EDITION:

"Irena Cristalis' eye-witness account of East Timor's struggle for independence and justice combines a thorough understanding of the country with a deep commitment to its people" - John G Taylor, author of East Timor: The Price of Freedom
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"Few new nations have endured a birth as traumatic as that endured by Asia's youngest country, East Timor. Born amid the flames, pillage and mayhem that surrounded Indonesia 's reluctant withdrawal in 1999, it has been struggling for years to rebuild itself from the ashes. The author, one of a handful of journalists to refuse to be evacuated during the nightmarish Indonesian withdrawl, stayed on to report East Timor to the world, and to keep faith with the East Timorese whose story she wanted to tell. Her book is a vivid first-hand account of the lives of individual Timorese during the long decades of Indonesia's repressive occupation, their often heroic struggle for freedom, and their efforts to cope with the dramatic historic shifts engulfing them and their endeavours to rebuild their homeland." --rear cover.… (more)

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Zed Books

4 editions of this book were published by Zed Books.

Editions: 1842771450, 1848130139, 1848130120, 1848134290

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