Chega! Exhibition, Dili
An exhibition in Dili
about the dark era of East Timor
under occupation by Indonesia and the bitter turmoil at the end of that era when the country (re)gained its independence. Compared with the more state-of-the-art Museum of Timorese Resistance
, this exhibition may be lower-key, but it is housed in an authentic location: a former prison, which adds an extra element of grimness.
The building that the exhibition is housed in used to be a prison, built in the days when East Timor
was still a colony of Portugal
, namely in 1963. It was then located outside the city in what is now the Balide district. The name of the prison was Comarca.
Though relatively small it was an infamous place, not least due to the swampy location making it a breeding ground for malaria. The complex consisted of six cell blocks and eight smaller “dark cells” (these were almost completely dark, with only a tiny opening for a “window”). In addition there was also a completely dark isolation cell (as well as separate torture rooms). There were two yards and a forecourt, plus administration wings.
In 1975, the prison was briefly taken over by Fretilin, and shortly after by the invading Indonesian
forces. For the next 24 years the complex was then used to incarcerate political prisoners, i.e. pro-independence Timorese. During that time it was used as a torture centre as well. The prison was often overcrowded and living conditions were abysmal. Only in the 1990s did the situation improve somewhat, thanks to pressure from international organizations such as the Red Cross and Amnesty International.
In the turmoil of the post-referendum violence in 1999, the last remaining inmates were able to flee. The building was subsequently burned down – like so many in Dili
The restored building then became the home of the newly formed CAVR, or Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (Comissão de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconcilia鈬o de Timor-Leste, to give it its full name in Portuguese). This commission was mandated to undertake a comprehensive truth-seeking mission, which involved compiling countless witness reports and statements. It operated between 2001 and 2005, when the final “Chega! Report” was released, which ended up almost 3000 pages long.
“Chega!”, incidentally, is the Portuguese word for 'enough', 'no more', 'stop' – and this already indicates one controversial element of its work, namely if interpreted as intended to bring some form of “closure” to the process of coming to terms with East Timor's bitter past. (Another interpretation is of course the same old “never again” credo always attached to post-war or post-genocide
However, given that little justice has been done in the form of bringing the perpetrators to trial, any idea of “closure” is not without opposition, both amongst some Timorese as well as international observers and historians.
On the other hand, it's not easy to say from a comfortable distance and as an outsider what is really more important to such a tiny post-conflict country: dealing with this past as completely as possible or rather turning towards the future. Overall, I think East Timor has done a highly commendable job in dealing with its past, especially if compared to other cases such as Cambodia
. But of course the fact that all the key figures responsible for the prolonged human rights violations basically got off scot-free does leave a bitter taste (see also under Indonesia
In any case, since its work was done and the CAVR was officially dissolved in 2005, its premises at the former Comarca prison were taken over by the so-called Post-CAVR Secretariat. This also developed the site into the memorial complex it is today.
The Chega! Exhibition that forms the core of this complex is not as high-tech and detailed as the one at the Timorese Resistance Archive & Museum
in the city centre, but this is partly compensated for by authenticity of place – a) as the former Comarca prison, and b) as the place where the “Chega! Report” was compiled and administered from.
It is thus one of the most significant original places with regard to the country's modern history, both dark and post-dark, that can be visited in East Timor
What there is to see: First of all there is the building complex itself – a low, simple concrete set of interconnected “bungalows” with small windows. Only the barred windows and doors that have been preserved give away its former function – until you step inside.
Before you go in, though, it is worth taking a look at the memorial space outside in the forecourt of the ex-prison. Here, in the shade of a tall tree, is a kind of shrine: a somewhat kitschy artificial grotto with a small Virgin Mary statue and candles, done in the style of a Catholic pilgrimage destination. A plaque nearby dedicates the site to the memory of all political prisoners.
Yet more plaques by the entrance to the building itself quote ex-president Xanana Gusmão (see Xanana Reading Room
) and another informs visitors that the restoration of the building was funded by Japan
Inside the foyer you are greeted by the symbol of the CAVR (see background
) complete with a white dove and an inscription on either side in Tetum and English, claiming that “CAVR has shown that flowers can grow in a prison”.
This is true, literally, in the former prison courtyard, which now serves as a little garden with palm trees, flowers (indeed) and a small sitting area. The walls around the courtyard are still topped with barbed wire – making for a stark contrast between the tranquillity of the garden and the horrors of this site's history as symbolized by the barbed wire.
The exhibition as such is divided into subsections, partly indoors, partly along the courtyard walls. One part recounts the history of Timor-Leste and the time of the invasion by Indonesia
. The complicity in this on the part of Western countries, especially Australia
and the USA
, is spelled out too (spot the face of Henry Kissinger on one of thee posters lurking in the background – cf. history
). Some of the images are gruesome but vaguely familiar, especially those that exposed the famine that came with the mass internment of Timorese in concentration camps
in the years following the invasion.
One section is on the prison itself – and allegedly you should be able to see the cells themselves too, complete with numerous graffiti left by prisoners (and guards) on the walls. But when I was there I did not see these for real, I only saw photos with descriptions of the graffiti. Whether I just didn't find the right doorway or whether they were not accessible at the time I don't know. Unfortunately I read about these cells and graffiti only after I got back home, otherwise I would have asked.
One room deals with the work of the CAVR and chronicles the process of evidence gathering, public hearings, research, and so forth. This part of the exhibition is on large panels set up around what looks like a negotiating table, complete with chairs still in their plastic wrapping. On a side table in this same room lie copies of the “Chega! Report” in three languages, including English. But there is also a full library for those who want to go studying the subject matter in yet more depth.
The exhibition's texts and labels are all at least bilingual, Tetum and English, and in some parts additionally in Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesia as well. The English translations are mostly of good quality. The images on the semi-open-air panels, however, are beginning to show signs of ageing, namely turning blue from exposure to sunlight.
This underscores a general impression: that this exhibition is overall much more low-key, more improvised and haphazard in organization than the very professional, modern, state-of-the-art multimedia counterpart at the Timorese Resistance Archive & Museum
. The general thrust is also slightly different, just as the two names would imply: here the tone ends up more reconciliatory, whereas the Resistance Museum maintains a somewhat more emotionally charged tone, certainly with regard to glorification of the (armed) resistance struggle by Fretilin/Falintil.
In that sense the two exhibitions can be regarded as complementing each other, but of course in terms of recounting historical facts there is also a lot of overlap. Yet it is still worth seeing both exhibitions if you have a chance.
on the southern edge of East Timor
's capital city Dili
, in the district of Balide, about a mile from the government and university quarter.
Access and costs: a bit out the centre, potentially a bit tricky but not impossible to find; free
getting to the complex can be a little tricky, as there is no direct, straight-line route to walk it from the city centre, and navigating through the little side streets of south Dili you could get lost. Apparently not all taxi drivers know of this place either, so it may be best to go there as part of an organized city tour (like I did – see under Dili
) or to have transport organized by your hotel/guest house.
The official address only states Rua de Balide (sometimes also Estrada de Balide), no house number – but that's pretty irrelevant in a place like Dili anyway, where the streets only have names on paper, as it were, and literally often several names, depending on which maps you refer to.
If you do want to try and make your own way there, it should be easiest to first head down south from the Casa Europa on Avenida Bispo de Medeiros (if that's the real name) past the Portuguese embassy and the stadium. Carry on straight across at the large roundabout south of the stadium and continue for half a mile (750m) and then turn right. The entrance to the complex will appear on your right after another 500 yards or so.
Opening times: Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 12 noon and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Guided tours are also available and can be booked on site, by telephone (+670-3310315) or by email (chegatours (at) gmail.com – see also their website at cavr-timorleste.org/en)
Time required: Between half an hour (for a quick look around) and much, much longer – depending on how deep you want to delve into all the information provided by the additional sources available here. The exhibition alone can be done in earnest in about one hour or even less.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Dili
– the most obvious combination has to be with the Timorese Resistance Archive & Museum
, the other more high-tech equivalent to the Chega! Exhibition and probably the No.1 site for the dark tourist in Dili
. It is to be found to the north of Balide in a much more central location too, right behind the Government Palace in the university quarter.
Competing with the former Comarca prison in Balide in terms of place authenticity is the Santa Cruz cemetery
a good half a mile (900m) to the east, where one of the largest and best documented massacres of Timorese perpetrated by the Indonesians took place in 1991.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Dili
- Chega 01 - memorial space outside
- Chega 02 - a kind of shrine
- Chega 03 - dedication
- Chega 04 - entrance
- Chega 05 - greeting
- Chega 06 - former prison
- Chega 07 - before restoration
- Chega 08 - exhibition partly semi-open-air
- Chega 09 - the beginning of the dark era
- Chega 10 - CAVR room
- Chega 11 - volumes have been spoken
- Chega 12 - yard
- Chega 13 - barbed wire and palm trees