Time, Place, and Belonging

Older East Timorese people in West Timor are often the primary breadwinners of their families. They bring in regular, albeit small, income through state pensions if they or their deceased spouses had worked in the Indonesian civil service. Most of the ageing population in former refugee camps and relocation sites do not receive pensions. They were farmers before their displacement and worked as sharecroppers with local landowners. “Working on the land” is not only a way of subsisting. For many East Timorese groups, it is part of expressing who they are.

“We are Atoni Meto (people of the dry land). Working on the land (meop lele) is what we do. 

Dominggas, Kefamenanu

Dominggas and her husband, Peter, took only their children with them when they fled the referendum violence in Timor-Leste in 1999. For over two decades, they have managed to buy a small plot of land to build their house and grow some vegetables. Their initial plans of returning have shifted along with time. The children have now finished school and are embarking on their adult lives. The land they now own and work on provides them with a sense of belonging to the place and group identity.

Dominggas and I cooked rice and vegetables from the garden to share with the rest of the family. I brought cake for the occasion.

A Mass Wedding Celebration in Naibonat, Kupang

Naibonat camp is situated on the outskirts of Kupang. It is one of the remaining original camps built for East Timorese refugees when they first arrived in 1999. Today, it is home to multigenerational families from various parts of Timor-Leste. This gallery shows a mass wedding celebration that enabled dozens of couples to legalise their union under the Indonesian marriage law. The absence of official documents, family expectations, and cultural obligations often hinder younger people to marry, making it difficult for them to obtain birth certificates for their children. Older East Timorese adults play an important role in this process. They must ensure that while traditions are respected, their family’s well-being comes first.

Diverse East Timorese groups celebrate a mass wedding event at the Catholic chapel inside the camp. They wear traditional clothing and motifs from their respective places of origin in Timor-Leste.

Negotiating Belonging through Death and Remembrance Practices and Ancestral Worship

East Timorese local beliefs hold that ancestors play a significant role in people’s everyday life. For those who are able to visit their origin places in Timor-Leste, they care for the dead by cleaning their gravesites and lighting candles to remember them by. Those who are not able to cross the border commemorate the dead from afar. This gallery shows pictures from a social-department-owned cemetery located near Naibonat camp. East Timorese families in this area go there to observe death rituals in Timor-Leste from the new settlement. They tie black cloths on the main cross and light candles for loved ones buried across the border. The cemetery has also become a chosen burial place in the future for some East Timorese people as a way of reaffirming their sense of belonging to place. Researching ageing experiences in displacement involves dealing with difficult questions about the prospect of dying away from home.

East Timorese families who have chosen to permanently stay in Indonesia have also opted to ritually move ancestral objects to the new settlement. This way, they can continue to observe ancestral rituals in the new place for generations to come.

A story of three East Timorese women living in Indonesia (subtitles currently available only in Bahasa Indonesia).

Three women of different ages talk about the difficulties of life amid ongoing displacement conditions.

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Eks Pengungsi Timor Timur: ‘Mau di sini, mau di surga, sudah tidak tahu lagi’ (East Timorese Former Refugees: ‘Want to be here, or in heaven, I no longer know’). Source: BBC News Indonesia.

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