Horta on the Phone


In this scene from the movie, Horta can be heard saying "Fernando, hau tenki fila." (Fernando, I must return).

"Fernando" refers to Fernando Carmo, a highly competent Fretilin military commander who had served in the Portuguese army. Carmo would be killed during the invasion in December 1975 when he made a desperate attempt to rescue Roger East. He and his rescue team were ambushed en route to the harbour by Indonesian troops. Outnumbered and outgunned, Fernando Carmo died in ferocious hand-to-hand fighting.

The telephone scene serves as a reminder of the crucial nature of communication links between East Timor and the rest of the world during the occupation. So crucial were these links that Australian activists constructed an illegal radio link between the Northern Territory and East Timor. Warwick Neilley, the organiser of the North Australian Workers Union (later part of the Miscellaneous Workers Union), bought a few Single Side Band (SSB) radios from a store in Darwin. Some were sent to Fretilin in Dili so as to maintain communications through Outpost Radio, VJY Darwin. At least one radio was retained in Darwin in case of an emergency. Fretilin had set up an evening broadcast, known as Radio Maubere, on the AM band.

Once the Indonesian invasion began, the East Timorese resistance used an SSB mounted on the back of a donkey. In December 1975, the Fraser government ordered that the transmissions cease. Brian Manning and his colleagues in the Communist Party of Australia then had to face the task of setting up an alternative communications network. The problem was that while it was legal to listen in to Radio Maubere broadcasts, it was illegal under Australian law to transmit from Australian territory without a license. The Communist Party network outfitted a Toyota Coaster to look just like a tourist vehicle, complete with a small boat on the roof and a trail bike in the back. An activist would broadcast from it while travelling around the Top End of Australia as a tourist.

The game of cat and mouse with federal authorities continued. Sometimes the broadcaster would be caught and the radio confiscated, other times he would evade capture by stealth and deception. The Communist Party network adopted even more covert tactics, seeking volunteers who were reliable, unknown in the Northern Territory and able to operate autonomously. Each volunteer would work in isolation for six months before handing over to the next volunteer. They obtained four such volunteers from the southern states of Australia.

The Illegal Radio Project came to an end in the final months of 1978. According to an Indonesian journalist who accompanied the military on their operations, a battle on 23rd September 1978 was soon followed by the capture of Alarico Fernandes and the Fretilin radio. The military leader of the armed resistance, Nicolau Lobato, was killed on 31st December 1978. With his death and the loss of the radio, Australian activists received no more news from East Timor. Activists continued to maintain a listening watch, tuning in every day from Monday to Saturday at 8.00 a.m. - and often more frequently. After more than a year, however, they stopped because nothing more was heard.

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