The Australian

31 Aug 99

Widow gives her dead husband a voice


FLORENTINA dos Santos is too young to be a widow and her marriage to Virgilio da Costa was too short. They had wed just two days before he fell to the ground, shot by an Indonesian policemen in the chaos that gripped Dili last Thursday.

Yesterday, dressed in a black skirt and clutching a framed photograph of her handsome young husband, she went to a polling station just a few hundred metres from where he died and voted the way Virgilio would have hoped.

With tears streaming down her cheeks, she said: "I feel obliged today to vote for what we have been fighting for, which is our freedom."

In her hands were Virgilio's voter registration documents. She carried them into the polling station along with her own voter ID and asked UN officials whether she could cast Virgilio's vote. They, of course, refused.

When she returned to the hard morning sunlight outside Kuluhun Muslim school, she looked at the photo of Virgilio and said: "He would have been proud because we were able to vote for what we believe in."

He was 27, an employee of the trade department and strongly committed to the fight for independence. He had raised donations for "our friends in the forest" -- Florentina's description of the Falintil guerillas -- but he had never taken up arms himself.

His friend Ussolao de Jesus Cepeda saw Virgilio shot on Thursday afternoon by the paramilitary policeman. Moments later, Ussolao collapsed to the ground himself, wounded in the shoulder by a bullet fired by a soldier.

He, too, voted at Kuluhun yesterday. But he had to be carried into the polling booth on a stretcher, brought by ambulance from Dili's Motael Clinic. He said he had thought of Virgilio when he cast a vote to reject Indonesia's offer of autonomy -- the implied way of choosing independence.

Asked how he felt about the right to vote, he said: "I was very happy because hopefully the East Timor problem will be solved through this ballot. We don't fear civil war, because what we fear is the Indonesian army."

At polling stations yesterday there was no festivity, simply a quiet determination by East Timorese to exercise their right to vote. Thin, old men unable to walk without help, nursing mothers, the ill, all turned up and waited, using their registration cards to shade their faces from a blazing sun.

The intimidation and violence that has scarred their communities would have been present in their minds, but it could not deter the people from this long-awaited opportunity to decide their future.

Florentina, an agriculture student at the University of East Timor, said: "There has been terror in the society. People have been trying to stop us from voting, but we have gathered the courage to do this today."

She, like all of them, hopes the ballot will end the dreadful cycle of violence that has created too many premature widows. They know there is still the chance of bloodshed and they are waiting nervously to see what will come next. But, for now, it was just enough to be able to vote.