This is a story of a little girl.
It is a true story. The events of this tale occurred on September 10th, 1999.
Ten years ago today.
Australia Day, January 26th, 2006. Fresh night air. We were all together, eating dinner and sharing stories from the past few days. A local guy quietly approached the end of the table. He offering up a tray of beaded necklaces and bangles for purchase. I remember buying a silver bangle, roughly cut and very cheap. I’d have no idea where it is now.
There was pizza. I remember pineapple juice. I remember flies or mosquitoes or some pesky bugs flying around our heads. I remember exposed lightbulbs and deep conversations. One of the adults was asking about ‘highlights’ and ‘lowlights’. We joked about something insignificant.
The day had been long and hot and emotional. I remember feeling on edge, even before her story was shared. And of course, I remember her story. How could I forget?
She was eight. September 10th, 1999. The year the Timorese voted for independence. I was in Grade Six, learning timestables and skipping rope.
She lived with her family, high in the hills of Timor Leste. On any other day, the vantage point provided a spectacular view of the valley below. On that day, the plains that lay infront of them were smudged from view by the smoke. The village had watched from on high, tracing the movements of the militia below. Systematically they had travelled from village to village, cutting and killing and pillaging and burning. The smoke marked each village destroyed, a horrific dot-to-dot that edged closer and closer.
Her family had already begun packing, ready to escape further into the hills. They were not naive. It was only a matter of time until the destruction wrecked havoc on their own homes. Too late though. Truckloads of militia careened into town. In the chaos, her mother had pulled her close, lifting her up and into the firewood box, kissing her head and closing the lid.
The darkness of the box closed in on her. The horror of violence closed in on her village. And from a crack in the firewood box, her young eyes watched the entire thing play out.
It didn’t take long, they were gone almost as quickly as they had come. They left behind unimaginable destruction. She had seen her mother and her father killed. A cousin raped. An aunt cut down trying to protect her daughter. Her brothers, young and fit, ran ahead and managed to escape, but not before one was slashed across the neck.
It was then that she had let out a scream.
They found her, hidden and alone in that firewood box. They took a machete right up to her face, slicing down her innocent cheek. But, in some small act of mercy, they didn’t kill her. Instead they burnt down the entire village, leaving animals and homes and bodies and belongings to be consumed in the flames.
For five days she was alone with the charcoal and the bodies and the rotting flesh and the heat. She was then found by the resistance movement, taken to a camp where she lived for a year and then finally reunited with surviving family members.
She was eight. Eight years old. Even now, I can’t get that out of my head. She was eight.
Like the scar on her face, the trauma did not leave her. It was 2006 now, years later. The woman telling us her story paused, gathering her thoughts before sharing just a glimpse into life now for this young girl.
She told us that when they have a bake sale at the school, the girl sits to the side, away from the other children. She sits and she cries. She cries because she has no idea who to ask for a little bit of money to buy a baked treat. She cries because she has no idea where she really belongs.
She cries because of what happened, ten years ago today.