Blog | December 2018

Portraits of Ageing in Displacement: East Timorese Diasporas in Indonesia

by Victoria K. Sakti

While going through some past fieldwork photos, I singled out those that could help me think about my current research project on ageing in the context of protracted displacement. Four pictures stood out for reasons I will elaborate on here.[1] I took them in one day while visiting a former refugee camp in the outskirts of an Indonesian border town called Atambua. In 1999, this small town hosted large numbers of East Timorese refugees during the height of massive violence that surrounded Timor-Leste’s independence from Indonesia. Around 240,000 people crossed the border, fleeing from Indonesian-backed militia terror.

Today, a majority of the refugees have returned to Timor-Leste. A substantial yet disputed number of people, however, have chosen to remain and now constitute the East Timorese diasporas living in Indonesia.[2] Below, I reflect on the pictures, the current situation, and the broader questions they trigger. 

Photo #1 – An elderly woman in a former refugee camp

The East Timorese woman in the first photograph commands attention. As I was about to take her picture on a dry April day in 2010, she quickly told me to wait. She then arranged her long black hair in a neat bun on the top of her head and looked straight into the camera. In the photo, her hair is thick and showing only a few strands of grey. Deep creases contour her slender face. Her eyes, clouded in the outer lenses by old age, shine under a set of dark brows. As she posed for the picture, she placed her hands together and stood still against the wall of her house. Green cassava leaves flicker behind her in the sun.

Photo #2 – The woman and her husband

She motioned her husband who was relaxing on the floor of their front porch to come and pose next to her. He refused, “No, let me stay here. Take it from where you are.” He too looked straight into the camera, albeit with a less invested expression than that of his wife. In the photo, the man covers his eyes against the sun with one hand and props the other against his knees. A rusted knife lies on his side along with a plastic bag filled with betel nuts. On the front of their house visible in the photograph, a water container made out of an old tyre rests on a tall wooden table. Beneath the table is an empty rooster cage.

He then got up to his feet to show me his pigpen. “Now that’s something you can take a picture of – me feeding our pig”.  

Photo #3 – (Dis)possessions in the new place

We went around their house, a semi-permanent brick structure with palm stalk walls and tin sheet roofs, to a corner where the pigpen stood. A different angle to the photo below shows that houses and other constructions are closely spaced together. The spatial arrangement of things differs from my memory of people’s villages of origin in Timor-Leste. There, particularly in the Oecussi enclave, where I primarily carried out my doctoral research, houses, fields and animal enclosures were more scattered over vast stretches of land.

The man fed his pig with a bucket-full of leftovers. He then turned to me and posed with a big open smile.

Photo #4 – ‘Adopted’ parents in displacement and their carer

In the last photo, a built man in his early forties sits in between the elderly couple. He smiles broadly. Wrapping his arms around their small frames, he pulls them closer to the middle. The man, who I give the pseudonym here as Marco, is a former militia member from Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. He now lives in the same new settlement as the couple and is politically active in advocating for better treatment and equal rights of members of the East Timorese diaspora in Indonesia. Following the advice of one of my interlocutors, I visited him to learn more about issues concerning life in displacement.

After our talk, Marco showed me around the former camp. From where his house is located, by the main road and where the settlement begins, we zigzagged through layers of narrow paths connecting people’s homes. It was far into the camp’s interior, where we met with the elderly couple. He introduced them to me as his ‘adopted’ amaa and apaa in displacement (pengungsian in the Indonesian language). He explained, “They are old and alone. They no longer have children, just a small garden where they grow vegetables, and one pig. So, I take care of them, treat them like family.”

Marco told me that the older man was once a ‘collaborator’ to the Indonesian security forces in the mid-1970s, which, in part, enabled the latter’s invasion of the eastern half of Timor. He commented that it was only fair that the Indonesian government now ‘takes care’ of people like his adopted apaa, as well as those like himself, who in his view had fought to keep Indonesian sovereignty intact.

Growing old in a politicised context, amidst ongoing mistrust, and across national borders

My encounter with Marco and his ‘adopted’ parents was notable also because of a conversation I had afterwards with one of my key informants. She observed a pattern in the structure of camps she had visited: former militias and pro-Indonesian leaders would typically occupy the fringes while surrounding other groups of the diaspora. Often, it is the most vulnerable groups – like the elderly couple – who live in the centre. My key informant notes that such spatial arrangements enable the former to control information and aid coming in and out of camps in their bid to keep people from returning home (permanently) to Timor-Leste. The image of Marco, his posture overshadowing the elderly couple, comes to mind as well as the way he was mostly talking to me on their behalf. I suspect, however, that the pictures tell a more complicated story.

The East Timorese diasporas in Indonesia embody a part of history that both countries would prefer to forget (Drexler, 2013; Sakti, 2017). The impunity former militias enjoy over past human rights violations perpetuates mistrust against them, both by people back home and among the host population, resulting in restrictions on their mobility to cross re-established national borders. The lives of older East Timorese in protracted displacement unfold within this complex situation. How is it to grow old in a politicised context and away from, as well as across, spiritually and culturally significant places? What does ageing in the context of forced migration look like? How do aspects such as temporality, (im)mobilities, transnational care networks and micro-politics of memory, as well as the bodily conditions of growing old interplay with later-life decisions, including on matters of death and burial, among dispersed families? I seek to explore these questions, among others, in my new study at the MPI MMG in areas including Indonesian West Timor, West Sulawesi, and Timor-Leste. I hope to shed light on the understudied phenomenon of ageing refugees and displaced persons by putting their narratives at the heart of examination.


Drexler, E. F. (2013). Fatal Knowledges: The Social and Political Legacies of Collaboration and Betrayal in Timor-Leste. The International Journal of Transitional Justice, 7(1), 74–94.

International Crisis Group (ICG). (2011). Timor-Leste: Reconciliation and return from Indonesia (Asia Briefing No. 122). Dili/Jakarta/Brussels: International Crisis Group. Retrieved from

Sakti, V. K. (2017). Im/Mobile Subjects: Identity, Conflict and Emotion Work Among East Timorese Meto Diaspora. Social Identities, 23(4), 462–477.

[1] I choose not to publish the photos here for anonymity reasons. Instead, I describe them through narrative form.

[2] Among the diaspora groups are former members of local militia groups and pro-Indonesian leaders. Former militias and camp leaders often inflate the size of their population to justify greater state benefits. The UNHCR estimated in 2002 that there were 28,000 former refugees remaining, while former militias claim the population numbers in between 110,000 and 200,000. The Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) provincial administration gave an estimate of just over 100,000 in 2010 (International Crisis Group (ICG), 2011, p. 3). 

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