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Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor

Ch 3 (Vignette). Iqbal Menezes’s story1

Mohammad Iqbal Alcino Menezes’s story encapsulates the attitude many East Timorese held to conversion to Islam of their fellow East Timorese as well as the nervous response of the Indonesian regime anxious to avoid inter-religious conflict. The fact that Iqbal came from a well-connected family probably contributed to the intensity of responses from all sides. With his family background and personal determination to convert he was a cause célèbre of Islamic mission in East Timor.

I was born in 1978 in Tatilari, Uatolari, Viqueque. My father was the Falintil commander Manuel Menezes, code name Lafaek. When the Indonesians invaded, my mother and three siblings stayed with my father in the forest, but eventually he could no longer care for us. He found us a hiding place and left us there, returning every few weeks with food. In 1983 we were captured. We were taken to Uatolari and my mother and my three siblings and I were held in jail for one year. Sometimes we had no food for a whole day. My younger sister was very malnourished and I think that there is still an influence from that time on her, as well as from the way my brothers and I behaved. We were always fighting, perhaps because we had learnt that we needed to look after ourselves.

The military then decided to send us to Atauro Island to try to force my father to surrender. However, my mother, a descendant of the ruling family from Quelicai, paid off the local military commander (babinsa) with watches and gold. She did sewing to provide for us. In 1984 my father was killed.

In 1991, when I was 13 years old, I decided to convert from Catholicism to Islam, taking the name Mohammad Iqbal Alcino Menezes. I had many Indonesian friends who were Muslims. We often talked together about the holy pictures in the church. My friends said they were pictures of God, yet my mother always told me that we cannot see God.

Iqbal standing with two women and two children

Iqbal with his mother and family, Dili, 2004

After the death of his father, the Falintil commander Manuel Menezes, Iqbal decided to convert to Islam. Yakin sent him to Java to study.
© Helene van Klinken

We decided we’d go together to the church and closely inspect the pictures to see if this was true, but on the way we got scared. I became uncertain about my faith as a Catholic and stopped going to church. When I told my mother I was going to become a Muslim she became angry. But one day I just took her sarung [as a prayer mat] and joined in prayers at the mosque.

At that time I was attending the local state junior high school, where the same teacher taught art and Catholic religion classes. When this teacher discovered that I attended art but had stopped going to religion classes, he was angry and bashed me till I nearly fainted. The teacher who taught the Islamic religion class would not let me into his class. He was afraid there could be trouble for Muslims in the community if an East Timorese converted from Catholicism.

The Catholic priest was also angry with me. He was sure I had been bribed to become a Muslim, and even offered to send me to school in Italy. My mother tried to force me to go to church. One day as she was trying to drag me along to church I jumped off the bridge. I survived but she kept crying and was very unhappy with me. An Indonesian policeman found out about my situation and tried to help me.

The military commander in East Timor came by helicopter to Uatulari to try to sort out the problems I had caused by wanting to convert. The local Catholic priest had made a report to the governor, Mario Carrascalão, which had been passed on to the district administrator (bupati) of Viqueque. The military advisor for social and political affairs called a dialogue with the sub-district head (camat) of Uatolari, the priest, the school principal and the heads (kepala desa) of six villages. At the meeting they asked me why I wanted to become a Muslim. I could only say that it was what I wanted to do and that no-one had influenced me. The Javanese political affairs advisor told me the law in Indonesia forbids children to change their religion without the agreement of their parents. I started to cry because of all the questions. I used to hate Muslims but something made me want to become a Muslim.

After that the staff at the mosque in Uatolari organised for me to leave my village to live at the Yakin institution in Dili and study at the Islamic school run by the An-Nur mosque. Some locals threatened to burn down our house, the mosque and the houses of Indonesian Muslims living around the mosque. For some time Muslims were not allowed to use a loud speaker or put up banners in public. Nothing happened in 1991, but in September 1995 there were riots in many areas, and our house was burnt down, as was the mosque and Islamic school in Uatolari.

After three months, Yakin sent me to study in Indonesia. I left with a group of six students. We were given a special send off reception attended by Abdullah Hamid, the head of Human Relations of the Department of Religious Affairs in Dili. He witnessed our oaths in which we promised to study and then return to work in East Timor. A banner was stretched across the road in Dili announcing our departure, ‘Pelepasan anak-anak ke Malang’. Our group was actually unique among the students sent by Yakin. We were a bit older than average; at 13. I was the youngest. Children sent by Yakin were generally younger, and their departures were not made public. We were also especially selected on the basis of merit and sent to study at reputable institutions in Malang. We were also more successful than average. All but one completed a university qualification, several obtained masters degrees and one received a scholarship to study in Malaysia. While I was studying in Indonesia I kept in contact with my mother. The preacher (ustad) from Uatolari lived in East Java; he would visit us to collect letters and carry them back home.

After I completed my study in Malang I went to study at the IAIN, now the State Islamic University, in Jakarta. In early 2002 I decided to return home for the proclamation of independence on 20 May. I led a group of ten East Timorese Muslims, some only children, who also wanted to be there for the celebrations. We travelled overland, but had trouble at the border between West and East Timor: pro-Indonesian East Timorese, including ex-militiamen, tried to prevent East Timorese crossing into East Timor; however, we managed to sneak past them.


1 Interview, Dili, 1 April 2004.

Cite this chapter as: van Klinken, Helene. 2011. Chapter 3: 'Vignette. Iqbal Menezes's story'. In Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. Pp. 105-108.

Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor

   by Helene van Klinken