COURIER-MAIL: State of freedom [Independence breaks out in East Timor]

Courier Mail journalist Michael Ware and photographer Rob Maccoll returned from assignment in East Timor this week where they witnessed the birth of new hope in a country ravaged by more than two decades of Indonesian occupation

AGAINST the teak of her skin, her white dress is luminous. She's been alive with delight all night, her pleated skirt frilling out in a blurring whirlwind. She whisks about the party: it's the first she has hosted, the first she's been to in a free East Timor.

It's Valentine's Day and simply everyone from the village in their late teens is here. The square yard in Becora, in the capital Dili, is ringed by rows of plastic chairs, gaggles of girls and broods of boys sit timidly facing each other: all smirks and giggles and blushes. Their formality and grace has a lost-world charm.

The hostess matches her dress with sheer white shoes, her hair is pulled back off her face and when she sits, only for a moment at a time, it's stiff-backed, sipping tinto wine.

"Excuse me," she says taking her leave. "I must see that all is well."

The music drifting out of crackling speakers doesn't prompt anyone to dance. So a young man bursts balloons with his cigarette and scraps of paper with dance partners' names flutter out of the rubbery debris. As the names are announced pockets of excited applause go up in the darkness beyond the yard, betraying the presence of the village families sitting outside, chattering and laughing, sounding support when their child's paired off.

It's a fantastic night. And it's special, not just for the young love that dances in self-conscious shuffles with straight arms and sweaty, handkerchief-filled hands, but because months earlier it could not have happened.

"The Indonesians wouldn't have let us do this," one young man says. A virtual curfew had applied during the 24 years of Indonesian occupation, with army patrols and hit squads roaming night and day.

"They wouldn't have liked us to get together like this. They would be worried. It could cause trouble. But now we can do it, we're free," he says proudly, waving his hand past the crowd, encompassing his friends in the expanse of his declaration. "Here, have some more wine, please. I'll have some too. You know, now we can do what we like. We are not afraid."

All at the party are too young to know anything other than Indonesian rule. For them, fear and a clandestine mood has always been a part of life. Their friends from school, their cousins, their brothers, their sisters, the kids next door, have always been disappearing. Students were shot in demonstrations or at funerals, people were arrested walking on footpaths and taken to army barracks, returning months or years later after being beaten and tortured in some East Javanese prison hell. Some never returned. Others spent their youth in the mountains, a captured Indonesian army rifle in their hands, fighting with the ragtag guerrilla army, Falantil. Many of those never returned, either: martyrs of the motherland.

Scores of others joined the diaspora, as entire lifelines of family history were cast around the world, refugee flotsam and jetsam, marooned in Australia, the United States, Portugal: dislocated and yearning for identity.

But that's all changing now in East Timor. The country these teenagers are going to inherit is beginning to unravel, stand up and look at itself, as if for the first time. No one can predict how the new, or ultimately true, face of Timor will look. Not even the Timorese.

WHEN the former Indonesian government approved an independence vote for East Timor in January last year, and, later, on May 5, when the period of "popular consultation" took shape, violence enveloped the whole country. First as a brutal means of intimidation, to frighten independence votes away, and then, with the publication of the ballot results on September 4, in vicious retribution.

The world's disgust fuelled the establishment of the Interfet multinational force, led by Australia, which landed in East Timor on September 20. It took another six weeks before the killing and destruction stopped and Interfet could claim full control.

Since then, and the creation of the UN administration on October 25, the task has been one of rebuilding an entire country from the vacuum the Indonesians ensured they left behind.

But the sense of liberation in the half-island nation is overwhelming. Graffiti screaming "Welcome Interfet" still adorns scorched walls in Suai and Dili, and the adoption of, in particular, Australian soldiers as some kind of out-of-town cousin remains undiluted, despite Major-General Peter Cosgrove pulling out on February 23.

For hours on end recently adolescent Australian soldiers stand at sentry posts, their hat brims the only shelter, their weapons slung off their shoulders, and with them, under their feet, in the dust, are always groups of children. Sometimes a tiny horde will stand adoring and conferring, offering child-prizes, such as a stick with a wheel nailed to one end, or other things of interest for inspection, cracking jokes and smiling as they surround the one on guard. Or perhaps it will be just one little boy, with the classic dirt-smeared face, standing silently and intently, next to the camouflaged pants leg of the Digger, staring off to some unexplained distant place.

IN THE first weeks of the operation it comes as no surprise to approach a heavily-sandbagged gun emplacement, the barrel of a Minimi machine gun nosing the ground, ripples of ammunition slung about, and encounter heat-bothered soldiers bristling with menace, scanning every movement, only to have a ragged little boy suddenly crawl out of the makeshift bunker from where he's been playing as comfortably as if it were home. The soldiers don't twitch, he's an integral part of their watch.

At Cosgrove's final parade, where the Interfet flag is lowered for the last time at 7.04 on the morning of his departure, a soldier waits for the official party to safely retreat into the headquarters building before whistling over the fence, with an "Oi" thrown in for good measure, to grab the attention of a couple of kids playing in the dirt. Quickly looking behind to see who is watching, he lobs two bottles of clean water over the barbed wire barrier and the children tackle the rolling treasures with the zest of an under-7 footy team.

Similarly, someone has been looking after the Runner of Timor. In a Forrest Gump-like athletic epic, a Timorese, somewhere in his 30s, with an awkward gait and an ever-smiling disposition, runs. Constantly. He's always out there pounding the roads. He's not quick but he can go and go and go. When first seen he was wearing an old T-shirt and a pair of filthy shorts but now he's decked out in a brand new athletic singlet and shiny black tracksuit pants.

Others haven't fared so well. Like the crippled midget in Dili who once worked for the Indonesian military intelligence apparatus and now is not even allowed to beg in the city's foreign workers' pubs, chased out by Timorese. "He did all right once, taking the Indonesian's money, let him do all right now," they say.

In Indonesia itself refugee camps still hold up to 100,000 desperate people, many of whom will never be able to return home, not after the horrors they've committed in the name of pro-Indonesian "integrasi". In one of the camps, in December, a wisp of a boy, no more than six years old, tags along behind a visiting group of aid workers. He mutters to himself constantly in Indonesian, speaking up only occasionally to tug at a loose hand or pocket and stammer: "Lapar, lapar." Afterwards, leaving the camp, an interpreter is asked what the boy had been saying. "Oh," he says with a dejected look. "He was telling you he's starving."