East Timor: Konis Santana, a Humble Guerrilla Hero

Like any country born out of a protracted armed resistance, stories in East Timor of division from within the resistance are various, and quite potent. But one guerrilla figure who appears to have a powerful and unifying appeal is Konis Santana, who never lived to see his people gain independence.

Santana in his underground shelter. By José Sequeira, Arquivo Museu da Resistência Timorense.

Santana in his underground shelter. By José Sequeira, Arquivo Museu da Resistência Timorense.

On the anniversary of his death this week, Timorese newspaper Tempo Semanal reported [Tet]

Ema lubun bo'ot ida halibur aan iha Mertutu dezde hodiseik (10/03) hodi hanoin hikas loron 11/03/1998 iha ne'ebe rezistencia Timor nian ba Ukun rasik aan lakon ninia lider di'ak ida saudozu Nino Konis Santana. Saudozu Nino Konis Santana mate iha ninia abrigu fatin iha Mertutu iha loron ne'eba no hakoi iha kalan hodi subar husi atensaun indonseia ninian.

A large group of people met in Mertutu from yesterday (10/03) to remember the day 11/03/1998 on which the Timorese resistance for independence lost its great leader, the deceased Nino Konis Santana. The deceased Nino Konis Santana died in his place of shelter in Mertutu during the day and was buried at night to hide from the attentions of the Indonesians.

His Tetum wikipedia entry states

Tan Xanana TNI sira kaer nia iha fulan Novembro 1992, Ma'huno Bulerek Karathayano sa'e nudar komandante FALINTIL. Konis Santana tama nudar membru Komite Politika Militar. Iha fulan Abril 1993 Ma'huno mos TNI kaer no hadadur nia tan nee Konis Santana sa'e nudar komandante foun FALINTIL nian.

When the TNI [Indonesian military] captured Xanana [Gusmão, resistance leader and currently Prime Minster] in November 1992, Ma'huno Bulerek Karathayano rose to become commander of the FALINTIL. Konis Santana rose to become member of the Political Military Committee. In April 1993 Ma'huno was also captured and so Konis Santana rose to be the new commander of the FALINTIL.

Santana led the armed resistance until his premature death, mostly basing himself in a small village in the western district of Ermera. He himself was an easterner from near the island's eastern tip, where the language and culture is quite different.

Since independence, Santana has been recognized by East Timor's political elite and by foreigners as an important figure. The first government of East Timor named its first national park, in pristine rainforest where he grew up, after him.

Recently Tempo Semanal newspaper published a piece of video footage of Santana on its blog, previously unavailable to a wider audience. The video shows Santana meeting with a Japanese solidarity activist who repeatedly made his way to visit FALINTIL in the jungle.

This video tribute (with many views given in 2009 Timor had the last internet access in the world), gives a little flavor for how some Timorese continue to celebrate him:

Perhaps what is most fascinating about Santana is the way in which he has become a part of folk mythology, and is quite important to at least one quasi-religious group in rural East Timor. Some have begun to refer to his possible reappearance, in a kind of messianic way.

While officially Santana is thought to have fallen and hurt himself, which along with existing health problems, is believed to have later led to his death in hiding, there is a feeling of “mystery” surrounding his death especially due to his night-time burial. This continues to trouble some, like this commenter “Darwin” in Bradford, UK:

well i don't really know what is going on right now, but i would like to ask those guys in the government, Who killed Konis? Is he really dead? Why? Where? Who going to answer all these question? well, i got to tell you guys, there is a mistery [sic] behind it.

That question received 29 responses from all over the world. Keibere in Sydney responds:

I am not going to ask anybody who killed him, it is all part of the plan of the big man, upstairs who made all of us, that is GOD, one dead is the same , as the other one, there is no difference between Kony Santana, and another Timorese.

Part of Santana's continued appeal is in fact a recognition of his humility. By living in amongst the people in an occupied mountain village, he was perceived as a servant-leader. So quite probably, Santana would have agreed with Keibere and been quite surprised with the cult of personality that has developed around him after his death.

Santana typing in a shelter. By Comissão para os Direitos do Povo Maubere, Arquivo Museu da Resistência Timorense.

Santana typing in a shelter. By Comissão para os Direitos do Povo Maubere, Arquivo Museu da Resistência Timorense.

Two books have been published about Santana in recent years. Well-respected Portuguese historian José Mattoso published his biography a couple of years ago, based on documental sources and interviews in East Timor. And just a couple of months ago, reknowned journalist Jill Jolliffe published her account Finding Santana, which blogger Patrick Allington describes as

a terrifically blunt but often quite lyrical recounting of her clandestine 1994 trips to East Timor to interview then East Timor guerilla commander, Nino Konis Santana. I commend the book: it’s uncomfortable reading but it’s also a genuine page-turner […]

A new generation, that never lived through the Indonesian occupation, can come to know Santana through these books and the through Archives lovingly restored by a team coordinated by Mattoso [Pt] and from the video archives of Max Stahl.

All photos used with permission from the East Timorese Resistance Archive & Museum.


  • K’ Santana’s Undying Memoirs
    Dionisio de Jesus Lopes (January 2011)

    You stood to fight for freedom
    You fought to keep the culture
    You fearlessly spoke in Tetum
    The native tongue…our pasture!

    Your selfless love was like a hope rising in the east
    Your nerve and sinews was like a lit in our hearts
    Your fearless thoughts and acts woke up the least
    Broke the silence, made us rise in the field

    Thy principles we will uphold forever
    We will embrace in selfless love in times of call
    For Thy memoirs so great and clear
    Shall tell your great memoirs, K’ Santana!

  • At His Kingdom
    Dionisio de Jesus Lopes (January 2011)

    Holy is Thy place where Thou hid
    When Thy noble heart’s persistence remained
    Thou saved Thyself from the Tyrant
    From their claws Thou escaped the threat
    In Thy Kingdom Thou outwitted the bait
    I can prove Thy mind so brilliant
    Though Thy Kingdom is built underground
    Thy thoughts, Thy dreams went beyond
    At Cipinan, Portugal and Mozambique they heard
    They knew Thou fought Thy will Thou wounded
    Thy dreams conceived underground
    They bore fruits with Thy memories
    At Mertutu, we reminisced
    Konis Santana, Thy soul may rest in Peace!

  • THEO


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