Venilale Tunnels – Venilale, East Timor - Atlas Obscura

Venilale, East Timor

Venilale Tunnels

These underground shelters dug by the Japanese during World War II later helped East Timor achieve its independence.  

Venilale is a sleepy town in inland East Timor known for its cool weather, comparatively speaking. In its colonial past, this town was a prime destination for Portuguese settlers wishing to escape the heat. 

At the outskirts of Venilale are a set of tunnels that are steeped in World War II history, from when the eastern part of Timor was controlled by Portugal, and the western part by the Dutch. In 1942, Australia deployed troops on the island as a response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. This was designed as a precautionary move, not really expecting Japan to launch a full-on attack on Timor. But East Timor was particularly vulnerable, as the Portuguese were counting on their declaration of neutrality as a deterrent against Japan. (In hindsight, this was an obvious miscalculation.)

When Japan attacked, it did so with an unexpected intensity and number of troops. Those Australian and Dutch troops that managed to survive were forced to retreat to the harsh and mountainous interior of East Timor to join another renegade Australian contingent. Timorese people either joined the fighters or supported them by other means, and from here, guerrilla warfare was waged against the Japanese occupation.

During the six months that it took Japan to gain control of the island, Japanese forces had to venture farther and farther inland, and Venilale became a Japanese stronghold. It was at this time that a set of tunnels was dug out to be used as shelters. 

The story may have ended here, but it didn’t. Fast-forward events to 1974, when the Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (commonly referred to as FRETILIN) was founded. East Timor was still Portuguese territory, and FRETILIN was a pro-independence movement whose members were freedom fighters that adopted the guerrilla warfare approach to gain independence for East Timor. In 1975, soon after East Timor gained independence from the Portuguese, Indonesian forces invaded it, and in their struggle against the Indonesian forces, FRETILIN fighters also used the Venilale tunnels as hideouts. The tunnels that were once a reminder of a long and bloody occupation became instrumental to the achievement of the country’s independence.   

On a side note, Timor-Leste and East Timor are synonymous, but Timor-Leste is the name used by Timorese people. Timor means East in Tetum, the local language, and Leste means East in Portuguese. Basically, whether you use the local or the English forms, the name is still “East-East.”

Know Before You Go

Venilale is 30 km south of Baucau, the most sizeable settlement in the area. Public transport is sporadic. The best way to reach Venilale is by your own transport. The road is bumpy and many sections are not paved, but a regular car or motorbike can manage easily. The tunnels are not signed-posted, but they are hard to miss.

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