Vol. 5, No. 3
East Timor Speaking Tour
||Witness to Triumph in a Sea of Terror
by Ben Terrall
Like many other ETAN members, I joined the International Federation for East Timor Observer Project (IFET-OP), which monitored the UN-facilitated "popular consultation" in East Timor. IFET-OP brought more than 125 volunteers from 20 countries to monitor the UN process throughout the occupied territory.
By the time I arrived in the capital, Dili, on August 27, the project had been in the field for two months. In report after report, IFET-OP echoed the wishes of East Timorese leaders and everyday people by calling for an international peacekeeping force to protect civilians from state-sponsored terror. These reports also pointed out the need for genuine troop withdrawals and an end to Indonesian police maintaining "security" during the consultation.
The night before my arrival, Aitarak, the Indonesian military-backed militia in Dili, staged a march which culminated in an attack on residents of that city. In addition to East Timorese civilians, the militiamen targeted Australian and other foreign journalists. They shot a reporter for the Jakarta journal Kompas four times in the chest; the journalist lived, thanks to his bulletproof vest.
This violence began the final intimidation campaign by militias and their backers in the Indonesian military (TNI) and police (combined forces which church sources estimate killed more than 3,000 civilians in the first eight months of 1999) to rid the territory of all journalists, photographers and other outside observers that might witness attacks on East Timorese.
On August 30 voters lined up at polling places throughout East Timor in pre-dawn darkness to avoid militia scrutiny and threatened attacks. Many voters interviewed by IFET-OP members told us they would head for the mountains as soon as they finished at the polls.
Perhaps partly because of the enormous numbers of international press still roaming the island nation, the day was relatively calm. Several incidents of intimidation and physical assault were recorded but for the most part the police turned over a new leaf and behaved like public servants, the military maintained a low profile and the militia took the day off.
But what made the strongest impression on me was the incredible courage and dignity of the East Timorese people, who came to the polls in perhaps the largest turnout in the history of democracy - over 98% of eligible voters.
In the days leading up to the announcement of the consultation results, harassment and attacks escalated. Militia and military forces killed more East Timorese civilians. A policeman fatally shot a pro-independence youth in Dili in the back; reports from Hera, several miles east of Dili, indicated at least one independence activist murdered by militiamen. By September 4, when the UN announced the results, militias had set numerous houses on fire, mostly those of known resistance activists.
As CNN announced that 78.5% of East Timorese voters had chosen independence, our East Timorese drivers and translators did not show the elation one might have expected. Like everyone else, they were wondering how far militias would go in carrying out threats of a post-independence vote bloodbath. In the Becora neighborhood, a well-known resistance stronghold, some young men pranced and celebrated for the cameras but they were noticeably small in numbers.
By the end of the afternoon, there were repeated warnings to stay off the streets because of gunfire. Eager to see what was going on, I joined a colleague in driving to pick up a friend in another IFET-OP house (in addition to its main compound, IFET-OP rented six other houses in Dili to accommodate all the volunteers being recalled from the countryside).
Within a half mile toward our destination, a sea of armed, extremely hostile looking militia, police and military, all virtually interchangeable, seemed to surround us. Men in militia regalia (t-shirts with Aitarak in block letters were especially popular) rode on the backs of police and military lorries, others whizzed by on motorcycles with automatic weapons over their shoulders.
One especially crazed-looking militiaman stood on the side of the road waving a homemade double-barreled gun over his head as if signaling the start of a siege. Others kicked a nearby kiosk into splinters. The entire scene had the horrific feel of the start of a scorched earth campaign.
Upon arrival at our destination, we didn't put up an argument when our friend told us that it wasn't safe to be on the streets and we had to come inside. Nearby gunfire of varying caliber interrupted our introductions to the internationals and two East Timorese in the house where we spent the next hour on the floor with the lights out.
From the moment of my arrival in the occupied territory, I had feared for the safety of the East Timorese; for the first time I also feared for my own. Eventually our East Timorese hosts decided the shooting had subsided enough to turn on the lights and have dinner. The gunshots continued throughout the evening.
By the next morning, virtually all residents of the surrounding neighborhood - except for the rank and file at the local militia post - had fled. Militias and their handlers had spent the night torching more homes. Back at the main IFET-OP residence, reports came in of militia, police and military gunfire throughout Dili. Becora was under siege, and according to an East Timorese friend who sought refuge in our compound, TNI and militias used grenades in attacks on local residences. Later reports from the area confirmed this, and estimated that pro-occupation forces had killed 77 East Timorese there.
Militias attacked the Mahkota hotel that afternoon, threatening journalists and firing into the air. A European photographer I talked to later at the airport described the police fraternizing with militia members, leaving, then returning after the militia melee to announce an escort for journalists to the airport would only be available for a limited time. Having just been threatened with death if they stayed, most were happy to oblige. Thus the police managed to help expedite the departure of unwanted witnesses to later atrocities and create a partial illusion of maintaining order and protecting foreigners.
Unfortunately, the UN's ruling powers did not take seriously threats by the Indonesian military and their East Timorese militia accomplices. In discussing the possibility of a vote for independence, these architects of mass killing repeatedly raised the specter of 1975, when Jakarta's military killed 60,000 within a month after invading East Timor. The underlying subtext of references to 1975 was spelled out by a prominent militia leader when he said, "we will kill as many people as we want." But Falintil (the armed wing of the East Timorese resistance) displayed incredible discipline. They maintained a cease-fire and almost never responded to militia atrocities against civilians, thus discrediting the Indonesian military's propaganda about intra-Timorese violence.
The last group of IFET-OP volunteers in Dili hoped to stay as long as possible in order to provide some support for the East Timorese people, if only an international presence to talk to news media and our governments back home. But when militias attacked the International Committee for the Red Cross and Bishop Belo's residence and the systematic military and militia sweeps through Dili escalated, the majority of those left felt we could no longer be sure our status as foreigners accorded us protection.
Leaving was not easy. As ETAN National Coordinator and IFET-OP staffer Charles Scheiner wrote later, "The East Timorese people have no Australia to run to, no place to hide from militia and military terror. As we escaped East Timor, both IFET-OP and the people we left behind kept thinking of 1975, when the international community abandoned East Timor, allowing the Indonesian military to invade and kill 200,000 people with impunity while the nations of the world closed their eyes."
It is incredible that the UN had no contingency plan for the post-vote bloodbath. And the peacekeepers that arrived belatedly in East Timor would not have been necessary had the U.S. and other "great powers" resolved the situation months earlier by demanding that the Indonesian regime call off its proxy killers and end military and police complicity and active participation in the terror. Instead, as Allan Nairn reports in the Sept. 27 issue of The Nation magazine, Admiral Dennis Blair, U.S. Commander in Chief of the Pacific region reassured Indonesian armed forces commander Wiranto shortly after a horrific massacre in Liquica in April that new training for Indonesian police would soon be available.
Through the first half of September, the White House refused to push Jakarta to end the destruction of East Timor and the murder and forced relocation of its people. As Elizabeth Becker and Philip Shenon wrote in The New York Times, the Clinton administration "made the calculation that the United States must put its relationship with Indonesia, a mineral-rich nation of more than 200 million people, ahead of its concern over the political fate of East Timor, a tiny impoverished territory of 800,000 people that is seeking independence."
But unlike in 1975, mainstream press coverage, including TV, showed the horror of life under the gun in Timor to millions of people in the United States. The resulting outpouring of support for the East Timorese, combined with non-stop grassroots work by the East Timor Action Network and others to channel that concern, forced the Clinton administration to suspend military assistance to Jakarta.
We must maintain legislative pressure to save more East Timorese lives. Though international peacekeepers are now in East Timor and humanitarian aid is getting to the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people there, the U.S. government must work to guarantee the safety of East Timorese driven from their homeland by militias and the military. As a foreign aid worker said of the East Timorese in militia-controlled camps in West Timor, "they are hostages, not refugees." Eyewitness reports from inside the camps describe the TNI and militias killing young men associated with the resistance. Many others have been killed in transit: Amnesty International reports that 35 East Timorese were killed on Sept 11 on a ship bound for Kupang, their bodies dumped overboard. "Rogue" operatives did not carry out these killings: an Indonesian policeman told Australian TV of an order militias, TNI and police received to "track and kill the refugees after they leave East Timor."
Given its long history of support for the Indonesian military, the U.S. has a special obligation to right the wrongs perpetrated against the East Timorese. But that will only come about through continued grassroots pressure. And legislative victories in the U.S. for East Timor solidarity activists should be a model for work to support other groups under attack by the TNI, including labor and environmental activists in Java, students in the streets of Jakarta, and dissidents in Aceh and West Papua/Irian Jaya.
Those of us aware of the history of repression in East Timor and Indonesia should heed the words of my Ambonese friend from the observer project: "never forget." These words should be a call to action, not merely analysis and reflection.