Science Monitor series on Battalion 745
Date: Mar 2000
The Christian Science Monitor has published a four part series on the brutal last days of Battalion 745 following East Timor's pro-indepence vote. Cameron Barr's investigates this one Indonesian Army unit's direct role in 21 killings and disappearances during those days -- including the murder of Monitor journalist. With with map, timeline and photos.
An audio interview of Barr with Pacifica Radio's Amy Goodman can be found at http://www.pacifica.org/programs/democracy_now/archives/d20000317.html
A BRUTAL EXIT BATTALION 745
A deadly highway rendezvous
Evidence of an Indonesian Army unit's direct role in killings in East Timor.
Cameron W. Barr Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
BURUMA, EAST TIMOR
After East Timor voted last August to reject Indonesian rule, the territory was thrown into a chaos of violence and destruction. Indonesia's military leaders deny responsibility for the upheaval, in which hundreds of people died.
But an examination of one Indonesian battalion's final two weeks in East Timor indicates that its soldiers were involved in 20 murders and disappearances leading up to the killing of Monitor contributor Sander Thoenes.
As Battalion 745 withdrew from East Timor - according to eyewitnesses, the victims' families, and a former 745 sergeant - its troops murdered specific supporters of independence and were ordered to shoot people who came within range of their departing convoy.
Today the Monitor begins a four-part series documenting the brutal last days of Battalion 745.
The soldiers of Battalion 745 greeted Sept. 21, their last full day in East Timor, by torching the barracks where they had spent the night.
As flames danced on the roofing timber of the cement buildings, the soldiers clambered into their trucks and rumbled away from the coastal town of Laga. In a few minutes, just a few miles down the road, the killing would begin.
NO HUSBAND, NO FATHER: Cesarina da Costa Victor and her son, Jaime, wear black to mourn the loss of Egas da Costa. He and his brother were shot last September while returning home on their motorcycle. SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
The cool of daybreak was just giving way to the brittle heat of East Timor's dry season when Zelia Maria Barbosa Pinto heard the convoy: the deep grinding of truck gears, the buzzing whine of the motorcycle escorts, and sporadic gunfire.
Standing about 50 yards from the road in an expanse of rice paddies, Ms. Pinto was returning home after spending the night at a friend's house. She watched with growing apprehension as two men on a motorcycle were ordered to stop as they approached the 30-truck convoy.
Egas da Costa and his younger brother Abreu, two relatively well-educated local farmers, were on their way home. The previous day they had gone to a local community college to see for themselves the television coverage of the arrival of an Australian-led international force in East Timor.
The Da Costas were supporters of East Timorese independence and saw the coming of the Australians as a joyous event - the beginning of stability and freedom after months of turmoil and 24 years of Indonesian control.
'I constantly dream about them ... [about] saying goodbye.' - Zelia Maria Barbosa Pinto, who witnessed the killing of two relatives from this rice paddy in Buruma, East Timor. CAMERON W. BARR
Three weeks earlier, East Timorese voters had opted overwhelmingly for independence in a United Nations-sponsored referendum. But on the road in front of Egas and Abreu were some of the last vestiges of Indonesia's presence in the territory - a group of about 100 soldiers and officers, along with some of their families and a few refugees, heading for neighboring West Timor, which would remain a part of Indonesia.
Faced with scores of armed men, some wearing red-and-white Indonesian flags as patriotic headbands, Abreu slid off the back of the motorbike. It must have been obvious to him and his brother that they were encountering the wrong people at the worst possible time.
At about this time on that Tuesday morning, Sander Thoenes was leaving his home and climbing into a cab bound for Halim Airport in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. A reporter who worked for London's Financial Times, the Monitor, and publications in his native Holland, he was joining dozens of other journalists waiting for a charter flight to East Timor.
Thoenes wasn't exactly eager to return to the territory - he'd been there just three weeks earlier - but he felt he had to go. The arrival of the UN-authorized international force in the territory on Sept. 20 was dominating headlines around the globe.
Over the weekend, Thoenes and others had abandoned an earlier plan for a charter flight after Indonesian military officers would not provide security guarantees. But the presence of the Australian-led force now made the situation seem safer.
At the airport, Thoenes chatted with other journalists about the working conditions in the devastated city: little shelter, no food or water, questionable supplies of electricity. They all but cleaned out the airport's Dunkin' Donuts stand. They were not overly concerned about their safety.
In a confidential preliminary report obtained by the Monitor, a Dutch investigator and an Australian military policeman conclude that Battalion 745 killed Thoenes in the late afternoon of Sept. 21. If so, Thoenes was the last of as many as 13 people that the battalion appears to have murdered that day. The Da Costa brothers were about to become the first.
PHOTO: SANDER THOENES: The Dutch journalist flew to Dili, East Timor, on Sept. 21, 1999. COURTESY PETER THOENES
Ms. Pinto crept forward both for cover and to see what would happen as the convoy halted in front of the brothers. She circled behind a low hill topped by a craggy tree in the middle of the rice paddies. Now she was about 40 yards from the road.
A soldier shouted something that quickened her fear: "They're the ones we're looking for. They're GPK," an Indonesian acronym that translates roughly to "terrorist." Abreu backed away from the motorcycle. "We're going to die," he screamed to his brother, and ran for Pinto's hill.
As several soldiers opened fire, Pinto ducked down and slipped into an irrigation ditch filled with muddy water. Peering through vegetation that hid her head, she saw Abreu get hit in the right leg and fall, about half way across the paddies.
Egas also tried to flee, dropping the motorcycle and running, but he took only a couple of steps in the direction of his brother before one of the soldiers shot him in the stomach. He collapsed by the side of the road.
Suddenly Abreu was up, lurching toward the hill on his injured leg. A soldier fired, felling Abreu for the last time with a bullet to the head. By the road, Egas was still alive, "still breathing," says Pinto. Another soldier walked over and stabbed him with his bayonet.
Two soldiers set the brothers' motorcycle on fire and dragged the bodies behind Pinto's hill. She lay nearly submerged in the water, keeping as still as she could. She heard the soldiers discussing whether to dump the bodies in the irrigation ditch where she was hiding.
For some reason they left the corpses in the open. Sometime later - it seemed to Pinto that the convoy lingered for an hour at the site - she heard the trucks and motorcycles rev to life. She still didn't move. But suddenly the water and earth around her shuddered as something exploded in the rice paddies. Had the soldiers spotted her? Another munition was fired toward the hill as the convoy pulled away. This one plopped into the water near her - but didn't detonate.
Later, dizzy and disoriented from the blast and the time underwater, Pinto had to look at the bodies three times before recognizing Egas and Abreu. They were members of her extended family; she considered them brothers.
"I constantly dream about them," says Pinto, a small woman with a face that seems more used to frowning than smiling. Her dreams are about "saying goodbye."
The Da Costas were halted about 100 yards short of the turnoff to their mudwalled home in Buruma. Had they traveled just a few minutes earlier or the convoy a few minutes later, today Egas's wife, Cesarina, and his three-year-old son, Juvito, would not be wearing strips of black fabric around their necks as a sign of mourning.
Christian Science Monitor [U.S.] Tuesday, March 14, 2000
also Pattern of Violence
A BRUTAL EXIT, BATTALION 745
Post-referendum backlash in Los Palos
Near their base, soldiers target the referendum victors
Cameron W. Barr Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
LOS PALOS, EAST TIMOR
Battalion 745 was headquartered in Los Palos, a modest market town of single-story buildings that reflect the influence of East Timor's Portuguese colonizers. It is here and in the surrounding farming villages that the story of the unit's violent withdrawal from the territory properly begins.
In early September, Los Palos was a community torn between joy and fear.
Most people in the area had long supported the cause of East Timorese independence. For them, the outcome of an Aug. 30 UN-sponsored referendum - a 4-to-1 rejection of staying within Indonesia - deserved the celebration of a lifetime.
Juliao de Assis Belo, a farmer in the Motolori section of Los Palos, was elated. He had openly campaigned for East Timor's freedom. But he was scared, too. How would the local Indonesian military units, such as Battalion 745, and pro-Indonesia militia groups react to the results?
His fear was widely shared in East Timor, and it was justified.
After the voting results were announced on Sept. 4, the militias began a campaign of destruction and dislocation in Los Palos and throughout East Timor.
Hordes of people (ultimately a third of the territory's population of 850,000) were being forced to flee to neighboring West Timor, a part of Indonesia. Militia members were looting what they could carry, burning what they couldn't, and killing an undetermined number of people.
On Sept. 10, Belo heard that 745 soldiers were looking for him. He began sleeping in his rice paddies, fearful of a nocturnal knock on the door.
Soldiers' families and local people who opposed independence were also frightened. They sought safety within the Battalion 745 compound a few miles outside of Los Palos, worried about the chaos around them and their prospects in an independent East Timor.
Compared with other Indonesian units operating in East Timor, Battalion 745 had a high number of East Timorese soldiers, roughly a quarter of the unit's 600 men. It and another battalion were created to dispel the impression that troops from other parts of Indonesia were an occupying force in the territory, which Indonesia invaded in 1975.
But East Timorese recruitment was never very high, says Bob Lowry, an expert on the Indonesian military at the Australian Defense Studies Center in Canberra. "It just shows you how little [the Indonesians] trusted the East Timorese."
Led by Indonesian officers, Battalion 745 soldiers gained a reputation for fiercely suppressing the independence movement. "We called them the 'brave ones,' says the Rev. Jose San Juan, rector of a Roman Catholic agricultural school near Los Palos, "because they did not respect the law."
In early September, Sgt. 2nd Class Hermenegildo dos Santos - himself an East Timorese member of the battalion - was assigned to register refugees arriving at the compound, a sprawling expanse of boxy buildings and open fields.
Sergeant dos Santos was struck by the unprecedented level of cooperation between his fellow soldiers and members of Team Alpha, a local militia group. He was ordered to allow Alpha members to review the lists of people seeking refuge, to check for local pro-independence leaders.
Indonesian military officials created many such militias two decades ago to fight against East Timor's Falintil guerrilla army. In the year before the referendum, the military backed new militias, which used violence and intimidation to discourage East Timorese from favoring independence in the vote.
Like the 745, Team Alpha was considered ruthless. Indeed, many locals saw the two forces as indistinguishable. In the middle days of September around Los Palos, Team Alpha and Battalion 745 sometimes worked together to find Indonesia's political enemies. Sometimes the 745 worked alone.
On the night of Sept. 12, Belo and his friend Martinho Branco, a government worker who also favored independence, were so frightened of the 745 that they took their families with them into the rice paddies. But the next morning, four 745 soldiers showed up in Motolori. It didn't take long for them to find out the families were concealed in the fields. "You'd better come out," one shouted. "If we have to come to your hiding place we will kill all of you." They fired their weapons in the air to underscore the point.
The families reluctantly stood up and walked toward the waiting soldiers. Belo and Branco were immediately arrested. Without explanation the 745 soldiers also grabbed each man's eldest child, two teenage boys uninvolved in politics. Belo's wife, Filomena de Jesus Freitas, was devastated to see her son in the hands of the soldiers. "If you want to kill someone, take me, not him," she pleaded. They ignored her and marched the men and boys along a dirt road that divides two large rice fields.
Ms. Freitas and Branco's wife, Maria do Ceu, watched their husbands and sons walk out of sight. Gunshots were heard a few minutes later. The women prayed.
At mid-afternoon Freitas found the courage to go to the Battalion 745 compound to ask after the men and boys. She was told that they had not been arrested.
The next day the people in the neighborhood began to search. At dawn on Sept. 15, they found Belo, Branco, and Branco's son Marcelio in an area about five minutes' walk from where the families had hidden in the fields. The corpses were partially burned, but Freitas recognized her husband's face and trousers. Her son, Elder, was nearby, at the bottom of a well. "I never imagined my child - he was only 15 years old - would be killed by the Indonesian military," says Freitas.
A reed-thin woman with high cheekbones and frizzy hair, Freitas speaks matter-of-factly about the loss of her husband and son. But the tears come as she explains the two bicycles stored inside her small, cluttered home. The bikes are Belo's and Elder's. Her two daughters and remaining son are too small to ride them.
The families buried the charred bodies near where they were found, but investigators from the Australian-led international force in East Timor later obtained the widows' permission to exhume them. On Nov. 17 the senior Australian officer in the region, Lt. Col. Lance Ensor, witnessed the procedure with a visiting Brazilian doctor experienced in detecting signs of violence and torture. "There was clear evidence to satisfy him," Colonel Ensor says, "that violent wounds had been inflicted. Whether or not they were the cause of death was impossible to say at that stage."
The investigators later returned the remains to the families for burial in a cemetery. But Elder's body is still in the well, which today is surrounded by 8-foot high stalks of corn. A rusted corrugated metal sheet covers the opening, and someone has left a few coins as an offering.
The villagers say that when the sun is directly overhead they can still see Elder's body nearly 30 feet down. This situation horrifies Freitas. "I won't be calm until the body of my son is removed from the well. Here it is part of our culture to bury the dead properly."
Freitas lives in a two-room wood and bamboo shack with a corrugated metal roof. She and Branco's widow, Ms. do Ceu, sit in near darkness on well-worn wooden chairs around a low table. Do Ceu, a slight woman with downcast features, says almost nothing during a two-hour interview. But when Freitas cries, she weeps too, swabbing her cheeks with her dark gray T-shirt.
"We won the vote," Freitas says, "but they still killed our families."
Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA)
March 14, 2000, Tuesday
Cameron W. Barr
ASALAINO, EAST TIMOR
The murders of Belo and Branco and the two incidents described below suggest that Battalion 745 sought to kill off the victors of the referendum. The unit's role in these brutal acts undermines the contention of Indonesia's generals that militia groups alone perpetrated such violence.
'There were six members of Battalion 745 and four members of the Team Alpha militia," Teodosio Alves says, extracting his wallet from a back pocket and fishing out a slip of paper on which he has written the names of the seven men in the group whom he recognized. "The 745 men were fully uniformed and had their guns."
The day was Sept. 9. The men were looking for Mr. Alves's brother Ambrosio, a prominent activist for East Timorese independence.
Alves agreed with his brother's views, but as a public-works official in East Timor's Indonesian-controlled government, he had had to be more discreet in his politics.
The men arrived near Ambrosio's house just as he was going out to buy cigarettes. Alves and others were standing around on the road and watched as Ambrosio's assailants grabbed him roughly and struck him several times. Some of the men twisted his right arm so severely that it appeared to break.
The soldiers and militia members shoved him into the back of their truck and prepared to leave. "Jump," Alves shouted to Ambrosio. But the soldiers pointed their weapons toward the bystanders and fired warning shots into the air. The truck left in the direction of the 745 compound, a 10-minute drive away.
Joaquim Fonseca, an East Timorese human rights worker who has researched disappearances in the Los Palos area, says 745 soldiers and Team Alpha members similarly abducted two other men in Asalaino on Sept. 8. One of these two men has disappeared.
Sometime in late October or early November, a cowherd found the other man. He was alongside Ambrosio, in a shallow grave inside the rear boundary of the 745 compound.
The family recognized Ambrosio by his long-sleeved striped shirt and cut-off jeans. The shirt was stained with blood and punctured in several places.
HOME BARU, EAST TIMOR
On Sept. 10, Battalion 745 soldiers came in droves to the village of Home Baru, a 30-minute walk through fields and jungle from their compound.
"The soldiers came from three sides," says Joangino Viana, a tall young man with a narrow, angular face, and dark, sunken eyes. "There were so many we couldn't count them."
They were looking for his brothers-in-law, Florentino and Florencio Branco. For years the men had provided underground assistance to Falintil guerrillas and otherwise backed the cause of independence.
The soldiers grabbed the two men, stripped them down to their underwear, and beat them with rifle butts in front of the villagers.
"First some of the soldiers took Florencio away, toward the compound. Then they forced Florentino to find some gasoline and when he came back they took the gas and burned the houses here," Mr. Viana says, pointing out the charred remains of the brothers' homes.
Around noon, three hours after they had arrived, the troops left with Florentino. The family has never seen him or his brother again. But Viana is certain that he knows where they are. "We believe their bodies are the ones in the well on the compound."
Three days after an Australian-led international force arrived in Los Palos on Oct. 17, a military policeman investigated the contents of a reeking well behind a set of barracks buildings. "He pulled up a femur [bone]," says Lt. Col. Lance Ensor, the senior Australian officer in the region.
Amelia Fernandes, the mother of the two men, says that a 745 soldier who knew the family came to see her after Florentino and Florencio were taken away. "He said, 'Your sons have been killed by 745.' "
The Christian Science Monitor
March 16, 2000, Thursday
Their orders? Destroy everything. Shoot anything.
Cameron W. Barr Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
LAUTEM, EAST TIMOR
Battalion 745 was shipping out.
By mid-September, many of its 600 troops had already left their compound on the plateau of Los Palos. They were gathering at Lautem, a small town by the azure waters of the Wetar Strait.
Civilians had fled the area, with good reason. Near the beachfront warehouse the soldiers were using as a staging area, someone had painted a warning: "If you are tired of living, we are ready to serve you."
On Sept. 20, after most of the battalion had boarded a troop ship, the remaining 100 soldiers were assigned convoy duty. They would drive the battalion's vehicles across the island into West Timor, Indonesian territory.
Before leaving, a lieutenant named Camilo briefed Sgt. 2nd Class Hermenegildo dos Santos and his fellow soldiers. "If you find anything on the way," the officer said, "just shoot it."
This order was no surprise to Sergeant dos Santos. He says it was issued within earshot of the battalion commander, Maj. Yacob Sarosa. The commander had already warned his troops, dos Santos adds, that they would have to "destroy everything" if pro-independence forces won East Timor's UN-sponsored referendum.
So when the results of the vote were announced on Sept. 4 - an overwhelming rejection of continued Indonesian rule - the soldiers' task was clear: Destroy everything. Shoot anything.
These orders were reflections of both pride and policy.
Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and spent the next 24 years trying to defeat pro-independence guerrillas and integrate the former Portuguese colony into the rest of Indonesia, a collection of former Dutch holdings. Estimates of the number of East Timorese who died from violence or starvation during this era range as high as 230,000.
The Indonesian military nearly always controlled government policy on East Timor, leaving it to Indonesian political leaders to deflect or ignore international criticism over its brutal methods.
But the generals were not prepared for the terms of former President B.J. Habibie's January 1999 offer of a referendum, which allowed the United Nations to run the vote and gave the East Timorese a stark choice between Indonesia and independence.
Because of political changes in Indonesia itself, the military was losing its ability to control what was done about East Timor. After the vote, with pro-Indonesia forces trashing the territory and international outrage building, the Indonesia's generals were forced to agree that an international force should be allowed into East Timor to restore order.
A military that had lost many of its own in trying to win East Timor was now forced to withdraw so that foreign troops could move in. Its soldiers and officers were not about to leave anything behind that could be useful to a people overjoyed to be rid of them.
Troops removed technology and destroyed buildings with rigorous precision. More than 50 years ago, while fighting for independence, Indonesia's freedom fighters occasionally used the same scorched-earth tactics.
Indonesia's military leaders have said that some individual soldiers, caught up in the emotions of the moment, may have engaged in violence. They have said it was "psychologically" difficult to rein in the pro-Indonesia militia groups they supported.
They deny that their exit strategy included systematic killing.
But dos Santos, the 745 sergeant, says the battalion's convoy was not filled with overwrought men bent on revenge. Just the opposite, he says, as do many witnesses along their route: The soldiers were happy.
They seemed delighted to try to destroy everything and shoot anything. "I don't know why they were happy, but maybe the Javanese wanted to go home," says the sergeant, referring to colleagues from the dominant Indonesian island of Java.
Dos Santos, a square-jawed man with deep-set eyes and trim mustache, says he did not have to fire because he was the ranking soldier in his vehicle. In any case, he did not want to obey his officers, because his loyalties were with East Timor, not Indonesia.
PHOTO: LOYAL TO E. TIMOR: Sgt. Hermenegildo dos Santos says he didn't fire at people. CAMERON W. BARR
After joining the battalion in 1986, he says he soon began passing information about Indonesian military activities to East Timor's pro-independence fighters.
This subversive support is the reason he and his wife and two sons can live peacefully today in their bright-blue, metal-roofed house in Los Palos. Were it otherwise, his fellow East Timorese would surely kill him.
Late in the afternoon of Sept. 20, the convoy pulled out of Lautem, with dozens of motorcycles in the lead, followed by about 30 trucks and other vehicles, most belonging to the Indonesian military.
Major Sarosa rode in a jeep-like staff car and dos Santos brought up the rear in a yellow dump truck appropriated from a local merchant.
The convoy stopped periodically so soldiers could shoot at village buildings and farm animals, but it seems that no people were killed.
Villagers along the 40-mile route had time to take refuge in the hills; the engine noise and gunfire acted as an early-warning system. In the town of Laga, according to both the local priest and the town's hereditary chief, an officer from another Indonesian military unit prevailed on the 745 convoy not to shoot people or burn houses there.
They spent the night at a military barracks outside the town. The next day would not be so peaceful.
On Sept. 21, the battalion's day began with the burning of the barracks outside Laga and the murders of Abreu and Egas da Costa, the brothers who ran into the convoy while riding home on their motorcycle.
Dos Santos, from his perch at the rear of the convoy, was not in a position to witness much of the killing. But he did see its results: At the place where the brothers were shot and stabbed, he saw their burning motorcycle and one body.
Over the next 10 miles, as the convoy passed through the villages of Buruma and Caibada, he saw three more bodies by the side of the road. According to eyewitnesses and survivors, the convoy actually killed four people:
Then the convoy entered Baucau, East Timor's second-largest city. After negotiating with a local military officer, according to one bystander, the convoy skirted the older part of Baucau without incident, passing through the already destroyed new town, and proceeded west along the coastal highway toward the capital, Dili.
As Sander Thoenes stood in front of the Hotel Turismo, an opportunity presented itself. Another reporter returned, leaving his conveyance free: a motorcycle taxi driven by an East Timorese man who had been working with journalists. Thoenes "did what quite a lot of us would have done in the same circumstances," O'Sullivan says. "He just got on the bike and went to have a look around."
Thoenes and the driver headed east, toward the Dili suburb of Becora, an area of strong support for East Timorese independence. They didn't know that the soldiers of Battalion 745 were already there.
As soon as Sander Thoenes landed at the Dili airport on Sept. 21, he went directly to the Hotel Turismo, where Australian troops had established a media center.
Thoenes left his backpack upstairs in the room of a Financial Times colleague. He and his friend Diarmid O'Sullivan ran into two Dutch journalists they knew from Jakarta, where all four were based, and made a loose plan to tour parts of the city together.
In zones of conflict journalists often work in groups, in part because it feels safer. In this case, there was an added incentive: The Dutch journalists had already hired a small pickup truck, a vital resource in a town nearly devoid of transportation.
Thoenes said he would wait while Mr. O'Sullivan went to drop his things elsewhere. His friend remembers Thoenes standing in front of the hotel, "ready to work on the story, smiling, a bit flushed from the heat."
The 745 convoy encounters an adversary that fires back
Cameron W. Barr Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
LALEIA, EAST TIMOR
Candido Soares, a middle-aged man with a receding hairline and pitted complexion, was listening anxiously to the crackling reports coming over his radio. It was mid-morning on Sept. 21.
Battalion 745 was heading his way.
Mr. Soares, a regional commander in East Timor's Falintil guerrilla army, had encountered Indonesian soldiers before, but this convoy was particularly menacing.
Soares knew that throughout East Timor, troops and allied militia groups had been destroying whatever they could, clearly trying to leave nothing behind but smoldering embers. But he'd also heard about the activities of Battalion 745 in previous days. Its focus, he says, "was to kill people, not to burn houses."
The convoy was nearing Laleia, a picturesque town with a pink, double-belfried church that overlooks a river valley filled with rice paddies. More importantly for Soares, Laleia was the turn-off to a Falintil camp in the rumpled hills of East Timor's interior. The guerrillas didn't know whether the convoy would pass by or turn inland and attack the camp. They tracked the 745's progress from lookout positions and passed the information along by radio.
Falintil's leaders had promised the UN, which had organized East Timor's Aug. 30 vote on independence, to abstain from violence. But the camp had to be defended. The guerrilla fighters began taking up positions on the Laleia side of the river. The area had long been a Falintil stronghold, a loyalty not lost on the 745.
The convoy approached slowly and stopped short of the 250-foot-long steel bridge spanning the river. Soldiers unloaded mortars, bazookas, and other weapons and took up positions along the road and river bank.
It's not clear who fired first. Battalion commander Yacob Sarosa says the Falintil ambushed his troops at Laleia. Soares - and Hermenegildo dos Santos, the former 745 sergeant - say the battalion's troops methodically prepared for a clash and then attacked. For nearly two hours, the two sides exchanged fire.
But the Falintil fighters were clearly out-gunned by 745's light artillery. They fanned out along the opposite side of the river, firing their rifles at the convoy, trying to dissuade the troops from attacking their camp. They only managed to wound a 745 soldier in the foot before ultimately pulling back into the cover of the surrounding hills.
Their own losses were greater. The 745's Major Sarosa counted four dead guerrillas. Soares says the four were wounded and have recovered.
Under orders to exit East Timor, the convoy did not take the turn-off to the Falintil camp after they crossed the bridge and entered Laleia. Instead, soldiers began searching the town.
They must have noticed that Beatriz Freitas's front door wasn't locked from the outside, because soldiers kicked it down. Meekly, her hands above her head, the small, fine-featured woman emerged from her hiding place at the back of the house. "They were very angry about something that happened at the bridge," says Freitas, who had heard the shooting and explosions herself.
She gave them her identity card and replied to the soldiers' questions gently and respectfully. She had thought her home would be a safe place. "I'm a woman, so they didn't kill me," she says.
Instead they set her house on fire and put her on the back of a truck with two young men they had apprehended in Laleia. Freitas says her fellow passengers were bruised, bloody, and very afraid.
Mr. dos Santos, the former 745 sergeant, says the troops believed the two men were pro-independence supporters and possibly Falintil members. Despite being beaten and tortured with a bayonet, he adds, they insisted they were traveling home to Baucau, having come from Dili.
All three were driven up the road to Manatutu and handed over to other Indonesian soldiers. Freitas was eventually taken to West Timor before finding her way back home. The two young men have never been seen again.
After the residents of Laleia returned from the hills, they found evidence of two killings they attribute to the convoy. A quarter mile east of the bridge, the charred chassis of a motorcycle lay by the side of the road. Several weeks later, a shepherd found the remains of a man's body, dumped into a hillside crevice, some 50 yards away.
When Francisca da Costa Ximenes returned to her family's house in Laleia, she had reason to fear for the life of her brother Francisco: There was blood, possibly his blood, on the floor of their house. The young man had stayed in the town while the rest of the family was up in the hills.
Searchers found Francisco's body at the bottom of a ravine that cuts close to the road heading toward Dili.
Friday, March 17, 2000
A Brutal Exit: Part 4 of 4
Welcome to Dili. ‘Don’t even tell your wives’ what you did.
Cameron W. Barr Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
DILI, EAST TIMOR
As Sander Thoenes pulled away from the Turismo Hotel on Sept. 21, perched on the back of a motorcycle taxi, he traveled through an eerie city.
The people were mostly gone, the buildings burned or demolished, the streets filled with rubble and garbage. The remains of a dog rotted in the late-afternoon heat. A few thousand refugees camped along the waterfront near the hotel.
Pro-Indonesia militia groups had terrorized the city following East Timor's rejection of Indonesian rule three weeks earlier. Dili's residents had fled to the hills or been shunted onto planes, trucks, and boats bound for West Timor, a part of Indonesia.
An international peacekeeping force had begun arriving the day before. The Australian-led troops were cautiously securing a few key points around the city. The atmosphere was tense.
No one knew how the militias or Indonesian soldiers would react to the influx of foreign troops. But Thoenes felt safe enough to take a quick look around the eastern Dili suburb of Becora.
Coincidentally, British reporter Jon Swain had set out in the same direction, an hour or so ahead of Thoenes. But on the outskirts of Becora, Mr. Swain was already regretting his decision.
Swain was sitting in a decrepit blue taxi with a photographer, an interpreter, and the car's driver. They were grinding their way up one of the hills that ring the East Timorese capital. The car was burning oil and losing power.
As the taxi crept along in search of a place to turn around, the rifle-toting motorcycle escorts of the Battalion 745 convoy swept into view. They quickly surrounded the taxi and began hurling insults and tugging on the doors. One gunman, using his rifle butt, struck driver Sanjo Ramos in the head with such force that he lost an eye.
Battalion commander Major Yacob Sarosa pulled up in his staff car. "These people are East Timorese too," he shouted at Swain and Chip Hires, the photographer, referring to the members of the convoy. "They are very angry, very angry with [the] UN and you Westerners. You must understand."
The soldiers forced Swain's interpreter, Anacleto Bendito da Silva, to climb aboard one of their trucks.
Battalion 745 Sgt. 2nd Class Hermenegildo dos Santos, riding in one of the last vehicles of the convoy, remembers passing the taxi, two Westerners, and the bleeding Mr. Ramos. The sergeant's yellow truck rumbled on to the Becora bus station, a few hundred yards down the road.
Most of the convoy waited there while some of the motorcycle riders and officers menaced the journalists. Finally, one soldier shot the tires and radiator of the taxi and told Swain and Hires to "go, go!" They ran for their lives.
At 4:53 p.m., hiding in the undergrowth near the road, Swain used his cellular phone to call for help.
The convoy reassembled and began moving along the main Becora road. Like Dili, its buildings were mostly gutted.
Having heard the Australians were on the ground, Helio Goncalves de Oliveira had come down from the hills and was hiding near the bus station when he saw the escorts: armed, uniformed men brandishing flags of red and white the Indonesian colors.
Any East Timorese would have known to lie low, and Mr. de Oliveira did so. "The soldiers on motorcycles weren't shooting, but those in the trucks were," he recalls.
A square-faced young man with bristly hair, he says the 745 soldiers killed his brother's friend Manuel Andreas by shooting him in the back as he ran down a side street away from the convoy.
Residents say that soldiers from another unit later rolled the body into a drainage ditch.
Shortly after Swain began calling for help, Thoenes and his driver, Florindo da Conceicao Araujo, put themselves on a collision course with Battalion 745.
Tooling along the main road, Mr. Araujo suddenly saw six soldiers on three motorcycles coming straight at them. Some were holding guns and shouting, ordering him to stop.
Araujo yelled for Thoenes to hang on and spun the bike around.
But the soldiers quickly closed the distance and began firing. He later told reporters that he lost control of his motorcycle, sending him and his passenger skidding along the asphalt.
He scrambled to his feet, heard soldiers yelling "kill him," and took off on foot away from the road. He glanced back. Thoenes was lying on the pavement. There was nothing he could do, except run.
Alexandre Estevao, a Becora farmer, was eating a mango by the side of the road when he saw the soldiers shooting at Araujo and Thoenes. He quickly ducked behind a water tank.
Toward the rear of the convoy, Sgt. dos Santos's vehicle drew to halt near the Becora church. He had no idea why. Peering ahead in the gathering dusk, he saw a motorcycle lying on its side.
He also recalls that soldiers from a middle vehicle of the convoy had taken hold of a man, but dos Santos couldn't see him clearly. A Westerner? A Timorese? The distance was too great and the light too weak.
Mr. Estevao had a closer vantage point from behind the water tank. He saw 745 soldiers drag Thoenes's unconscious body off the road and into an area with a few abandoned shacks and shade trees.
Gregory Cavanagh, the Australian coroner who investigated the case, concludes that Thoenes was shot and killed in this spot. Afterward, assailants cut off his left ear and part of his face.
"I find that on all of the evidence available thus far," Mr. Cavanagh wrote in a report released in January, "it is probable that a member or members of the 745 Battalion … shot the deceased.
However, in the absence of full witness availability and without an examination and cross-examination of those witnesses from that Battalion, I am unable to completely discount the possibility that the assailant or assailants were not TNI but person(s) dressed in the uniform of the TNI…." The acronym refers to the Indonesian military.
A Dutch investigator and an Australian military policeman, in a confidential set of draft conclusions dated Nov. 10, 1999, were more unequivocal: "It can be concluded… [that] Sander Thoenes was killed by a military [sic] of TNI Battalion 745 with a shot in the back."
After halting in front of the church, dos Santos says, the convoy departed and reached the Indonesian military headquarters in Dili in a few minutes.
Col. Muhammad Noer Muis, the commander, briefed the 745 soldiers. "Welcome," he told them. "We have a lot of food here, so eat some. After the vehicles are refueled, you will continue. But you don't need to tell anyone about what you have done on your way here. Don't even tell your wives. From Dili to Kupang the way is safe, so you will not need to open fire."
At the headquarters, dos Santos saw a group of his fellow soldiers beating Mr. da Silva, Swain's interpreter. Dos Santos never saw da Silva again. Neither has the man's family.
Later that evening, the Battalion 745 convoy passed through an Australian checkpoint on the way out of Dili and spent the night near the West Timor border. Shortly before midnight, Swain and Hires were rescued by Australian troops.
The next day, Becora residents took foreign journalists to see the body of a white man they had discovered. It was Thoenes. Swain went back to Becora and found his wounded driver.
The Battalion 745 convoy made its way to Kupang, the capital of the Indonesian province that adjoins East Timor.
Dos Santos is the only member of the battalion known to have returned to East Timor. The rest have been assigned to other units of the Indonesian military.
Battalion 745 will be officially disbanded at the end of this month.
Interview/Battalion 745 Commander 'There was no violence.'
Cameron W. Barr
Battalion 745 Commander Lt. Col. Yacob Sarosa denies that his troops murdered any civilians as they pulled out of East Timor last September.
In an interview this January, he and Col. Muhammad Noer Muis, commander of the Indonesian military's Dili headquarters last September, said that the convoy repeatedly came under fire from pro-independence guerrillas. The 745 soldiers only used their guns in response to attacks.
Hermenegildo dos Santos, the former 745 sergeant, describes the atmosphere on the convoy as happy, but Colonel Sarosa says his troops were angry. "We were emotional," he says. "We just suspected everyone. We felt that everyone could attack us, could ambush us."
Sarosa attended Indonesia's military academy and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in 1984. The military selected him for special training in the US, and he spent six months at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1990. He held the rank of major during the events of September 1999, but was later promoted.
Wearing slacks, a short-sleeved blue oxford shirt, and a watch that says Rolex, he denies his soldiers killed pro-independence supporters near Los Palos or civilians in Buruma and Caibada. "It's not true," he says.
A trim, youthful man with the narrow face and pointy chin typical of Indonesians from Java, Sarosa says he encouraged his troops to be neutral and to respect the outcome of East Timor's vote on independence.
He says he did not tell his soldiers to "destroy everything" if East Timorese rejected Indonesian rule and did not hear Lieutenant Camilo say to convoy members: "If you find anything on the way, just shoot it."
He has no comment about the allegation that the convoy abducted and tortured two young men at Laleia who were suspected of belonging to the Falintil guerrilla army. He has a similar response when told that Laleia residents say the convoy murdered two other men as it passed through the town: "I have not heard those stories."
The two officers acknowledge the convoy's encounter with British reporter Jon Swain and his colleagues in Becora. Colonel Muis says he put two of Sarosa's lieutenants in detention for two weeks for taking the journalists' gear and for shooting the tires of the taxi. He had Sarosa jailed for a week for failing to maintain discipline.
But Sarosa denies that Swain's driver was brutalized and that his interpreter was abducted. "There was no violence," Sarosa says, adding, "I left them in good condition." He had no comment about the allegation that soldiers shot Manuel Andreas, a Becora resident.
Regarding the killing of Sander Thoenes, the two officers are adamant that Battalion 745 was not involved, suggesting that "local people" murdered the reporter.
Sarosa dismisses the account of Becora farmer Alexandre Estevao, who says he saw Battalion 745 troops shooting at Thoenes and his driver and then dragging Thoenes away from the road. He also denies the statement by Mr. dos Santos, who was on the convoy, that the vehicles halted near where Thoenes's body was found.
"No," says Sarosa. In between the encounter with Swain and the arrival at the military headquarters in Dili, "the convoy did not stop."
Sarosa and Muis agreed to an interview on the condition that the Monitor seek additional comment from senior military officers in Jakarta. Those officials refused interviews, despite numerous written requests summarizing the accusations against the 745.
At the end of the interview, Muis leaned across the table for emphasis. "You've got to believe that what we've said is the truth."
The politics of justice in E. Timor
Cameron W. Barr
Whether justice can be served in East Timor depends in large part on politics in Indonesia, the territory's former occupier.
On Jan. 31 the Indonesian Com-mission for Human Rights Violations in East Timor concluded Indonesia's former armed forces chief, Gen. Wiranto, "must ... bear responsibility" for systematic crimes against humanity in the territory.
The government commission named 33 pro-Indonesia East Timorese leaders and Indonesian officers and soldiers as being "suspected of involvement" in these crimes. They include Dili regional commander Col. Muhammad Noer Muis and Lt. Col. Jacob Sarosa, the Battalion 745 commander.
Indonesia's attorney general is now deciding whether the government should prosecute its own military. Politically powerful generals are fighting this effort and deny any responsibility for the violence. "We supported the ballot [which was] carried out successfully and also declared martial law to prevent human rights abuses occurring in East Timor," Wiranto said recently.
President Abdurrahman Wahid suspended Wiranto from a Cabinet post following the commission's report, but Mr. Wahid has also said he will pardon the general if he is ever convicted of crimes.
Wahid has used the East Timor issue as leverage in his fight to push the generals out of politics. In that sense, the past violence in East Timor is contributing to the democratization of Indonesia.
But "nationalism will rear its head if [Wahid] pushes too hard,'' warns Kusmanto Anggoro, an analyst at Jakarta's Center for Strategic and International Studies. He expects a trial will be held, but Wiranto will be spared. "They'll go after a few on-the-ground commanders. I don't think they'll have the clout to go higher.''
"Having given a pardon to Wiranto," says Bob Lowry, an Australian expert on the Indonesian military, "it would seem very, very difficult to go down the line and put anyone in jail."
The UN and the US threaten to push for an international human rights tribunal if Indonesia doesn't bring those responsible for the chaos in East Timor to justice.
Meanwhile, in Dili, UN investigators are struggling with their caseload. They say at least 500 murders took place last September. "The number could be much higher," says Sydney Jones, director of the UN human rights office in East Timor.
Dan Murphy contributed to this report from Jakarta.