Subject: PJStar: Story on U.S. policemen shot last year in E Timor

It was like being lost in paradise 8/13/2000 Peoria (IL) Journal Star

Earl Candler crouched in the passenger seat and pressed hard against the spot on his bloodied left side where the pain gathered, blossomed and burned. With the Land Rover shot full of holes and bouncing wildly on its rims - and the bullets still flying - his mind flipped frantically between two distinct thoughts.

One physical:

"I held my side, but I knew not to look at it because if I did I was sure I would go into shock and probably black out," Candler said.

One spiritual:

"And I was talking to God. I said, 'I've got two daughters who need me. Please, God, don't take me yet. I'm not going out like this. Not here. Not now."

It has been almost a year since Candler, 41, of Pekin made international news for getting shot in the stomach in a place as obscure and remote, from an American perspective anyway, as any location on the planet. Unlike other global hot spots, East Timor, Indonesia, never imprinted itself in this country's consciousness.

But as it turned out, Candler, a 16-year veteran of the Illinois State Police, probably would have been safer serving in higher-profile danger zones such as Bosnia and Kosovo.

Instead, his voluntary tour of duty as a United Nations peacekeeper landed him in the jungles of a bedraggled island nation suffering the birthing pains of independence from a country unwilling to hand it over. Candler might have lasted a year in the Balkans; he departed East Timor after six weeks with a machine-gun bullet in his lung and a hole in his belly where a second passed through.

"I was supposed to go to Kosovo, actually, but there was a delay in shipping us out," Candler said. "But someone came in one day and said there was an opening for East Timor and did anybody want it. I said 'Where's it at?' He said 'Just north of Australia.' And I said, 'OK, I'll go.'"

Protecting world

So how does an ex-Marine, a veteran state trooper with highway and investigations experience and five years with the Multi-county Narcotics Enforcement Group (and a shaved-headed, 250-pound divorced father of two) wind up helping make East Timor free to govern itself? And nearly get killed in the process?

Candler's collision course with the far-flung adventure began in mid-1999. Wounded by a pending and painful divorce, and anxious to put some distance between the unpleasantness and himself, he jumped at a chance for a year's leave of absence when a company called DynCorp sent out a nationwide recruiting call for police officers. Under contract with the State Department, the company - located in Fort Worth, Texas - hires, trains and dispatches officers for service with the United Nations International Police Task Force.

"It all happened at a perfect time for me," Candler said. "It gave me an opportunity to do something to help others, right when I needed a place to go. It was almost like I had a calling or something."

Candler trained in Texas for Kosovo, but rather than wait out an unanticipated delay, opted for East Timor when a spot opened there.

"I got a crash course in cultural differences and on what was going on over there," Candler said.

And he left the next day: Dallas to Los Angeles to Sydney to Darwin to Dili, the capital of East Timor. The final leg was on a U.N. C-130 transport plane. Candler was the only passenger.

It's like paradise

"East Timor is naturally beautiful, like paradise," Candler said. "But then you look around, and it's like a tropical resort that has been left untouched to deteriorate for 25 years or so."

Located in the Indian Ocean between Australia and the larger, more recognizable island of Indonesia, East Timor has been the subject of U.N. attention since 1960, according to information available on the U.N. Web site ( At that time, it was administered by Portugal. In 1974, Portugal tried to set up a provisional government, but the people of East Timor - united in their opposition to Portugal but split between those who wanted independence and those who advocated integration with Indonesia - dissolved into civil war.

Portugal withdrew but still held claim to the area. East Timor eventually became Indonesia's 27th province, but the issue of independence never went away.

Beginning in 1982, the United Nations held regular talks with Indonesia and Portugal, hoping to resolve the status of East Timor. Finally, in 1998, Indonesia agreed to limited autonomy for East Timor, and on May 5, 1999, agreed to put the issue to a vote of the people. It was that vote and the potential for buckets of civil unrest and violence in its aftermath that brought Candler and his colleagues to East Timor.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Candler spent much of his time in Dili helping local representatives register and educate voters. Unarmed and dressed in the U.N. police uniform that included the identifying light blue armband and matching beret, he saw his mission as providing protection to an understandably timid electorate, helping keep the process honest. He also escorted teams of election officials to villages outside of Dili to help explain the ballot question to residents. Violence against U.N. personnel was thought to be unlikely, given the negative worldwide attention it would bring the Indonesian government.

John Miller, the spokesman for the East Timor Action Network in New York City, was in Dili at the same time and for many of the same reasons.

"Dili seemed pretty calm and peaceful, but that was mostly due to the huge foreign presence there, including the police delegations that Earl was with," Miller said. "But you could see, as time went on, that the situation quickly deteriorated."

Who's on whose side

Here's why. The Indonesian government, by most accounts and despite its international stance, was not interested in handing the East Timorese their independence, Miller said. But because the world was watching, the official Indonesian military had to appear impartial. The job of stirring dissent and intimidating voters fell to the ragtag militia groups, Miller said, groups that operated with the wink-and-a-nod approval of the Indonesian military.

Miller said the Indonesian military and militia groups actually were on the same side of the street where opposition to independence lived.

"There were many reports of people seeing someone changing from the uniform of the Indonesian military into a T-shirt or headband that would identify them as a member of a militia group," Miller said.

Candler watched groups of militia - armed with homemade rifles and guns that were far less menacing than the automatic weapons of the Indonesian military - sit for hours across from polling places and stare down those who entered to register. Machine-gun fire and bursts from homemade weapons were common during the night. In the mornings that followed came the reports of the missing and the murdered.

"The militia were mostly young rabble-rousers, drunk half the time," Candler said. "They were there to create the havoc to make it look like there was opposition to independence and throw a scare into the pro-independence people, who were pretty scared already."

For days, Candler watched an old woman lurk in the background of the polling place he helped monitor. On the last day, she entered the building and registered.

"That was really interesting to see," Candler said. "Obviously, it took a lot of courage to do that."

People speak

The vote took place on Aug. 30, 1999. The United Nations had registered 451,792 potential voters among the population of more than 800,000 in East Timor and abroad. More than 98 percent of those people went to the polls that day, 78.5 percent of them voting to begin the process toward independence.

"People were so excited to vote," Candler said. "The polls opened at 6 a.m. and everyone was done voting by 9 a.m. There was a lot of pushing and shoving going on, but it was happy pushing and shoving."

The actual count wasn't announced for several days. During that time, Candler was reassigned to an interior jungle village with 14 other U.N. police officers, each as unarmed as the next. The village, Liquica, was a known militia hotbed and the scene of a massacre in a church courtyard, where as many as 100 people were killed the previous April.

The U.N. group stayed in a one-room home in the center of the village by night and at ashaggy fence-encased compound by day. During the days that led to the announcement of the vote, the village became increasingly unfriendly toward the outsiders. The impending sense of danger was punctuated nightly by bursts of automatic weapon fire.

And the occasional scream in the dark.

"The night before the vote was announced, a little boy about 8 years old who would come and visit us tipped us off that the situation was about to get bad. He didn't know how bad. Just bad," Candler said. "We didn't know who to believe in that village, but we believed him. He was pure of heart. Very well likely that he is dead now."

The U.N. group gathered at the compound on the morning of Sept. 4, with a shared sense of foreboding and anticipating the announcement of the vote. They were certain enough of trouble to devise an escape plan.

The escape plan

"We parked all our vehicles behind the building and knocked down a section of the fence in the back so that we could escape in that direction," Candler said.

The newly created back-door exit opened onto a field, through a ditch and then a dirt road they hoped was a safe distance from the compound. The plan was to bust out in the event of trouble and head for the village police station several miles away. There was one major problem with the plan, and they all knew it.

"The police chief had already told us he could no longer guarantee our protection," Candler said. "We had no idea whether the police chief was a good guy or a bad guy."

They were fortunate to have a plan.

At about 9 a.m., the Indonesian president addressed the people of East Timor by radio. The U.N. police officers listened intently in a room in the raggedy compound, in a suddenly creepy jungle village of about 1,000 residents, 20 miles of hard driving from the nearest city, Dili, which was really no city at all. That there were militia roadblocks between Liquica and Dili, manned by volatile and unpredictable paramilitary types, was certain. How many was not.

Violence begins

By an overwhelming majority, the voters desire their independence, the president said. In Liquica, the silence that followed the announcement was as frightening as the night screams.

Then they noticed the fires.

"I'd say it was about 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. when we started seeing smoke from fires in the area and hearing more frequent gun shots," Candler said. "And they kept getting closer until it was about a block away, and we'd hear screams followed by silence. Everybody was on edge, and with no weapons to protect ourselves, it was really a helpless feeling."

The members of the U.N. unit stood outside in back as the sense of danger increased. What Candler described as a big yellow coffee truck pulled up in front of the U.N. buildings and stopped. A small group of militia men stood next to it. The compound filled with smoke.

"All of a sudden we were under attack," Candler said. "Battle yells, guns firing, bullets flying, the whole deal."

The U.N. police officers sprinted for one of the six pre-assigned Land Rovers. Candler estimated there were about 20 to 25 members of the militia waving machetes, throwing rocks and blasting rounds from their homemade rifles. In a matter of seconds, the U.N. convoy was headed out of the hole in the back fence, but in the direction of even deeper trouble.

Slow-motion getaway

"I was afraid, but there was no time to concentrate on the fear," Candler said.

Candler's Land Rover was third in line. As they all hit the field, and then the dirt road on the way to the police station, they were still taking fire. Candler held a bullet-resistant vest up against the passenger window. The noise was deafening: The vehicles were bullet-pocked, window-busted wrecks, making a slow-motion get-away at 30-miles-per-hour on punctured tires. Candler managed a look at the scene through the windshield and plainly saw a man standing in the road 75 yards ahead, with an Indonesian military uniform on his back and an AK-47 in his grip.

He was clearly locking, loading and preparing to fire," Candler said. "Everything was happening real fast at this point. I thought for a split second that maybe he was a good guy, but then he was pointing down at us and started shooting."

Candler and the driver ducked as low as they could go as bullets pounded through the Land Rover. A blast of pain, like being whacked with a fully swung hammer, exploded on Candler's left side. He reached down and touched blood.

"I've been hit," Candler shouted. The driver repeated a one-syllable swear word in rapid succession and kept the Land Rover lurching in the direction of the police station. Candler started his conversation with God.

Help is on way

"I thought, 'This is it. I enjoyed life for the most part - there were some ups and downs - but things were finally starting to go well, and now this,'" Candler said.

He continued the conversation as the Land Rover parade pulled in - smoking like a house fire - and stopped next to the police station. Several of the unit members dragged Candler from his car and carried him inside, where they dropped him on a table. Someone radioed Dili U.N. headquarters and was told help was a helicopter ride away.

The situation was still far from stable. Someone tore down a door inside the police station for use as a stretcher and rolled Candler onto it as a helicopter landed outside. Eight people helped lift the door with Candler on it. They were two-thirds of the way there when someone shouted that the helicopter was Indonesian. The group retreated to the relative safety of the police station.

Minutes later a second helicopter, this one with U.N. markings, landed. A U.N. nurse emerged, ducked beneath the chopper's rotating blades, and ran inside through a new volley of gunfire. She gripped Candler's hand as his colleagues carried him, still atop the door, back through the bullets and onto the waiting air ambulance. It lifted above the chaos and bolted for Dili. Four hours later, he was in surgery in a Darwin, Australia, hospital.

What was the gain?

"I can't explain it, but I couldn't relax until I got to Darwin," Candler said. "But I knew if I could get out of East Timor and into a real hospital I would be OK. That's why I didn't want any pain medication or why I wouldn't let them put me under (anesthesia) until then."

John Miller has trouble explaining the Liquica raid. In many ways, it makes no sense. The militia and the Indonesian military had nothing to gain and everything to lose by harming a U.N. peacekeeper, especially one from the United States. But, Miller suspects, since the government miscalculated the result of the vote so completely, maybe it was using the U.N. unit in Liquica as a case to test the world's reaction and to send a warning to the people of East Timor.

"Clearly, Earl's group was targeted," Miller said. "But for what reason? Maybe it was the price to pay for the vote or just overconfidence about what would happen when the vote was announced. The attack made it clear that there were a number of militia leaders and portions of the Indonesian military that haven't given up."

Eager for closure

East Timor is rebuilding after a year of tumult. The violence forced 270,000 East Timorese from their homes. To date, tens of thousands remain displaced. According to the United Nations, some 150,000 people have returned to East Timor since last October. Miller said as many as 1,500 people were believed to have been killed as a direct result of the voting process. A Human Rights Commission is looking to prosecute members of the Indonesian military for crimes against humanity.

"Prosecutions won't bring back the dead, undo the damage to buildings, lives and property, or give back Earl his health or his time in the hospital," Miller said. "But it certainly sends the message to the military to leave those people alone."

Candler is back at work with the state police. He spent more than two weeks in the Darwin hospital, a couple more weeks in Australia, and then flew home, free from his DynCorp obligation. He has a wicked purple gash that curves from his left side toward his torso, and another one that snakes up his belly. The physical effects of the shooting are minimal.

The emotional ones have lasted the year. "I don't think I'll ever go off on another similar adventure," Candler said. "But I would someday like to go back to East Timor and get some kind of closure."

Copyright © Peoria Journal Star, Peoria, Illinois U.S.A. 

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