Subject: Times Feature: From Hell to Hope in Two Years

Sunday Times (London) April 7, 2002


From Hell to Hope in Two Years

In 1999 Jon Swain's interpreter was shot by troops in East Timor. He returned to testify against the Indonesian killers and found a nation reborn

By Jon Swain

The five-year-old girl in a pinafore with a red ribbon in her hair scampered down the muddy path, calling to her mother to come outside. Out of the doorway of a simple wooden house on stilts stepped a small, fragile, dark-skinned woman, her hair bunched behind her head, holding a baby in her arms. She paused in the sunlight when she recognised me. Then she came forward with downcast eyes and finally smiled shyly.

They say that time has a way of soothing suffering. Perhaps it is true in the case of East Timor where grass has grown over graves and new children have been born since the devastating days of September 1999. As I looked at the smile on the face of Maria Pinto da Silva and at her daughter Marianna playing tag with other children I hoped it was true.

I was both sad and eager to meet the da Silvas again because our lives had fatally impacted one bright but terrible afternoon 2A years ago. In September 1999, when Marianna was three and Maria was pregnant with the baby girl she was now holding in her arms, East Timor had been destroyed in a wave of arson, killing and looting.

The destruction carried out by a vengeful Indonesian army and mobs of pro-Indonesian military groups secretly formed by the army had followed East Timor's overwhelming rejection of continued Indonesian rule in a United Nations-sponsored referendum in August. It had led to the murder of the head of the da Silva family when, in one of the bitterest and most frightening moments of my life, Indonesian soldiers from the notorious Battalion 745 had attacked my car on a road outside Dili within 24 hours of my arrival in the capital.

Chip Hires, an American photographer, and I barely escaped with our lives. Sanjo Ramos, my driver, was blinded in his right eye by a blow from a rifle butt as he sat at the wheel of the decrepit blue taxi. Anacleto Bendito da Silva, Marianna's father, who was my interpreter, was led away at gunpoint. He has not been seen or heard from since. I have thought long about that day and tried to understand the tragic impact a chance encounter with two white strangers - Hires and me - had on Maria's innocent Timorese family.

The attack had happened solely because both her husband and Sanjo were working for westerners. Battalion 745 was an Indonesian territorial army unit composed of Timorese fiercely loyal to the idea of East Timor remaining part of Indonesia. The soldiers blamed the UN and thus any westerners they came across for East Timor's pro-independence referendum vote and vented their fury on us.

Now that I was back again in Dili to give evidence about the battalion's crimes for a possible human rights trial in Indonesia, the anguish was reborn. Maria has named Marianna's baby sister, born a few months after Anacleto's disappearance, Anacleta, after the father she will never see. Together the two girls survive in a new world of peace as East Timor prepares to set its own course in freedom. On May 20 it will become independent after nearly 2A years under an interim UN administration, the first new nation of the 21st century. The transformation is amazing. But without justice there will be no proper healing.

The Dili I found now and the Dili I had seen then in ruins are separated by a short time but an eternity in mood. When I was here in 1999 the seaside capital was an eerie vision of hell: row upon row of charred and twisted remains of houses, streets empty, refugees crowded in a giant camp on the beach. Dili has risen from the ashes to become a place of hope again, impoverished but at peace.

It is a small city, all white and quiet, stretched between green mountains wreathed in mist and the Pacific Ocean. Banyan trees line the seafront. From a headland an enormous Christ blesses the city. A multitude of ethnic restaurants cater for the UN and its army of foreign staff. It is friendly, pleasant and, now, blessedly dull.

Maria Pinto's family is coping quite well. But Sanjo Ramos, my blinded driver, complains of headaches and says the memory of the attack still rages in his head. He will never be the same man again.

Maria runs a small shop from her home selling sweets and groceries. As we talked I noticed an abiding sadness in Maria - one that is repeated again and again in bereaved families across this island. There is not a family in East Timor that has not suffered from Indonesia's harsh occupation. Between 1975 - when the world's fourth most populous nation annexed the tiny island after 450 years of neglectful Portuguese colonial rule - and the UN military intervention in September 1999, an estimated 200,000 people, a quarter of the population, died as Indonesia tried to subdue resistance.

It is part of Timorese culture to bury the dead properly. Maria said she accepts that Anacleto was murdered. But until she can find out where her husband's remains are she cannot hold a mass and pay him the respects required by Timorese Catholic tradition. "I dream sometimes that he has been killed and his body thrown into the sea and eaten by the sharks," she told me as we sat in the shade. It sounds exaggerated, but disposal of bodies in the sea was one way the Indonesian military liked to conceal its crimes.

The evidence to reveal who killed her husband and how is available if only the Indonesians were prepared to act. Since 1999 Indonesian military authorities have tried hard to avoid the army being held legally responsible for any of the slaughter in East Timor. But there is a chance of progress now.

Under unrelenting pressure from the Dutch, the Indonesian government has been forced to send an investigative team to Dili to take statements for a possible trial by a special court set up to hear cases of human rights abuses in East Timor. Nine witnesses, including me, gave evidence. We should know the outcome of the investigation fairly soon.

The case for which I came to Dili to testify was one that interested the Dutch particularly - the murder of Sander Thoenes, a Dutch journalist working for the Financial Times and the Christian Science Monitor, who was shot close to where we were attacked. Timing and eyewitness accounts point to his killers being the same soldiers from Battalion 745 who had killed nearly two dozen defenceless civilians in the preceding days and had attacked us just minutes before.

They had gunned down Thoenes, 30, while he was perched on the back of a motorbike taxi riding through the Dili suburb of Becora. His driver Florindo escaped and also testified to the investigative team. One person in particular was singled out; he is Camilo de Santos, a former lieutenant. The faded photocopied image of his proud features beneath an Indonesian army beret made all who remember him shudder. The last time I saw him there was a wild look in his eyes: the look of a man about to kill.

In a place where so many East Timorese have suffered so bitterly, where tens of thousands have died under brutal Indonesian occupation, it is legitimate to ask why the death of one westerner should command so much attention. It should not, of course. Common humanity tells us that the killing of a Timorese should be no less important than that of a European.

However, the Thoenes case is the best chance to bring members of Battalion 745 to justice. "It can be concluded ... Sander Thoenes was killed by a military of TNI Battalion 745 with a shot in the back," Dutch and UN war crimes investigators said. Gerrit Thiry, a Dutch police officer investigating the case, publicly named de Santos as the prime murder suspect.

What has been established is that Battalion 745 marked its passage out of East Timor with a trail of bodies and destruction. Its withdrawal started several days before September 21 at its headquarters in Los Palos, a small market town in the east of the island. The harsh tone was set by Major Yacob Sarosa, a Javanese officer trained by the Americans at Fort Benning, Georgia. He ordered his men to "destroy everything" if the East Timorese rejected Indonesian rule in the referendum, as they did.

Taking him at his word, the soldiers ransacked their barracks and set fire to the town, leaving a tangle of corpses stuffed down a well inside their compound. As they were preparing to leave Los Palos, a lieutenant told his fellow soldiers: "If you find anything on the way, just shoot it." Hermenegildo dos Santos, a former sergeant, told the Indonesian investigators that the lieutenant who gave this order was Camilo de Santos and he gave it in earshot of Sarosa.

Probably the first victim of the battalion's withdrawal was Ambrosio Alves who was seized from the village of Asalaino, beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave. Other victims shot along the coast road to Dili were burnt in ditches or thrown into gullies by the soldiers. The battalion's last full day in East Timor was September 21, when it reached Dili. It marked its passage by a gruesome reign of terror.

On its way to the capital, the battalion adopted scorched earth tactics, setting fire to nearly every village it passed through. Two brothers who had the misfortune to ride straight into the convoy were chased into the fields and shot. One was bayoneted as he lay wounded on the ground. Soon afterwards a woman was blasted in the chest with a shotgun; another was machinegunned while hiding behind a bush. Further on, a teacher was shot when he emerged from his house, thinking the convoy had passed and he was safe.

Oblivious to Battalion 745's violent spree, Hires and I had set out that day in our taxi to take a look around the suburb of Becora. We had gone a few hundred yards beyond the suburb when the convoy roared into view. We were surrounded and attacked by a phalanx of rifle-toting men on motorbikes.

Anacleto was dragged out and slung against the car while his ID was checked. Sanjo was hit on the head with a rifle, a blow that destroyed his right eye. We appealed to an officer I now know to be Sarosa for help but he gave none. We pleaded with the soldiers to let Anacleto go, but they took him at gunpoint and put him in a truck with other prisoners. One of the soldiers involved was de Santos.

When a few minutes later the soldiers opened fire on our car, Sanjo, Hires and I managed to jump out and hide in the bushes. At a safe distance from the road I used my cellular phone to alert The Sunday Times in London, making two calls. We were told the Australian army was on its way. Gunfire, fast and incessant, came from Becora, where we wanted to go. It died away but after a pause there were a few more shots and finally silence.

We crept and crawled our way back to Becora in the darkness. As we hid in a house shortly before midnight an Australian armoured personnel carrier rumbled up the road. With one accord we ran towards it. We were saved. It was only the next morning that I realised we had been hiding close to where the corpse of Thoenes, torn by gunfire, lay. The shots we had heard were from members of Battalion 745 shooting him dead.

My testimony proves that Sarosa's version of events that afternoon is incorrect. Sarosa has insisted that his battalion killed no civilians. He said no battalion vehicles halted near where Thoenes's body was found and that between the violent encounter with us and the arrival of the battalion at military headquarters in central Dili, a journey of nine minutes, "the convoy did not stop". But the calls for help I made to London were officially timed at 4.50pm and 4.53pm, while television footage times the battalion's arrival at headquarters as 6pm. There is a missing hour.

Corroborative evidence comes from Alexandre Estevao, a farmer from Becora, who told the inquiry that he saw Battalion 745 troops shoot Thoenes off the back of his motorbike. Two uniformed Indonesian soldiers went up to the body and pointed their rifles at it. There were shots. He identified de Santos as one of the two soldiers who pointed his weapon at Thoenes.

Promoted from major to lieutenant-colonel, Sarosa today is district military chief in Bali. Battalion 745 is disbanded. Many of its soldiers, including de Santos, are in West Timor, the Indonesian-controlled half of the island beyond East Timorese legal jurisdiction.

De Santos, I am told, has a dream of coming home to Los Palos to live in peace. Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's great guerrilla leader and soon to be its first president, has spoken openly of healing and reconciliation between East Timorese. He recently met the lieutenant at border talks. The thuggish de Santos cried like a child and begged to be allowed home.

at the moment, even delivering justice to those who killed unarmed and helpless people in 1999 is proving almost impossible - let alone offers of pardon or amnesty. In a milestone trial in East Timor, the UN administration sentenced a number of militia members to long prison terms for crimes against humanity. But for justice to be done Indonesia must bring members of Battalion 745 to trial. Indonesian prosecutors have indicted 19 people as suspects in killings; none belong to Battalion 745.

When the battalion reached military headquarters in Dili it was briefed by Colonel Muhammad Noer Muis, the Dili force commander. "Welcome to Dili," the colonel said. "After the vehicles are refuelled, 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."

Hermenegildo dos Santos, the former battalion sergeant, has testified that he saw soldiers beating Anacleto on the parade ground. He never saw my interpreter again.

Much as the Indonesian authorities may continue to try to consign to oblivion the murders committed by Battalion 745, the issue of bringing its killers to justice must not be allowed to disappear. Only then will we know the truth of how Anacleto died. Only then perhaps can Maria be persuaded to hold a mass and bring closure to her grief.

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