Subject: Professor fights to save Timor records

Professor fights to save records


The archives are stashed in a building in Dili, the capital of East Timor, protected only by a padlock. A few security guards surround the building, but they do not compare to the potential power of an armed gang of looters.

The 600 hours of audiotape resurrect testimonies of a violent, turbulent past.

The 1,000 hours of video document memories of the deaths by murder and starvation.The hundreds of thousands of pages of documents describe 25 years of crime and injustice at the hands of military units. To Geoffrey Robinson, these are records that transcend documented words or images, and become unforgotten relics of the conflict East Timor experienced while under the control of the Indonesian army, which began in 1975 and lasted through 1999.

In 1999, as a part of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, Robinson, now a UCLA history professor, traveled to East Timor to assess the political situation in the months before the nation's vote to become independent from Indonesia.

The records Robinson compiled during his time in East Timor have contributed to a larger record of archives collected by the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, which collects records of the 25-year Indonesian occupation of East Timor.

Those records allege that political turmoil during the reign of the Indonesian Army led to the deaths of 200,000 East Timorese, nearly a third of the population.

While the U.N. never accused the Indonesian government of any crimes against East Timorese civilians, it did acknowledge that some Indonesian troops participated in such crimes, and that the Indonesian government did not effectively respond to the situation.

In September 1999, 78.5 percent of registered voters approved a referendum for East Timor's independence from Indonesia.

Robinson is leading the archival preservation project, funded by a grant given by the British Library.

Next week, Robinson will return to East Timor to help digitalize and copy these fragile records and help preserve what he said he hopes the world will never forget.

A dark side to the romance

He was lured by the foreign culture and exotic aura that surrounded Southeast Asia, but he found there was a dark side to the romance. It was a dark side people rarely spoke about.

In 1975, Indonesia instigated a military campaign against East Timor and took control of the country, which had recently been abandoned by Portugal, its former colonizing power.

During the occupation, about 200,000 people were killed, either at the hands of some members of the military or by starvation, according to the human rights organization Amnesty International.

"The Indonesian military was strong and powerful and largely got its way through group force," said John Miller, national coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network.

Professor Geoffrey Robinson traveled to East Timor in 1999 as part of the United Nations Political Affairs Office. He will be returning this October to head a project to digitalize the country's archives.

This part of history piqued Robinson's interest, since little was known at the time about the conflict because the Indonesian government had limited outside visitors, including Robinson, from coming into the region.

"That's what I began to see as interesting, that untold story," Robinson said. "I was troubled and intrigued by that isolation."

He said during this time political dissidents used different identities so the government would not be able to track them down. Letters were smuggled to family and friends outside the nation.

University students began collecting information about the human rights situation and sending it to human rights organizations all around the globe.

But in the 1980s, broad resistance began gaining speed.

With increasing pressure from the international community, Indonesia agreed to allow a vote to decide whether East Timor would become independent, and in 1999 the population voted overwhelmingly for independence.

Path to independence

In 1998, Robinson was finally able to travel to a country he had seen little of, but would soon devote his time and work to.

That summer, anything seemed possible. The Indonesian prime minister had stepped down and Robinson said human rights and democracy in East Timor seemed reachable.

But when he went back in the summer of 1999 as part of the U.N. to help oversee the stability of the country in time for the independence referendum, things were different.

"I had a lot of hope and optimism that things had finally changed. But as the summer wore on, ... as the referendum was getting prepared, it was clear that things had not changed that much," Robinson said.

He said he saw the military everywhere he went. To them, East Timor was still a part of Indonesia, and any means, including violence, to deter people from voting for independence would be taken, he said.

With 30,000 Indonesian policing East Timor's 750,000 civilians, Robinson said the military presence seemed insurmountable.

"There was serious military presence everywhere you went," Robinson said.

In his work with the U.N., he would talk to 50 to 60 people a day and listen to each of their stories, to gather testimonies and records from people around the country and their experiences with the military government.

"We were trying to get a sense of what was really happening on the ground," Robinson said.

So people would write. They would travel from far distances, for a chance to tell the U.N. workers their story.

But to Robinson, the most striking events would happen later, as the referendum date drew closer.

Before the referendum, Robinson had received a telephone call from a family who said their son had been killed that day, asking if anyone from the U.N. would be able to transport the family to a military hospital.

Robinson decided to help the family collect the body of their son.

"I thought to myself, well, we can't let the family not get their son. Maybe, by just being there, we could be of some help," Robinson said.

And as they loaded the body into the back of a pick-up truck, he began to wonder what would have happened if the United Nations had not been there.

"It just seems like an outrageous thing to lose their 18-year-old son in this way," Robinson said.

Reconstructing history

The commission began to reconstruct history before the violence was over.

Almost 80 percent had voted for independence on Sept. 1, 1999, but in the two weeks after the referendum, the violence seemed to be at its worst.

Seventy-five percent of buildings were burned down, nearly 1,500 people were killed, and women were raped, Robinson said.

Half the population became refugees.

When Robinson left the country, he took the records he had collected.

In the three or four years following the referendum, a truth commission gathered information about the East Timorese and the crimes committed against them and their families.

The records from the commission and other U.N. workers were all compiled in the room in Dili.

"(But) there's only one copy of everything," Robinson said.

"There's a danger that it can be lost."

Robinson said the preservation project came years after the conflict, since conditions in East Timor were incredibly poor after the referendum.

There was no electricity, water or telephone, and the average income is still $1 a day, Robinson said.

"Having digital copies of things is an inconceivable luxury," Robinson said.

Political problems have re-emerged in recent months.

"East Timor exploded in a new round of violence (this April and May)," Robinson said. "It was kind of a reminder of how vulnerable things could be."

Awet Weldemichael, a graduate student in history, said the security situation now is as fragile as it was when violence erupted this April and May as a result of the then-prime minister dismissing half of the country's military.

"Some of the former soldiers that left their bases are not 100 percent disarmed and there are thousands who are inter-displaced persons," Weldemichael said. Recently, a building 10 meters away from the archives was looted by gangs.

Robinson fears those who have committed crimes against the East Timorese will not be tried for their actions.

"I feel that East Timor as a society is one that is owed a great debt. The one thing that really stands out that has not been paid is the promise that those responsible for the terrible violence will be brought to justice," Robinson said. 

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