Subject: The Age/Feature: The Ghosts of Timor

The Age [Melbourne] Saturday 13 November 1999

Special Feature

The ghosts of Timor


CHRISTO Rei, the 27-metre statue of Jesus Christ given to East Timor by President Suharto, stands high on a bluff on Dili's outskirts. From here you see bright sand and gently lapping waves in the small coves below.

But once you're on the sand in some of the coves, the detritus you step around includes an array of rotting footwear - thongs, sandals and sports shoes - some knotted rope here, a pair of ripped trousers there; a t-shirt and a pair of underpants.

Look closer and you might see something resembling a kneebone, or, like Andrew McNaughton - an Australian doctor who works for Timor Aid - what appears to be part of a human neck.

Not too far from here the militiamen, under the watchful eye of the Indonesian security forces, allegedly executed hundreds of people and dumped their bodies in the water in the fortnight after 4September, when the result of East Timor's ballot was declared.

You drive back through Dili along roads lined with charred houses, shops and hotels. A few buildings are intact, but only because their owners paid the corrupt Indonesian military (TNI) to declare them out-of-bounds to the militias. Only from the air can you gauge the extent of the destruction that was unleashed on the rest of East Timor too.

Along the coast road outside Dili, every house is burnt. There are no people and nobody really knows where they are. The same goes for the south coast and the hills.

When you look below to the right, massive sharks - accustomed now, perhaps, to the taste of human flesh - circle in the shallows. When you see these things it is possible to reach only one conclusion: East Timor is the scene of a massive crime against humanity - and a huge attempt by Indonesia's security forces to cover it up.

When the Australian-led InterFET forces entered the world's newest country seven weeks ago, they brought Auslav armored vehicles, Black Hawk choppers, body armor, night-vision goggles and assault rifles. They quickly sent the militia scurrying to the hills or to Indonesian-controlled West Timor. They left plenty of evidence behind. But nobody from the international community, not least InterFET - which has a mandate to secure East Timor but not to investigate war crimes - is seriously examining the evidence.

"It's like you come home, the house is burnt down, grandma's been murdered and the kids have been kidnapped and you know who did it," says an American intelligence officer. "But everyone just keeps saying `Oh how awful, she's dead, the house is burnt, the kids are gone - they should just have more kids and build another house'. I say use the evidence to drag the murderer, the arsonist, the kidnapper into court then lock his ass in jail."

But because of UN stalling, a group charged with making preliminary investigations, appointed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Mary Robinson, is yet to reach East Timor. If they do get here by the end of next week, they will have just five weeks to report their conclusions on human rights abuses to the UN Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan. Until that report has been considered, no systematic forensic investigations or witness interviews can begin.

InterFET has found 108 bodies in East Timor. So far this is the official death toll for the country's most recent troubles. But intelligence agencies, East Timorese human rights organisations and, indeed, some InterFET troops, say the number of dead is much higher.

The East Timor Human Rights Commission's general coordinator, Ms Isabel da Costa Fereira, says her commission has started investigating killings. "From 2 October until 22 October we found 364 bodies just in Dili, Hera and Tabar," she said. "We are still expecting reports from our investigators who have been sent to other places, to see how many might have been killed in other parts of East Timor in the same period."

Intelligence and military sources say they can already paint a picture of systematic killing and then an attempted cover-up by the Indonesian military and police and the militias. They believe the killing started about two days after the ballot return, and continued in earnest well into the second and third weeks of September, before InterFET's arrival on 20 September. They say large numbers of bodies were burnt, then buried or disposed of at sea.

They also believe the Indonesian "mop-up" continued in other parts of East Timor as InterFET troops cautiously made their way out of Dili and into the districts. "The bodies found (by InterFET) weren't meant to be found - that is, they were stuffed in drains, dumped in wells, buried in shallow graves and charred in burnt buildings," says an intelligence figure. "We believe they are the ones that the Indonesians themselves missed after cleaning up what they thought were all the bodies, before InterFET arrived and while journalists had been forced out of the place."

Intelligence agencies from a number of countries participating in InterFET now think that many hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies have been burnt and dumped at sea or buried in mass graves over the West Timor border. Australian intelligence agencies also possess damning evidence, in the form of signals intelligence (intercepted phone calls and radio transmissions) detailing mass killings at sea. There is also photographic evidence. Some senior Indonesian military figures are implicated.

Some of the material also leads intelligence specialists to conclude that in early September a group of East Timorese student leaders was executed and dumped at sea. This matches information passed to the East Timor Human Rights Commission. Da Costa Fereira explains:"On 7 September there was one boat coming from Java and Bali, and we hear that a lot of students were coming by that boat. And we hear that many of them were killed and dropped into the sea. But we cannot be sure because, of course, if they drop the bodies into the sea we are not able to find them. At the moment we believe it was an operation involving TNI (Indonesian military), the militias, the police and other military institutions."

In recent weeks more and more bodies have washed up on East Timor's northern and southern coasts. While it is believed that more than 90 have been found recently, few are in InterFET's tally and many have already been buried. Although many had been mauled by sharks and crocodiles, at the time of discovery some had hands and feet still tied with rope, and knife or bullet wounds. Others were partially burned.

"There are more signs all the time of sea killings," says the US intelligence officer. "We recently received photographs of a huge croc (crocodile) . . . cut open and inside was a young woman's body. I suppose she could have been swimming. But I doubt it." Dan Murphy, an American doctor who runs a clinic in Dili, has recently treated four patients who claim to have witnessed mass killings at sea.

McNaughton, a veteran East Timor activist, says while the UN stalls, much of the evidence will disappear with this country's imminent wet season. "The evidence is also being destroyed with the burial of bodies. We found one body which had a sharpened stick through the lower lip - the person had quite clearly been tortured before death. But if that body is exhumed for examination, the stick will look accidental - it might not be connected to the death."

IN the increasingly unlikely event that ASEAN countries in the UN support serious UN inquiries into war crimes in East Timor, Australia will meet increasing pressure to open its intelligence files. While the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has expressed an unwillingness to do this, a precedent has been set by Britain. Under Tony Blair's leadership, Britain has handed over some intelligence material to war crimes investigators in the Balkans.

UN special rapporteurs on rape, torture and murder who visited East Timor earlier this week were made familiar - by Fereira and others - with the abundance of criminal evidence. But the rapporteurs did little to encourage confidence among human rights groups or some senior InterFET figures who desperately want somebody to start systematically collecting evidence.

"We're not here to preserve the physical evidence - that's a question of getting forensic people on the ground and I'm not in a position to answer ... why has it taken so long to get forensic pathologists on the ground?" asked the rapporteur on torture, Nigel Rodley. Another rapporteur, Radhika Coomaraswamy, remarked: "It is too early for us to start drawing very specific conclusions about the extent of the problems within our respective mandates."

All the while, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is trying to account for between 80,000 and 200,000 East Timorese who have been missing since early September when the militia, the TNI and the police herded many across the West Timor border. While many of them are assumed to be in West Timor, and up to about 40,000 have been repatriated, at least tens of thousands remain unaccounted for.

Australian and US intelligence services, both highly adept at spying on Indonesia, have no clue about the whereabouts of the "ghosts of Timor", as some aid workers have taken to calling them.

"Some of them have to be with the dead. How many? Hundreds, thousands - we don't know," says an intelligence figure. "Where the hell are all the people? Where are they? We just can't say."

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