Subject: From Bullets to Ballots

BIG ISSUE MAGAZINE October

FROM BULLETS TO BALLOTS...AND BACK AGAIN. by Sean Steele

AS the plane climbed higher over East Timor's capital, Dili, we could see lines of smoke settling over the city giving it a ghostly look. Down below a people's dream of freedom was being reduced to ashes.

For the previous 24 hours, we had been trapped in the Turismo Hotel on Dili's waterfront, crouching in fear as soldiers from the Indonesian army (TNI) shot continuously into the air, to "soften us up." Nearby the orange glow from burning houses was the only light, their crackling flames breaking the eerie silence between gunshots.

Only money, beer and the promise of more bribes the next day kept the police at their posts, our only line of protection against the militias.

The next morning, an Indonesian officer delivered an ultimatum: evacuate or we'll let the militias attack. Just to drive home the point a militiaman stood across the road waving his machete at us as soldiers stood laughing. We were ready to leave within minutes.

An hour before the TNI had well and truly crossed the rubicon by attacking the International Red Cross building next door where 2,000 were sheltering; and beside that Bishop Belo's compound where 3,000 were staying. Prior to this the Indonesian army did not enter these buildings everybody regarded as sacrosanct. These attacks meant that the few rules that had existed in East Timor were discarded. Nobody was safe. Not even the priests and nuns who had worked so courageously to protect the people. A few days later I learned of the killing of my friend, Father Hilario Madeira, along with two priests in the southwestern town of Suai. He had been sheltering 2,000 of refugees in his church. Over 100 were massacred in the church grounds.

As we left our hotel refuge, hundreds of people sat along the rubbish strewn beachfront under the blazing sun watched over by dozens of Indonesian soldiers. Hundreds more were being marched down along the beach, to an uncertain fate.

A similar sight greeted us in the main police station where thousands were awaiting deportation to West Timor. Scores of elderly women and children held out their hands pleading "help us, help us". Mothers with screaming, hungry babies stared blankly, their expressionless faces tell a thousand stories of pain and horror.

On the road out to the airport, houses and shops were burning while soldiers and militiamen headed west in vans weighed down with loot-televisions, videos, sofas, chairs, tables, anything that could be carried away.

This seemed a fitting epitaph to Indonesia's rule, which had robbed, raped, and murdered, in East Timor for two decades. Only a week before, the people of East Timor had overwhelmingly for independence in a UN sponsored poll. Instead of celebrating, people fled to the hills in fear.

The day the result was announced (September 4th) two shots were fired into the house where I was staying. Next morning the Araujo family, who had hosted me for two months, fled to Daré in the parched hills outside Dili to take shelter in a convent with 30,000 others.

Other friends hadn't waited that long, voting and fleeing on the same day. Everybody knew trouble was coming, but few envisaged the scale of devastation that the TNI would inflict on East Timor.

After being evacuated to Darwin by the Australian air force there was plenty of time to reflect on the whole mess, while news--mostly bad news--filtered through from inside Timor

From the beginning the flaws in the process to al Timorese vote on their future were obvious. The single most fatal flaw was that the TNI was solely responsible for security. Yet this same army had, since invading East Timor in 1975, killed about 300,000 people, half the population: the highest proportionate death toll of any conflict since World War Two.

Long before the agreement was signed in New York in May between Portugal (the former colonial power), Indonesia and the UN, the Indonesian army was undermining any chances of a free and fair vote.

Late last year, the Kopassus (Special Forces) began forming militias with names like Thunder, Fire, Thorn Red and White Iron (after the colours of the Indonesian flag), to terrorise villagers, and to prevent independence supporters from campaigning.

Along with logistical, vast sums of money were sent to support the terror campaign. At least $2 million came from the former dictator Suharto and his son-in-law, the much-feared Kopassus commander, General Probowo. According to Rui Lopes, the former mayor of Suai, $4 million was diverted from World Bank aid into the military to support the formation of the militias. (After the vote Mr. Lopes fled to Maucau.)

Since January, at least 60,000 people were driven from their homes. Several hundred were killed. In April in the picturesque coastal town of Liquiça, 30 kms west of Dili, police, army and militia killed 60 in an attack on the town church where hundreds of refugees were sheltering.

Everywhere I went in East Timor, the forces of law and order--the TNI and the police-- openly mixed and mingled with the chief lawbreakers, the militias manning roadblocks together and conducting patrols together. Locals always told me that wherever there were militia, the military was not far away. If they tried to defend themselves against militia attacks, the military stepped in, to crush any resistance with its overwhelming firepower.

In the southern coastal town of Viqueque, I saw what happened when local people confronted the militia. Immediately soldiers joined the fray, firing indiscriminately. Three people were killed. Hundreds fled. Myself and a colleague escaped by jumping into a river, and hiding in long grass as solders only twenty feet away poured countless rounds from their M-16s into the river bank opposite where people were hidden in bushes and trees.

In response to this campaign of terror, those Timorese who stayed in their villages adopted a chameleon-like approach to their circumstances: they simply hid their true feelings, blending into the political landscape. Every house was festooned in Indonesian flags. Most people, even people I knew to be independence supporters wore "I love Indonesia" T-shirts and baseball hats. When I asked one pro-Indonesian official if they were going to win the referendum he replied: "Oh yes. We have everything under control."

This sense of "unreality" was designed by the Indonesian military long steeped in the practices of totalitarian control.

"With the Indonesians appearance is everything," explained a priest in a town of Fohoren near the West Timor border. "They think if they can make something appear real such as popular enthusiasm for Indonesian rule, then it is a real. That is the biggest difference between them and us. We keep our true feeling in our hearts, we have had lot of practice at it."

In response to overwhelming evidence showing that the TNI was wrecking any chances of a fair ballot, the UN stayed largely silent. Instead of openly stating those responsible for security--Indonesia's police and army--were working actively to destroy the ballot, they merely tinkered with the problem: demanding the removal of certain troublesome officers here and there, blandly accepting Indonesian assurances about rectifying the situation.

Officially the UN continually spoke of "improving co-operation"; off-the-record, UN personnel were quite frank in describing the contempt with which Indonesia held the whole process.

All along they seemed to be living on a prayer, that the whole process would come right in the end as it had in other places such as South Africa.

Of course, on August 30th, it did come right-for a moment. Despite threats and intimidation, 97% of East Timorese voted. And 80% voted for independence, defying the wishes of the world's fifth largest country. After that the TNI began a systematic campaign of burning, looting, killing and deporting large thousands.

In this final frenzy, there are messages in the TNI's madness -to those areas of Indonesia with recalcitrant populations. (Areas such as Aceh, West Papua and The Moluccas, have long resented Jakarta's rule, and have nationalist movements demanding independence.) By burning East Timor to the ground, and scattering its people to the four winds, the army is in effect saying: "Try anything and we will do this to you too."

Along with this is military pride, a seemingly trite issue but one that is deadly serious amongst the Javanese generals.

"These people cannot accept that they have done wrong and that they have been defeated,"explained Yeni Demiyenti, a pro-democracy Indonesian activist who has campaigned for East Timor's independence.

"To have been defeated by a tiny place such as East Timor by people they see as sub-human is a disaster and represents a huge loss of face," she continued. "It seems hard to believe that so much suffering could be inflicted because of the pride, vanity and arrogance of a few powerful men.. But that is exactly what is happening."

Yeni's words echoed through my mind as I watched whole families being loaded into trucks to be deported, an eerie reminder of what happened in Europe 50 years ago when the Nazis deported and killed Europe's Jews. Today over 180,000 East Timorese languish in camps in West Timor, living under a reign of militia and army terror. And over 400,000 are hiding in the mountains, frightened and hungry.

In yet another brazen snub to the world community, Indonesia has announced it would use $27 million of international aid money to resettle them in other parts of Indonesia. Without concerted international pressure, they will never allowed return home.

UN Human rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson has already called for an international criminal tribunal to try those responsible for "crimes against humanity." Responsibility for these, she stated, includes the TNI, the police, the militias and the civil authorities, all the way to President Habibie's cabinet. After three decades of complete impunity, Mrs. Robinson's call has finally rattled Indonesia's warlords.

But until that comes to pass for the next few weeks I am left wondering what has happened to the friends I have made. Some I know are safe. Others are dead. But the majority, only God knows. As the UN peacekeepers take control, I should begin to find out the true extent about what has happened to them, their families and the peopel of East Timor

Ends (1500 words)

East Timor Ireland Solidarity Campaign Suite 16, Dame House 24-26 Dame Street Dublin 2 Telephone 00 353 1 671 9207/ 677 0253 /623 3148 Mobile 087 286 0122 Fax 00 353 1 671 9207 Timorese Community in Ireland 00 353 1 453 1462 web http://indigo.ie/~etisc/ Offices in: Dublin Belfast Laois Galway Claremorris


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