Subject: Times [London]: Death revisits Timor house of horror

The Sunday Times [London] October 10 1999

Death revisits Timor house of horror

PHOTO: Journalists in the front line: Thoenes, below, left, was recently killed; now new evidence has been found of militia atrocities at the house above where, 24 years ago, Peters, below right, and other newsmen were murdered

By Alastair McLeod, Balibo, East Timor

IN A small house in the wasteland of the town of Balibo last week, Australian troops found East Timor's violent and tragic past finally catching up with its blood-soaked present in a hideous and unexpected way.

Inspecting the little house room by room, the soldiers found patches of dried blood and lipstick smeared on the walls and came to the conclusion that they were only a few weeks old. They were the macabre signature of Kopassus, the Indonesian special forces, whose troops are known to have occupied the house until recently.

When they raped, Kopassus soldiers liked to smear lipstick on their victims' mouths and force them to kiss the wall, the Australians said. They found a carefully drawn beret and dagger, the symbol of Kopassus, on the wall of one room, reinforcing their theory of what had happened.

Then they realised it was no freak accident that this sea-green painted house, one of the few left standing in the town after the recent destruction, had been used by Kopassus as a site of murder, rape and torture. The horror was entirely consistent with the grim past of the house.

On October 16, 1975, five Australian-based television journalists - including Malcolm Rennie, 28, and Brian Peters, 29, from Britain - were killed by Kopassus soldiers in or just outside the house. They were unarmed and had been captured by Indonesian troops who were invading East Timor.

At least two other houses in the shattered little town dominated by an old Portuguese fort bear similar hallmarks of recent torture and murder since East Timor voted for independence on August 30. The Australians said one of them had electric cables rigged in unusual places and slung over rafters, consistent with Kopassus torture techniques.

The ugly story of the journalists' deaths in 1975 has still not been cleared up, despite several inquiries in Australia. The finger of suspicion points at Yunus Yosfiah, information minister today in the government of President B J Habibie.

Yosfiah was a special forces captain in East Timor back in 1975, when Indonesia annexed the former Portuguese colony.

He has denied any involvement in the deaths, but at least one witness has said he gave the order to kill the journalists. Alexander Downer, Australia's foreign affairs minister, has indicated that previously suppressed documents concerning the deaths will be released later this year.

This weekend Balibo was firmly under the control of the 2nd Company of the Royal Australian Regiment. About 200 troops protected the town and its one remaining inhabitant, an elderly woman living in a thatched hut.

She sat outside, moaning to herself. Balibo lay in ruins, almost all its buildings burnt or ransacked. The one thing left untouched was a statue in the town square celebrating East Timor's union with Indonesia.

Last Tuesday an East Timorese man named Sylvestre walked into Balibo. He had fled from a refugee camp at Atambua in West Timor, which remains part of Indonesia, crossing the border after walking through hills and forests during the night. He described the conditions in the camp as dangerous and appalling.

"At night, the [pro-Jakarta] militia roam through the camp killing and raping with impunity," he said. There was a desperate food shortage in the camp, with the militia pillaging what little was available.

A former resident of Balibo, Sylvestre described how the whole town had been forced to leave in the second week of September. "The militia came and told us to leave or they would kill us and burn our houses," he said.

Sylvestre said he had decided to escape from the camp and return to Balibo after a vicious series of attacks last weekend. People were not free to leave and many were too scared to do so because they had been told that the militia were assembling 3,000-12,000 men on the border to attack first Balibo and then the rest of East Timor, he said. Such rumours spread fear and uncertainty among an already terrified population.

Even though Interfet, the Australian-led multinational peacekeeping force in East Timor, now controls a significant section of the western part of the territory, the expected return of refugees from the hills and across the border has not so far materialised.

Warrant Officer Terry Dewhurst said none of his soldiers had seen a human being in the four days they had been patrolling the area. There were reports that hundreds were living in caves near Maliana and Bobinaro, 15 miles away.

A team of international investigators is expected imminently in East Timor to look for evidence of war crimes.

Both the Indonesian military - or TNI - and the government in Jakarta have been reluctant to assist with the investigations. Last week Interfet headquarters issued a second letter demanding that the TNI hand over four officers to assist inquiries into the killing of Sander Thoenes, the Jakarta correspondent of the Financial Times, last month.

Major-General Peter Cosgrove, the Interfet commander, said the assistance of the four was also needed for the investigation into an attack on Jon Swain, the veteran Sunday Times correspondent, and an American photographer, in which their driver's eye was gouged out and their interpreter abducted.

The TNI has only acknowledged receipt of the letter. Such hesitance on Indonesia's part raises the question of whether Interfet and the international investigators will have any more success in bringing to justice those responsible for murder and torture than the Australian inquiries into the journalists' deaths 24 years ago.

In the midst of these uncertainties, it is clear that when the people of Balibo finally decide that their ravaged town is secure enough to return to, some will live with the knowledge that their homes have once again been used as slaughter houses.

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