Vol. 5, No. 1
|Optimism Tainted by Continued
by James Schmid
When I visited East Timor from early November through mid-December 1998, its largest city, Dili, was surprisingly peaceful. People freely expressed opinions, and Indonesian soldiers warmly greeted foreigners. There was no military presence at the six major demonstrations during that period. A casual observer might have concluded that all was well in East Timor.
Unfortunately the situation was far different outside of Dili, where the military presence remains strong and repressive. Accounts of rapes and killings in the countryside filtered through Dili daily.
Despite eyewitness reports of a massacre in the Alas sub-district, the Indonesian military denied accusations of atrocities and sealed off the region. Three reporters hired an East Timorese guide to lead them to Alas, across six hours of difficult terrain. Once there, they were interrogated, and an officer threatened to kill their guide. The journalists refused to leave without the Timorese. Eventually all four were allowed to turn back. Fearing for his life, the guide went into hiding. One of the journalists, Australian John Martinkus, managed to photograph burnt villages, and nearly 200 villagers, mostly women and children, housed in a school building. Reports indicate they did not have adequate supplies of food and water.
After three days of student demonstrations in front of the Governors office, Governor Soares and Colonel Tono Suratman, the Indonesian Military Commander, agreed to allow the CNRT (National Council for Timorese Resistance, the umbrella group for East Timorese resistance groups) to send an investigation team into Alas. The CNRT invited me to join them as a foreign observer.
Our convoy drove to Same, about 30 km from Alas, on Tuesday, December 1. Upon arrival, we had to wait for 2 1/2 hours along a dark roadside while the three team coordinators spoke with the District Military Commander. The lights had been switched off in the front yard of KODIM (District Military Command). When the coordinators walked across the dark terrace they heard guns being loaded on both sides. Inside, the District Commander assigned us a place to stay in Same "where we would be safe." He said that "a military team would accompany us to Alas in the morning," and that we would be allowed access "as long as you do not make any problems."
The coordinators emphasized the need to avoid antagonizing military personnel. En route to our sleeping quarters, soldiers stopped us at an unexpected checkpoint. The local Commander rushed out and angrily shouted, "Why are you here? Where are you from?" He barely listened to the response before bellowing: "You dont belong here! Go back to the District Commander." Brandishing his gun, he screamed, "We are the victims here!" The approximately 20 soldiers surrounding us began shooting over our trucks. They shouted "You dont belong here!" and other taunts. The Commander did nothing to rein in his troops, and probably incited them further by continuing to yell at us. Soldiers waved flashlights into our vehicles but didnt appear to be looking for anything in particular. The shooting continued while we were forced to drive through their gauntlet. The soldiers didnt stop firing until we were nearly out of hearing range. I watched one empty his entire magazine.
We regrouped about three kilometers away. We had just gotten out of our trucks when two angry-looking soldiers roared up on motorbikes. One waved his weapon and commanded, "You must leave now!" As we turned to look at our leaders, he screamed, "If you dont leave now I will kill you all!" He then fired several shots into the air. We jumped into our vehicles and spent the night in a nearby church. Some of my wary comrades slept in the surrounding bush.
In the morning, CNRT representatives asked the KODIM Commander for an explanation. The officer claimed that the soldiers fired upon us because we had ridiculed and shot at them. Our astonished leaders attempted to disprove these lies by pressing for more information, such as how many weapons we supposedly used and from which vehicles. The Commander couldnt answer, but suggested that it appeared there were more than 32 passengers in the trucks, and that perhaps the additional passengers had fired upon his troops.
I observed the entire incident from the rear truck of our convoy. I did not see or hear anything emanating from our vehicles that could have been misconstrued as shouts or gunfire. It was fortunate that our group remained extremely quiet throughout the entire episode, for the soldiers appeared so agitated that a single miscue might have sparked a tragic incident.
The coordinators allowed our trucks and baggage to be searched, but only in the town square to reduce chances for soldiers to plant weapons. After a fruitless search, two military trucks led us back to the capital. The next day the Dili newspaper "Suara Timor Timur" published the militarys version of the events.
The CNRT sent a report of our thwarted investigation to the Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan. They also repeated their request for an international commission to investigate the killings in Alas and other human rights abuses in East Timor. The UN has yet to act on that proposal.
From my experiences with the CNRT investigation team I can only conclude that either the Indonesian military was trying to cover up what happened in Alas, or troops in the Alas area were acting out of control of Indonesian military authority. International monitors are desperately needed to reduce killings and other human rights abuses in East Timor. The U.S. must also increase pressure on the Habibie regime to remove all troops from East Timor.
View photos by James Schmid made during visit