Timorese pay for freedom with blood
New Zealand Herald
Timorese pay for freedom with blood
By EUGENE BINGHAM
As dawn broke on this day four years ago, East Timor thought its nightmare was over. Despite months of violence, the people of the 27th province of Indonesia filed out of the jungle-clad hills to vote in an independence referendum supported by the international community.
More than 75 per cent of the Timorese voted to split from Indonesia after 23 years of occupation, and for a moment the people rejoiced.
What they could not have expected was the wave of retribution about to be unleashed on them.
Militia groups backed by the military struck back. The final death toll is unknown, although the United Nations estimates about 1300 people died during 1999. When international peacekeepers, including New Zealanders, arrived, smoke still lingered from arsons lit to rob the embryonic nation of even the most basic infrastructure.
Only now is the scale and extent of the tragedy coming to light as investigators and prosecutors working for the UN build cases against those who committed human rights violations.
UN documents filed in the district court of the Timorese capital, Dili, are a sad memorial to the victims, finally identifying by name the people killed and buried in anonymous graves or dumped at sea.
Crucially, the evidence discloses in detail links between the militia and the military, and how senior commanders aided and abetted the killers. It also reveals that the brutality meted out on the population was not a spontaneous reaction, but a calculated act of violence and revenge plotted months earlier.
Through the 1990s, growing international support for the independence movement coincided with rising unrest among the Timorese.
In January 1999, Indonesia announced that a referendum would be held for the people to choose between autonomy and independence.
In the background, though, senior military commanders were secretly marshalling the resistance. Chief among the planners was Major-General Adam Damiri, a 50-year-old career officer in the Indonesian military.
In mid-1998, he was sent to Bali to the regional command post which had control over East Timor at the time. In August 1998, he flew a prominent pro-Indonesian Timorese leader to Bali and told him to set up a group to oppose independence.
A series of covert meetings in Bali and Timor followed over the next year as Damiri encouraged the anti-independence movement to form a civil defence force. By the time of the referendum, 25 militia groups were up and running, operating beneath an umbrella council closely linked to the military.
The support came in the form of funding, hand-picking leaders and identifying targets for assassination.
In January 1999, Damiri anointed a young Timorese leader, Eurico Guterres, as one of the best hopes for Indonesia. Guterres, a 28-year-old born in eastern East Timor, had been linked with the military as an Army informant and double agent.
Damiri praised Guterres' leadership and said he was willing to give him 50 million rupiah ($10,400) to begin his work. It was a crucial moment in Guterres' career, setting him up as one of the most influential and infamous of Timor's militia leaders.
More money went to the pro-Indonesian forces when the Governor of East Timor, Abilio Jose Osorio Soares, issued a written directive in April telling all district administrators to spend at least 20 per cent of their budget to support militia groups.
Direct help from the Army came when military intelligence lists of independence leaders who should be murdered were passed to militia leaders. Special forces soldiers from the Kopassus unit dressed as civilians were also made available to the groups.
When the strength of the independence movement became clear, planners began to think what they would do if the vote went against Indonesia. At a meeting of officers and militia leaders in June, commanders gave orders that if independence won, there would be a scorched-earth policy. A free East Timor would start with nothing.
When the violence came, it was on a scale that shocked international observers, including activists like Aucklander Maire Leadbeater.
Soon after checking in to her Timor hotel in early April, word began to filter through that a group of injured refugees had arrived at a Catholic Church-run hospital clinic in Dili.
At the clinic, Leadbeater saw the shattering sight of men, women and children who had been hacked with machetes and stabbed with knives.
"They were absolutely traumatised," she says. Those who made it to the clinic were the lucky ones.
The refugees had come from Liquica, where villagers had been subjected to weeks of intimidation. Hundreds gathered at the church, seeking protection. On April 6, a group of soldiers, police and militia surrounded the grounds. Witnesses say that in the early afternoon, a gunshot rang out from near the church, signalling the start of a massacre. Officers from a police unit opened fire and militia members rushed in to attack.
Tear gas thrown into the presbytery forced people to run outside. Soldiers and militia fired at the fleeing men, women and children. Others were killed with machetes, knives, arrows, and home-made guns.
The total number killed, according to UN investigators, is unknown. Locals estimate more than 100 died.
Guterres was at Liquica, though he later explained away his presence by saying that he was there to investigate.
Leadbeater says: "As I was leaving Timor, people were saying things were going to get worse. When I got back, I was screaming for peacekeepers to get up there."
But help from the international community was still months away. Violence continued to mark the build-up to the referendum.
APRIL 12: Six days after the Liquica massacre, an Indonesian military officer led soldiers to the village of Marco and announced that independence supporters would be rounded up and killed in revenge for the killing of a civil servant in the district administration.
Three men were marched to the top of a hill and shot. Four others were taken to an Army intelligence post and killed. Two school teachers and the village chief were among the dead.
APRIL 17: As the militia groups began to grow in force, they were ordered to attend a large pro-Indonesian rally in Dili. Eurico Guterres told the crowd that anyone against integration with Indonesia was an enemy and should be captured. Anyone who resisted would be shot. He identified independence leader Mario Carrascalao as a traitor.
After the rally, soldiers and militia began attacking targets around the city, including the Carrascalao family property, where about 100 people were seeking refuge. Twelve were beaten and shot. The Carrascalaos, who were not victims themselves, pleaded with the military for help but were laughed at.
MAY 13-28: At least four independence supporters were hacked and shot by militia for continuing to campaign for freedom. The deliberate targeting of independence leaders continued even after the UN arrived to June to supervise the referendum.
AUGUST 27: Three days before the vote, Kopassus special forces soldiers and militia members raided an independence stronghold in Los Palos where people were celebrating the end of the referendum campaign.
Buildings were burned down and the traditional king of the town was murdered.
Poised on the edge of freedom, East Timor was in grave danger. Observers brought in from around the world to monitor the referendum could sense the mood.
New Zealand MP Matt Robson was stunned by the audacity of the militia.
"Armed militia were marching gaily in front of the Indonesian barracks," he says. "Everywhere we saw the complicity and the carte blanche being given to the militia."
On September 4, the result of the referendum was announced and Timor exploded. In the days before, international observers were shocked when a UN translator and his driver were beaten to death by the militia and soldiers. But much worse was to come.
SEPTEMBER 5-6 In the town of Suai, refugees had swarmed to the Ave Maria Church although priests warned them they were no longer safe. In the early afternoon, militia commanders marched to the church and attacked.
District administrator Colonel Herman Sedyono, in uniform and armed with a rifle, took part, according to UN investigators.
Witnesses to the massacre say unarmed civilians were shot, some as they tried to flee. Three priests were slashed or shot, and the church was burned down. The next day, soldiers and militia returned to the church and loaded bodies into trucks.
Some of the bodies were set on fire, others were taken to West Timor and buried. A forensic expert who studied 26 bodies found in one mass grave said the victims had been hit by high-velocity bullets.
In Dili, the residence of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bishop Carlos Belo was under attack. Belo had met General Wiranto, Indonesia's Minister of Defence and Security, asking him to control the militias, but it was a futile request. Of the thousands sheltering in the diocesan compound, at least 15 were killed.
About 5000 others at Belo's compound were forcibly deported to West Timor by soldiers, police officers and militia. The deportation strategy was pursued across East Timor and, in all, more than 250,000 Timorese were taken out of the country by road, military planes, and navy ships. Even the national airline, Garuda, was used.
SEPTEMBER 8: Around the country, independence supporters were terrified. In Maliana, many were sheltering in the grounds of the police station. A military intelligence chief called together soldiers and militia to give them orders to attack the station.
Thirteen people were stabbed or macheted to death. Anyone trying to escape was forced back by the butts of police guns. The following day, soldiers hunted down 13 men who had managed to flee. They were found hiding along a riverbed and killed.
SEPTEMBER 9: An Army and militia rampage through several villages in the Passabe district resulted in 18 murders. That night, 55 young men were tied together in pairs and marched to a place called Nifu Panief.
Around 3am the next day, a staggeringly cruel attack began. The men, still tied up, were hacked with machetes or swords, and shot. Forty-seven died.
As the violence continued, the world debated the need for a military response, while taking into account Indonesian diplomatic sensitivities. The focus turned to Auckland where world leaders were gathering for the Apec meeting, but the killings continued - 14 civilians were murdered in the village of Laktos on September 12 - as the international community prepared its response.
Australian and New Zealand Special Air Service troops began to arrive in East Timor on September 17, but their arrival did not bring immediate safety for innocent Timorese.
SEPTEMBER 20: A battalion of Indonesian soldiers moving out of the province to West Timor finished their time in East Timor with a convoy of killing. They shot and killed people they came across, including women trying to hide.
Among their victims was a Dutch journalist, Sander Thoenes, who was riding away from the convoy on a motorbike.
UN investigators say Colonel Mohammad Muis addressed the troops and told them they should not tell anyone, not even their wives, what they had done.
SEPTEMBER 25: The militia group Tim Alfa set up an armed roadblock near the village of Verukoco. As a van of nine nuns and priests approached, they were shot at. When the shooting stopped, some of the people inside the van climbed out, only to be hacked and stabbed with machetes.
The bodies were pushed back into the van, which was rolled into a river. A hand grenade was then thrown at the van.
OCTOBER 20: To escape the violence, many independence supporters had fled to the hills and mountains. A posse of soldiers and militia rounded up a large group of refugees in the Betunes mountains on October 20,and marched them to a popular marketplace at Makelab. Two men were taken to the back of the market and shot dead.
Then, in front of the crowd, four independence supporters were called out. One by one, they were ordered to march towards Laurentino Soares, the deputy commander of the Sakunar militia. He calmly shot the men as they walked towards him.
It was a brutal act of revenge and a show of defiance of the people's will. The militia and their supporters had failed to keep East Timor within Indonesia. But they were determined to have the last bloody word.
Despite the atrocities the Timorese, four years later, are slowly finding their feet as a nation. The years of occupation and trauma have left deep problems. Apart from the psychological scarring, more than 70 per cent of all buildings in the country were burned down or flattened.
Economically, the country is dependent on international aid, but it is looking to the future, signing agreements to secure income from its offshore oilfields.
East Timor Prime Minister Dr Mari Alkatiri said people were looking forward, but there were many reminders of the past, not least the legion of widows and orphans.
"People are looking for justice, not as a way to punish the others, but as a way to know the truth and expose those who were responsible," he told the Weekend Herald. "They want truth and reconciliation, yes, but with justice."