For many people there is a single event that forces them to frame their life in terms of "before" and "after". It could be the death of a parent, a marriage, or a birth. Joining the army or something as simple as starting your first job.
For others the event may be more dramatic. For me the moment I can accurately point to is the night when, at 23 years old, I knew there was a fairly good possibility that I might die. That I will die is not, of course, in any doubt. I will die. Everyone does. But on this occasion I had strong grounds to believe it might happen that very evening. It was the very early morning of 6 September 1999. And the place was Becora, a suburb of Dili, the capital of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. But back then it was simply another small, dusty city in regional Indonesia.
I was staying at the Villa Harmonia, a guesthouse run by Pedro Lebre and his family who had long supported East Timor’s independence movement. I had flown in with two other students from Melbourne via Bali. We were coming to work with a student group from the University of East Timor to help them prepare for the ballot and to carry on programs that had been established by our group over the previous years, mainly in computer and English literacy. We were also bringing enormous packs filled with medical supplies for the Falintil guerrilla army. I came with several years’ East Timor advocacy behind me. An exchange student in Portugal in 1993 I spoke Portuguese and had learnt a great deal about the history of the occupation.
In Dili, people went about their daily business and tried to ignore the elephant in the room of rising tension in the lead-up to the ballot. Indonesian soldiers slunk about on street corners while confident UN staffers sped around town in their shiny new black and white 4WDs that journalists would later see in West Timor, battered, missing doors and being driven by the militia that had looted them. But for then, just for a moment in August 1999, it seemed that East Timor was finally basking in the benevolent light of the Western world.
That was how things looked by day. But at night the militia came out. Formed in late 1998, these groups didn’t even try to hide their links to the military, they carried TNI (Indonesian military) weapons, moved in TNI trucks and often wore parts of TNI uniforms. The names said it all, Ahi — "Fire", Darah Merah — "Red Blood", Halilintar — "Thunder", and the terrifying Mahidi — "Live or die for integration".
Their leaders strutted like rock stars (and indeed, Eurico Guterres, the mullet-haired leader of Dili’s Aitarak, or "Thorn" militia, would later release a pop song in Indonesia) screaming out at mass rallies of sullen and scared villagers mostly paid or bullied into coming. But it wasn’t just a façade. Women were raped, men killed and their bodies thrown away, and in the little fiefdom of Cassa a man would be tied to a chair by the leader of Mahidi and burnt in the town square as a reminder of just who was running this country.
Each evening we would huddle on the floor with the local kids to watch UNAMET (United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor) TV, a half-hour broadcast that was laughable for its complete irrelevance to what was actually going on around the country. I expected to see reports of deaths and kidnappings. What I actually saw was smiling UN policemen, sweet Timorese music, happy mountain people waving registration cards, and a flat European voiceover talking about the "popular consultation", as the ballot was officially known.
Yet for people who had waited 24 years for the world even to acknowledge the genocide they were suffering, those blue uniforms were a good start even when they started repeating footage of an overweight American sitting in a rural registration centre loudly enunciating, "We will never leave — UNAMET will never leave you." Those words would come to haunt the UN in East Timor as it evacuated after the ballot result was announced, and would lead to bitterness, cynicism and extraordinary anger.
So we started a life of sorts. It revolved around the main student house. We told ourselves we were "helping" them but mainly we were just hanging out being moral support like a mini student UN. We helped fix up the English in letters and press releases. We swam at the famous white sand beach with the huge statue of Jesus staring benevolently above us, contentiously facing toward Jakarta rather than the Vatican. We bullied the UN in distant outposts to pressure the police to protect the Timorese from the militia. And we went the length and breadth of a breathtakingly stunning country, sitting on buses traversing precarious cliff-top corners over the majestic Ombai-Wetar straits.
One of the other students and I decided to change our tickets to stay on for the referendum whose date had been constantly changing and was now set at 30 August. It seemed crazy not to stay. Our other colleagues left and the white faces began to thin out. Things were getting tense now. The real work was beginning.
We decided to go to Maliana for the day of the referendum. I had been there several times before and developed a relationship with a family there.
We arrived at the house of my friends. Inside, the mother, Josefina was visibly distressed. She told us about the men leaving and militia threats. It was clear the situation was not as it had seemed when I had called both her and the Australian political liaison officer at the UN earlier that morning. I called him again and he said it wasn’t safe to stay there overnight and he would take us to the house he shared with several other international UN staff, where several BRIMOB (Indonesian riot police) were on guard in the grounds.
The morning of the ballot everyone was a little nervous. In the darkness outside the UN compound we bought hot bread rolls from a lone man pushing a cart. As we drove up to the tiny chapel of Odomau-Atas I saw a long line of people walking slowly. Everyone was up and ready and determined not to waste this day.
By 3pm most of the voting was finished. There had been few irregularities in our little mountain chapel. Weeks earlier I had been here translating for journalists wanting to speak with the Falintil soldiers who had set up camp here to protect people whose nearby village had been burnt down. They lived here while they waited to vote. I watched as they packed up their temporary home and began the long walk back to the permanent Falintil camp further into the mountains.
Back in Maliana it seemed the whole day had been an extraordinary success. "They were banging down the doors to get in!" proclaimed one UN worker who’d staffed a polling station. Everyone was elated and kept repeating how calm the day had been. I walked back up the hill to check on my friends. The light was so clear and I felt a profound sense of contentment but as I arrived at the house Josefina was gathering up her children. "There were militia in the crowd," she breathlessly exclaimed, "They were threatening to kill us. That’s why we were banging on the doors." Her husband Guido had already left. In the street outside a friend calls out to me: "Please go to the UN house and tell them there is militia behind the student house and they are about to attack." As I reached the large gates I turned to see dozens of people running towards me. So much for a calm day I thought.
Inside I found a lone American CivPol (Civilian Police) officer and told him what was happening. He ran to the phone as people poured into the driveway. Soon there would be over 100 people seeking shelter in the backyard. Night fell and we handed out what little food we had while the political liaison officer worked until late attempting to negotiate the safe transferral of the refugees to the police compound the following day.
In the town square the next morning we all stood and watched as the black and white UN 4WDs loaded with ballot boxes lined up on the field before us. A large UN helicopter appeared in the distance and landed in the field to pick up this precious cargo. There were cheers, hugs and some tears as Timorese and non-Timorese alike were caught up in the significance of this tremendous achievement. It was done. The ballot papers were safe. After 24 torturous years the East Timorese had finally been allowed to decide their future.
But we were swiftly brought back to reality as we passed through militia roadblocks back to Dili where hysteria was rising like steam over the city. Electoral observers were on their way out, as were journalists, even though it felt like their work was only just beginning. In town the streets were quiet. A couple of days after getting back I saw a long convoy of dusty UN vehicles coming in. The first car stopped and a man I recognised stepped out. My heart dropped. It was the UN staff from Maliana. They had evacuated. I thought of all the people that had been left there with no protection. The following week in Maliana approximately 47 people — who, on the advice of the evacuating UN, had sought shelter with the police — were killed by militia as the Indonesian police assigned to protect them looked on.
The next morning was Saturday. I call my friend at the UN who tells me that the vote count has come back. It’s through, 78 per cent for independence. I tell Pedro and Joana. They nod and go about their business but half an hour later the weight of it finally sinks in and they run around the house scooping up children and shouting for joy. "I’m going to slaughter a cow!" Pedro cries.
In the afternoon I speak to my mother in New Zealand. She is extremely stressed and keeps repeating that the militia are "enimals, just enimals". Suddenly three shots are fired close by. I tell her I have to go. There is shooting throughout the night and in the moonlight the shadows of men with guns move over the walls behind us.
Sunday passes slowly. We cannot leave the house anymore. The city has ceased to function. I fantasise obsessively about sex and later discover this is normal in wartime. In the late afternoon a neighbour comes and tells Pedro that militia have stolen petrol from her roadside stand, telling her to inform the neighbourhood that their houses will be burnt down tonight. Pedro’s face is ashen. But night is falling so there is nothing to do but prepare. We take down the curtains and soak them in water then hang them back up. Buckets full of water are placed in each room and we retreat to the bedrooms at the back of the house. All the children are with us now. They seem to believe they are safer around us, though by now I’m not sure how much protection our pale skin offers them. Every time there is shooting they cry loudly, fall to their knees and begin praying to their patron saint whose tattered image they hold in delicate brown hands. We have to grab them and force them to the floor to make them quiet.
Then I hear it. A sound like barrels of fuel being rolled down our driveway. This is it. I think over the possibilities. They are all bad. We could be shot in the house. They could try to burn the house, but then how would we get all the children out safely? And if we get outside we could just be shot there. I listen and listen. There is more shooting, the dogs bark ferociously and then all of a sudden, stop. Shooting, but no burning.
And at some point, huddled on the floor at the end of the bed, I fall asleep.
At dawn I am woken. The Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, John McCarthy, is here. We are being evacuated. "You’ve got five minutes," he says gruffly. We shove Indonesian rupiah into Pedro’s hands, they are shaking so much he can barely hold it. "Go to the church," we tell Joana. The children are sobbing and babbling about militia cutting their heads off and putting them on stakes.
We race through Dili’s empty streets. Dead dogs litter the side of the road. We drive around rubble and recently abandoned roadblocks (it seems even militia have to sleep) before we are dropped at the Australian embassy. Then when everyone is ready, we leave for Comoro airport, packed like sheep onto the back of open military trucks.
On the long straight road west there is an endless line of civilian vehicles. The cars are full to bursting with cooking pots and mattresses. They were trying to escape but left too late. Now the only things moving are the heavily armed militiamen patrolling up and down the road beside them.
At the airport there are RAAF Hercules shuttling between Dili and Darwin all day. With tickets to Melbourne through Bali we manage to get on what will be the last commercial flight out of Indonesian East Timor. On the plane I begin to feel very ill. I will not find out until much later but it is a violent form of dysentery called Shigella. At the hotel in Bali I freeze every time someone jumps in the pool, it sounds too much like a grenade. There is just too much noise everywhere and for the first time in my life I am afraid to sleep because when I do I see the children’s faces crying and screaming. Eventually we return to Melbourne and witness a wave of public pressure to send in peacekeepers.
They arrived in less than two weeks.
Much has happened since that time. Pedro and his family were forced into West Timor but were later repatriated by the UN. My friends in Maliana also survived but around 1500 people did not, and over 200,000 people were forcibly removed to other parts of Indonesia, some never to return. Before leaving, the Indonesian military systematically destroyed over 80 per cent of the infrastructure in East Timor, right down to cutting telephone and electricity cables and destroying water supplies. Even today people endure frequent power blackouts.
In 2002 elections were held which Fretilin won. Mari Alkatiri was elected prime minister with former Falintil Guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmão as president. In 2006 a curious crisis took hold in Timor, ostensibly stemming from charges of bias in the military, but it soon became clear it was a power struggle between Alkatiri and Gusmão who was allegedly frustrated by his lack of power as president. Gusmão later admitted involvement in the violence that wracked Dili and forced Alkatiri to resign. Alkatiri was greatly disliked in Australia for having the audacity to suggest that Australian businesses operating in Timor should pay tax, but the biggest problem to the Howard government was his desire to nationalise Timor’s oil thereby cutting Darwin out of the loop.
Today, Xanana Gusmão — the man who always claimed he simply wanted to be a pumpkin farmer — is the Prime Minister and stands accused of corruption while threatening to imprison the newspaper editor who broke the story. He has never had to account for his very close relationship with the rebel leader Alfredo Reinádo who was responsible for the deaths of several East Timorese soldiers and who was himself later killed during an apparent assassination attempt on the life of current President José Ramos Horta. Sometimes it is hard to look at East Timor and feel any sense of positive progress. This may not be democracy at its best but one only has to look back 10 years to know that today is still a whole lot better than yesterday.
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