A journey from Ainaro to Jakarta Dois (Jakarta Two), Timor L’Este

Fires races up ravines near the summit of Foho Madanaga

Above Ainaro wildfires raged up steep gullies towards the towering prominence of Foho Madanaga. Driven by strong winds from Australia’s dry heart billowing white smoke obscured flames, a sign of intense combustion. Coming just days after the Dry’s official onset this was an ominous sign for the bushfire season across the southern continent.

Racing towards the north-west and soon to starve on the tilted rocky layers of Madanaga’s summit there was no threat to my planned southerly route towards Jakarta Dois (Jakarta Two). First winding through the outskirts of the Ainaro traversing small watercourses and hills the route eventually makes a gradual descent between the Maumali and Sarai Rivers. This last stretch is gun-barrel straight in parts, lined by a scattering of simple houses separated by stands of young teak trees, corn gardens and patches of green leafy vegetables.

A vegetable garden on the road to Jakarta Two

As I stepped onto the road a cavalcade of motorbikes and tabletop trucks bedecked with national flags, some bearing the name Fretlin, raced passed. Fretlin flags are common and the cavalcade a sign that horse-trading over ministerial portfolios in the new Fretlin led coalition government had concluded. Falintil flags were also present. Originally the military wing of Fretlin, Falintil was officially dissolved in 2001 replaced by the Força de Defesa de Timor Leste (F-FDTL), the armed forces of Timor L’Este.


Old habits die hard and Timor-Leste still retains many elements of an assertive anti-colonial spirit. Electors have shown a tendency to choose candidates who are part of “Generation 75”. Current President, Francisco Guterres, is a former guerrilla fighter. Some have found it difficult to leave the past behind.

In 2006 Minister of Interior Rogerio Lobato, armed members of the Fretilin Congress. This episode in Timor L’Este’s recent history was captured by a Four Corners team headed by journalist Liz Jackson.

Lobato’s actions led to a seven-year gaol term. Yet after serving a mere 12 months in gaol he was pardoned by then President Jose Ramos Horta. Such events not only underscore the volatile nature of the country but also the close connections amongst the country’s political elite, connections that cross political lines.  As one observer wrote “ . . . it is hard to separate titles and office from personal relationships, friendships, fall-outs and long histories.”[1]

The Indonesian Invasion

To understand the background to Jakarta Dois (Jakarta Two) it’s best to start back with the Indonesian invasion of Timor L’Este on 7 December 1975.  Essentially it had the approval of Australia, the USA and Portugal. Final approval from the USA was obtained the day before the invasion. Writing in War, Genocide, and Resistance in East Timor, 1975–99: Comparative Reflections on Cambodia, Ben Kiernan reports a conversation between Suharto, Ford, and Kissinger on 6 December 1975:

Even as Ford and Kissinger aimed to strengthen the independence of Pol Pot’s Cambodian communist regime, another Southeast Asian humanitarian disaster was in the making. In that same December 1975 conversation, Suharto now raised “another problem, Timor.” He needed U.S. support, not condemnation, for planned Indonesian expansion into the small Portuguese colony. “We want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action.” Ford replied, “We will understand and will not press you on the issue.” Kissinger then added: “You appreciate that the use of U.S.-made arms could create problems. . . . It depends on how we construe it; whether it is in self-defense or is a foreign operation. It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly. We would be able to influence the reaction in America if whatever happens after we return. This way there would be less chance of people talking in an unauthorized way. . . . We understand your problem and the need to move quickly. . . . Whatever you do, however, we will try to handle in the best way possible. . . . If you have made plans, we will do our best to keep everyone quiet until the President returns home.”

His notes are drafted from a telegram sent from the US Embassy to the US Department of State summarising a meeting between President Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Indonesia’s President Suharto.

Indonesia occupied East Timor for 24 years until 1999.

In 1975 East Timor had a population of 650,000. Over the ensuing 24 years, there were 150,000 deaths as a direct result of Indonesian violence.  How many more occurred as a result of starvation and neglect is difficult to say.

Sian Powell, Jakarta Correspondent for The Australian reported on January 19, 2006 that:

The Indonesian military used starvation as a weapon to exterminate the East Timorese, according to a UN report documenting the deaths of as many as 180,000 civilians at the hands of the occupying forces.

Napalm and chemical weapons, which poisoned the food and water supply, were used by Indonesian soldiers against the East Timorese in the brutal invasion and annexation of the half-island to Australia’s north, according to the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation report.

The Referendum

After Suharto’s fall in 1998, elections were scheduled in Indonesia for June 1999. On 27 January 1999, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Ali Alatas and Information Minister Yunus Yosfiah announced that the East Timorese would be granted a referendum on independence. Indonesia’s President Habbie authorised a referendum to be conducted on the following question, in East Timor:

Do you accept the proposed special autonomy for East Timor within the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia?  

450,000 people were registered to vote in the referendum including 13,000 outside East Timor. The result was 78.5% answering no, and voting for independence.

In early 1999, as the UN referendum approached, Indonesian military and militia commanders formulated a plan to ‘cleanse’ East Timor of resistance, as outlined in the quote below.

The political cleansing of East Timor was planned as early as February, one of the militia leaders present at a meeting which hatched the deadly plot has revealed. Tomas Goncalves, 54, the former head of the 400-strong PPPI (Peace Force and Defender of Integration) militia said the killings had been agreed at a meeting on February 16 in the East Timorese capital, Dili. He said the talks were organised by the head of the SGI, the secret intelligence organisation of the military’s Kopassus special forces.

The head, Lieutenant-Colonel Yahyat Sudrajad, called for the killing of pro-independence movement leaders, their children and even their grandchildren, Mr Goncalves said. Not a single member of their families was to be left alive, the colonel told the meeting.

A thorough account of the systematic violence unleashed on the people of East Timor can be found in Masters of terror: Indonesia’s military and violence in East Timor in 1999 (PDF, 187MB)

As the report explains:

This crime was more than a series of massacres and murders, in which perhaps 2,000 people died, and of incidents of torture, rape and assault. It involved the forced deportation and flight of three-quarters of East Timor’s 800,000 people by September 1999 and the organised destruction of the territory’s infrastructure and housing stock. It involved an attack on the territory’s religious institutions. It was a frontal attack on democracy and freedom, an attempt to dismantle an emerging nation.

Arriving at Jakarta Two

Jakarta Two is on a narrow spur. on its western side, there is a steep drop of some 30 to 40 metres running perilously close to the road. My first understanding was that an act of mass murder took place here in 1999 when the Indonesian military pushed people deemed to be supporters of Fretlin over the cliff in the period following the independence vote.

The edge of the road drops away abruptly at Jakarta Two. This view is towards the Sarai River

Thanks to Rob Wesley-Smith, I realise this isn’t the full story. He pointed me to some important observations by Max Stahl who wrote:

I went to Jakarta One and Jakarta two in early October 1999, days after the Indonesian forces left and before the Australians leading International Forces arrived there. I had been told in 1991 about these cliffs where people had been thrown to their deaths beginning in the early years of the occupation in Ainaro. Loved ones were told their missing relatives had “gone to Jakarta”. I  wanted to see if there was continuity to the way of killing which was everywhere in September 1999. The habits of killers are  guides to their identities in police and journalistic investigation.
What I found stays with me. 30 or 40 meters below the roadside cliff top was a tangle of bodies, shrivelled under the hot sun, crumpled on the rocks. Their hands were tied behind their backs. The bare feet had been hacked off at the arch. To this day, as far as I know, they have no names.
They could have been victims of the mass killings in 1978 and 1979, or the massacres at Kraras where at least 400 people perhaps as many as 1000 died-some made to dig their own graves  just months after Gough Whitlam passed by observing how safe it was to travel in Indonesia’s 27th province known as Timor Timur.


People I spoke with in Ainaro might have been too young to remember earlier killings. Timor L’Este has a median age of 19 years with 62% of the population under 25 years. Such demographics are consistent with a period of mass killings.

Arriving at Jakarta Two my intention was to read the prayers for the departed.

I expected to find some traces of the pain this place must have witnessed. Certainly, in my experience, acts of mass murder can leave an emanation of deep pain yet here on the brink of Jakarta Two, I felt little. Adding my prayers I was content with the notion that the prayers of countless others had brought peace to the precipice, a sense of spiritual calm. While a moral outrage remained acrophobia and a feeling of bewilderment were my dominant feelings.

An enigmatic of landscape

Something else haunted me. Here and there I saw evidence of a once more intensive land use. Relics of terracing on the steeper land a most prominent sign.

At first I thought this was just weathering but now I’m beginning to see it differently.


Again, thanks to Rob, I eventually found Professor ‘s comments.  In The Conversation, he wrote:

And with that, my imagination cut loose flashing terrifying images of just what might have been perpetrated at that cliff under Indonesian occupation? To help deal with my growing sense of unease, I changed our itinerary and set about finding other outcrops to do our work.

And as we did so I began to see the landscape in an entirely new light. Now as I scanned the mountain slopes, the faint remnants of paddy terraces, now largely washed away, shouted “why did you not notice us before”.

The landscape was now everywhere imbued with a dark shadow as testimony to the brutal rural depopulation that had occurred under the Indonesian occupation in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Fortunately for the young, in times of peace memories of past loss and pain have little place since the purpose of childhood is to play, explore and learn.

As I approached Jakarta Two an anguna (local public transport) stopped.  Several youths disembarked, perhaps they were around 13 years old.

“Good afternoon,” I said.
“Good afternoon. Where are you going?” one asked.
“I’m going to Jakarta Two. To pray.”
“To pray?”
“Yes, to pray for the people who perished there.”
“Did people perish there?” he asked.

Still the legacy of those dark times is embedded in the landscape and in the relative absence of an older generation, those who might offer wise counsel.

[1]    Gordon Peake is a Visiting Fellow at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, Australian National University. https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/rogerio-lobato-inmate-president

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