Beginning a Journey

This is a story from my book Beyond Borders: a conversation across boundaries

Beginning a Journey

A Blue Bird taxi arrived within minutes. Staying close to Ngurah Rai Airport afforded a stress-free connection with the early morning Timor L’Este flight.

Selamat pagi, pak,” I said, opening the back door and wedging my large bag against the passenger side seat.
Already standing beside the car, the driver said “Pagi, pak.”
“Easier for me if the bag is on the seat. “
“No problems, pak,” he replied as he slipped behind the wheel Glancing at him, I asked
How are you, pak?
“Fine,”he answered.
“Ngurah Rai International Terminal, please.”
Baiklah,” he answered.
From his Melanesian appearance, I reasoned he was from Flores or perhaps West Timor .
Conscious such questions are common in Indonesia, I queried, “How long have you been in Bali?”
“Fifteen years. I come after finish school.”
“Brave, coming all the way here. Are you from Flores or Timor?”
“From Timor Barat, pak.”
“Was it easy to find work?”
“I work in construction, carry bricks, timber, sand, cement. I share room with friends from Timor. We go to church, so plenty talk about work. Easy to find. We help friends.”
“Ah! Helping each other, eh? Saling bantu membantu.
“Correct,” he confirmed.
“Where are you from in Timor Barat?”

Atambua! A trigger, releasing a turmoil of recollections: forced evacuations, summary executions, kidnapping, disappearances, rape, brutalisation of a people because they voted for independence. Then images of Dili and machete-wielding militia chasing down their quarry, kicking and hacking; the recurring vision of BBC journalist Jonathan Head pursued and narrowly escaping all crowded in.

Original caption: “East Timorese refugees carry their belongings as they cross the border back into their homeland near the town of Memo Tuesday. Thousands of East Timorese, who were forcibly deported to West Timor by pro-Jakarta authorities following a vote for East Timor’s independence from Indonesia, trickled across the border after walking in intense heat for hours, with at least five people reported dead during the trek. (Jason Reed/Reuters)”

On Saturday, 6 December 1975, Indonesia’s President Suharto met US President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

In that meeting, Suharto advised them, “Fretlin has declared its independence unilaterally. In consequence, other parties declared their intentions of integrating with Indonesia. Portugal reported the situation to the United Nations but did not extend recognition to Fretlin. Portugal, however, is unable to control the situation, if this continues it will prolong the suffering of the refugees and increase the instability in the area.”

Ford querieded, “The four other parties have asked for integration?”

“Yes,” Suharto replied, adding, “it is now important to determine what we can do to establish peace and order for the present and the future in the interest of the security of the area and Indonesia. These are some of the considerations we are now contemplating. We want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action.”

It is plain from the conversation that Suharto sought US approval for an invasion of East Timor, yet the language is diplomatic and sanitised.

In an apparent distancing move, Kissinger added, “You appreciate that the use of US made arms could create problems.”

He wasn’t asking a question but reminding Suharto the US needed to keep some distance from events.

Kissinger continued, “It depends on how we construe it, whether it is in self-defence, or 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, happens after we return. This way, there would be less chance of people talking in an unauthorized way. The President will be back on Monday at 2:00pm Jakarta time. We understand your problem and the need to move quickly but I am saying that it would be better if it were done after we returned.”

Concerned about the length of the operation, Ford asked, “Do you anticipate a long guerrilla war there?”

“There will probably be a small guerrilla war,” Suharto noted. “The local kings are important, however, and they are on our side. The UDT represents former government officials and Fretlin represents former soldiers, they are infected the same as the Portuguese Army with communism.”

Communism, the magic word then. If it was communist, it was evil. It didn’t matter how anyone felt, what state they were living in, or whether they had any substantive theoretical understanding of communism. If something could be labelled as communist the “free world” was more likely to help eradicate it, or at least turn a blind eye to the violations of human rights perpetrated in the name of anti-communism.

Kissinger concluded his discussion with Suharto saying, “If you have made plans, we will do our best to keep everyone quiet until the President returns home.”

Once US assent was obtained, there was no further need for diplomatic niceties. Suharto didn’t wait. Indonesian forces invaded East Timor on Sunday, 7 December 1975.

Years of violence and oppression followed.

Dictatorships inevitably fall. Suharto’s Order Baru fell in 1998, ushering in the period of Reformasi, yet the oppression in East Timor remained.

Suharto’s successor, Habibie, conceded that the populace of East Timor should be granted the right to vote on whether they remain part of Indonesia or not.

Once the vote on independence was inevitable, the terror began—an organised program of intimidation, and threats of dire consequences, an attempt to thwart voter registration. It failed. Twenty-four years of resistance had steeled the people.

When the United Nations revealed a 78.5 percent vote for independence, Indonesian trained and armed militias began an offensive, attacking and murdering independence supporters. In Suai, hundreds took shelter from Laksaur militia violence at Nossa Senhora de Fatima Church. Here a combined militia and military assault led to the deaths of 200, including three priests. Instances of violence were numerous and widespread, a fact well documented by Indonesia’s Investigation into Human Rights Violations in East Timor (KTTP-HAM).

Finally, there were the deportations, about 250,000 forcibly relocated to places like Atambua. Stories of abuse, including sexual slavery, were widespread.

Despite the extreme oppression of the East Timorese, for me, those years of violence culminated in powerful image of Jonathan in the evening news pursued by machete wielding pro-Indonesian militia. Having met Jonathan, deepened my shock.

Perhaps Suharto and his generals envisaged the invasion being carried out with stealth, but the daily television news cycle already ensured that what might once have been done in relative darkness, was soon before the eyes of the world. By the time of the vote, anything taking place with television cameras in the vicinity would appear on the evening news. Herein lay Indonesia’s problem. The world was watching in a manner approaching real time.

When I spoke with Jonathan about the incident, he explained that day began peacefully, with a group of colleagues swimming off a sandy beach beneath Dili’s towering statue of Christ. Later at their base, a converted shop house rented to media crews by an enterprising Chinese businessman, word came that Dili’s United Nations headquarters was under attack. Piling into a Toyota Kijang, converted to accommodate his BBC team, they headed towards the UN compound. Tense crowds, people running, and several cracks of gunfire brought them to a standstill.

Jonathan recalled, “Up to that point, almost all the gunfire we ever heard from any kind of militia attacks involved homemade guns that were not very accurate.”

“They were common,” I said, having seen numerous examples in otherwise peaceful parts of Indonesia.

“Then, we heard rather more gunfire and shouting. It was clear trouble was coming towards us, and some of the gunfire was not homemade guns. It was definitely automatic weapons fire. At that point, we kind of stopped to take stock and looked at each other.”

My instinct would have been to make an unobtrusive retreat. Jonathan confirmed this as the correct tactic given hindsight.

“After hostile environment training, I now know once there’s automatic weapons fire, it’s time to just get the hell out,” he explained but at the time, he hadn’t realised this.

He continued, “We sheltered down behind a breezeblock building, just to stay out of sight and reconsider what we did. Then three of our group made a run for the UN headquarters. They just belted in there shouting. We got film of it later.”

Very brave I thought, wondering whether I would have had the courage to make such a break for an obvious target with trouble converging.

“A BBC producer, Jeremy, and I delayed. The amount of gunfire we’d been hearing left us uncertain about putting ourselves out in the open. We were too slow.”

Referencing the story to his role as a reporter, he added, “I was actually recording audio all the time. We could hear someone being attacked quite close to us, I’ve got the recording of it still, and you can hear the guy screaming. Another colleague of mine, an Associated Press cameraman, was hiding in another house. He was out of sight and filmed them chopping this guy, who was killed. They chopped him down with a machete. You can hear him screaming, and then they were on to us, running fast, very strong, red eyed. So, they were either very drunk or possibly on methamphetamines. I felt from the behaviour they were very, very hyped up.”

“Ah! Methamphetamine!” Not mere alcohol if they were running with such strength, I reasoned.

“They slammed into us and grabbed hold of us yelling at us in Tetum, then in Indonesian, shouting, ‘Get out of here! Get out of here! You guys are causing trouble.’ All the while they were panting, and they were bloody strong. We just did what you do instinctively. I actually let go of my tape recorder, he [one of the assailants] grabbed hold of it. We put our hands up to show we met no harm but there was no stopping them and we just broke and ran. Jeremy made a run for a cluster of banana trees in small village that was further away from the road. I didn’t. I wanted to get back to the main road because there were Indonesian Police and an Army post there too. So I started running in a different direction, but I got headed off when another couple of militia guys came running up on my left, so I changed direction and started belting as fast as I could towards where Jeremy was, with these two groups of militias, about four guys in total, converging to cut me off. Then I tripped on a breeze block that was just lying on rough ground.”

“Oh no!” I blurted out.

He continued, “I was going so fast I went flat over on my face, and broke my elbow. I didn’t know at the time, and at that point, the first guy chasing me had a machete and he just wacked me very hard and ran on, but the next came up. He had an automatic weapon. I had my left arm up and he had two swings at me and first hit my arm very hard but a glancing blow. The second time he missed. As he was still swinging, an Indonesian Intel military plainclothes officer arrived. I could hear him shouting as he ran across, ‘Jangan bunuh wartawan!’” Jonathan chuckled ironically.

“Don’t murder the journalist!” I repeated in English.

There was something macabrely funny about that. I was relieved Jonathan saw it as well.

Focusing again, he went on, “He got to this guy and held him off me and then went and got the other guy and pulled him back from where he had Jeremy. Then he pulled me up and took us back to the military post.”

Listening to his story my adrenaline level increased. I let out a deep breath of relief at his rescue.

“Obviously I was very shaken up,” he said. “I just laid into the Indonesians, saying ‘What the hell, why? You’re the Army, you’re supposed to stop this. Why are you letting these guys do this? They are running havoc,’ and they were all saying ‘Oh, we can’t interfere we don’t have that authority.’

“Maybe half an hour later, they brought over the militia guy who first attacked us. He was still panting, but they were calming him down. Then they explained to me that he was angry because some of his friends got killed. There had been a funeral, they were from the Aitarak militia. I think they had been at the funeral that day, so they were pretty fired up.”

I glanced at the driver. Oblivious to my thoughts or condition, he had calmly negotiated the airport traffic.
“Atambua, that’s right near the border with Timor L’Este?”
“Near border, yes.”

We pulled into the arrivals area. I stepped out, opened the rear door, grabbed my bag, waved away the porter, lent into the open passenger side door and paid the driver. “Thank you, sir. Safe journey to Dili.”
I smiled, “Keep the change.”

‘Beyond Borders: A conversation across boundaries’ is published as an Apple Book in a multimedia format.

It is also published on the Amazon Kindle platform with links to a multimedia site.

Both versions link to bonus content with additional resources and backstories.

There is also a pdf version available from this page

3 thoughts on “Beginning a Journey

  1. A very compelling read Russell. I was in East and West Timor in 1970 and 1973. One of those convicted over the murder of the four UN workers in Atambua, Julius Naisama, is now a high level functionary in Prabowo’s Gerinda Party


    1. I would be most interested in talking with you. I’ve had some reports from people on Timor in the period 1970’73 and would like to cross reference things that they have told me. Julius Naisama’s current position does not surprise me.


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