East Timor: The Final Hour
Indonesia unilaterally claimed the integration of East Timor in 1975 as its 27th province. During the 24 years of Soeharto’s presidency, Indonesia made every effort to get the international community to recognize this “integration,” while the United Nations otherwise classified East Timor a non-self governing territory (or non-decolonized).
The political climate in Indonesia changed drastically when President Soeharto stepped down on May 21st, 1998, one year prior to the end of his term, and was replaced by Vice President BJ Habibie. No one expected President Habibie to celebrate the New Year in 1999 by releasing East Timor from the Republic of Indonesia pending the results of a referendum offering East Timorese two options: either “special autonomy” within the Republic of Indonesia or independence. The referendum was held on August 30th, 1999. The results were announced on September 4th. East Timor chose independence.
The publication of the book from which the following excerpt is taken not only resulted in the loss of my 20-year tenure as war correspondent for Kompas Daily, the highest circulation national newspaper in Indonesia, but also in my ongoing exile in the US due to threats to my life. The book created controversy because of its explicitly unbiased coverage of the atrocities committed in East Timor between July and November 1999 in which I name East Timorese factions responsible for numerous deaths, but more seriously the names of Indonesian National Army figureheads that were involved in conspiracy and campaign propaganda days before the referendum.
The excerpt is taken from Chapter III and describes events that took place in Dili, the capital of East Timor, between the day of the vote and the day the results were confirmed. A million thanks to Linda Gaboriau and Dylan K Widjiono for their contribution to this translation.
Days of Loss and Sadness
“He is bleeding! He is bleeding....!!!”
Sister Bernadette shouted while aiding a wounded man. She is a nun from the Philippines who served at the Convent of Saint Paul of Chartres, while the injured man was a campaigner from the pro-autonomy faction. I came rushing over. Her left hand appeared to be bleeding and was holding a watch also covered in blood.
“Sister, what happened? Whose watch is that?” I asked.
“Nothing happened to me. I was only helping a stabbing victim. This is his watch. He's being rushed to Motael Hospital by Sister Carmen,” she said.
It was Thursday, August 26th, 1999, the last day of the referendum campaigns. The city of Dili was seething as the rivalry between the pro-autonomy and pro-independence camps grew more palpable, and more violent. People fiercely threw stones at pro-autonomy campaigners passing through Bekora and Kuluhun, two villages in southern Dili known as centers for pro-independence fighters. The campaigners immediately turned back.
A small car headed straight for the pro-independence neighborhood of Bekora, riling its residents into a fit of rage. The car was full of passengers wearing red t-shirts emblazoned with the word otonomi (autonomy). Villagers reacted by bombarding them with stones. In front of the Convent of Saint Paul of Chartres, where Sister Bernadette served, the car made a U-turn. A panicked passenger got out of the car. He tried to escape the scene, but was soon caught by riotous locals and stabbed.
Other campaigners passed by. The mobs were hitting everything around them to sound the alarm that danger was near. They ran and threw more stones. They burned a motorcycle that they thought belonged to the pro-autonomy campaigners (as it happens, it did not; it belonged to Kornelis, a local journalist).
A moment later, more campaign supporters arrived, in larger numbers now. They wore uniforms that were completely black but for the word Aitarak written on their backs (1). They were militias, or pro-autonomy squads, from the greater Dili area led by Eurico Guterres. They headed towards the pro-independence neighborhood Bekora throwing stones and firing shots in the air. Bang! Bang! Bang! They shot Kornelis, who was distracted by the destruction of his motorcycle and unaware of the more serious danger in front of him.
Five bullets hit his flak-jacket and one his leg. He immediately threw himself into a dry riverbed nearby, then ran about one kilometer before he was saved by a pro-independence supporter and rushed to a local hospital. The Aitarak member also shot Bea Wiharta, a Reuters photographer who was busy documenting the violence with his camera. In the midst of the shooting and chaos, the militias also managed to ransack a pickup truck rented by the English-language daily The Jakarta Post.
The Aitarak brigade, a mass of solid, black-clad, muscular bodies, grew more vicious now. Thousands of bullets and stones flew en masse towards Bekora. Many of Bekora’s civilians jumped into the riverbed and prepared to fight with bows-and-arrows. The group of militarized integration supporters pressed on toward their target.
Five journalists – three men and two women – tried to take cover beside a bridge across the riverbed but became pinned down by the flying bullets and stones. They were reporter Dicky Wahyudi and cameraman Toni Cahyono from the Indonesian TV station RCTI, German Mintapraja from the European TV station EBU, a foreign female reporter whom I could not see very clearly, and myself.
As soon as the militiamen saw us, one of them, a stocky man with dark skin wearing a solid-green army uniform with a green beret and the word Aitarak written in yellow above his left pocket, whipped out a hand grenade. Turning the grenade around and around in his right hand, he approached, coming closer and closer to the five of us.
“Jornalista!” one of us yelled, trying to let him know who we were. Unfortunately, the shouting only prompted the soldier to harass us further, pretending to pull the pin out of the grenade. I felt as if my heart stopped beating. I realized we had been shouting in the wrong language. Of course! I should have known that with pro-autonomy forces, we should have shouted in Indonesian wartawan (journalist) instead of the Portuguese word jornalista.
He decided, for whatever reason, only to scare us and went away, but another group approached almost immediately, wearing the same black uniforms. All of the militiamen carried guns. They stopped as soon they saw us. One set up his black rifle, which looked like an M-16, and aimed at us. Others followed suit. One man, in a white t-shirt and blue pants, took a hand gun out of his waistband and assumed a firing position. He surprised me by pointing the barrel of the gun right at my forehead.
“God, please forgive me.”
I could only utter this one short prayer when the weapon was cocked directly at my head, its barrel pointing between my eyes. I don't know why, but I could not take my eyes off the man. Some of the others were kicking Indonesian TV cameramen Toni Cahyono. Before any more weapons could be fired, a group of Indonesian Police arrived on the chaotic scene and rescued us.
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afnan khanJuly 18, 2012
Very daring work of journalism and an eye opener for the world. Stay blessed Ms CM Rien Kuntari.
William Shakespeare Macbeth,
"Ere we will eat our meal in fear and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly: better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace."