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Cover story

Independence vote the eye of the storm

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Suai, East Timor

Fr. Hilario and Fr. Francisco seem the most ordinary of men. In dress and appearance, they are indistinguishable from their parishioners in the town of Suai on the southern coast of East Timor. Suai is the district capital of Covalima on the border of West Timor. For the past five months, Covalima has been an area of escalating violence.

I first met Fr. Hilario in the temporary United Nations headquarters where he was trying to arrange for a helicopter to bring Bishop Carlos Filipe Belo to Suai for a Mass of reconciliation on the Sunday before the vote on autonomy, the vote that would determine East Timor’s political future. Later that same day I met Fr. Francisco who took us on a tour of the refugee encampment on the field beside the old church and among the scaffolding of the massive new church whose construction had been halted. Most refugees in the camp had come from the mountains of Covalima.

I was one of a team of four from The Carter Center, based in Atlanta, deployed to one of the most troubled areas in East Timor. The Carter Center had more than a dozen observers throughout East Timor as the result of a personal invitation from Indonesia’s President Habibie to former President Jimmy Carter. We were there to monitor the vote. Our clear mandate was to be absolutely neutral, to talk with all sides and to observe what was happening.

The refugee camp in the churchyard had over 4,000 residents, some of whom had arrived in April after being driven from their villages when the first, and some of the worst, violence and intimidation was begun by groups of armed militia. Two militia groups were formed in the area, one called The Eagle (Laksaur) and the other, Death or Life for Indonesia (Mahidi). Both groups are committed to the integration of East Timor with Indonesia. In their campaign for integration, they have been supported, armed and directed by the Indonesian military.

Keeping refugees alive

Fr. Francisco’s task was not just to provide the protection of the church. His daily task was to find the food, water and medicines to keep the refugees alive. As we walked around the camp, we talked mainly of the necessities of life. He purposely made no comment on the fact that the CNRT, the political council leading the campaign for independence, had set itself up among the refugees and had placed posters so they could be seen from the inside of the church.

The vote was only two days away, and the great concern was for a planned Mass of reconciliation. The hope was that Bishop Belo would be able to attend. Fr. Hilario’s task was to see that the ceremony occurred. Both he and Fr. Francisco had been working for weeks to see that a reconciliation agreement was reached between the warring factions. The mass of reconciliation was intended to bring both factions together in peace.

As it happened, the United Nations was able to fly the bishop to Suai, and the Mass was celebrated, with thousands crowded around the church. The ceremony itself was an emotional event with a public surrender of weapons as part of the offertory procession and then a tearful reconciliation -- embraces of peace -- between members of the CNRT and the two militia groups in front of the altar. Following the Mass, the Laksaur militia provided an escort to groups of refugees to allow them to return to their mountain villages to vote the next day.

The vote to determine East Timor’s future went ahead as planned Aug. 30. Because it had been twice postponed and had been preceded by such systematic threats, intimidation and killings, most observers expected further serious disruptions. Instead, on the day, voting was carried out peacefully and enthusiastically. The armed militia, who had campaigned aggressively for autonomy under Indonesian rule, ceased its activities. The Indonesian police, who had been criticized for failing to provide adequate security in the lead-up to the election, demonstrated exceptional professionalism. And the Indonesian army, suspected of masterminding excesses in the campaign, appeared to withdraw from the whole process, claiming the right to preside from above.

Under these conditions, the United Nations was able to perform its functions effectively. East Timorese streamed to the polling centers, many camping out the night before to be in line by the time the stations opened at 6:30 in the morning. In most areas, voting was completed hours before the centers officially closed. Ninety-nine percent of registered voters turned out to cast their ballot.

My assignment was to visit some of the more remote polling centers in the mountains north of Suai. By noon, when we reached our last assigned monitoring site, there were only a few Timorese waiting to cast their vote. As soon as they had voted, most Timorese left the polling centers to find their way back to their villages.

We met one old man who had previously come to the U.N. polling center to express his fears about coming to vote. Yet on the day, he arrived early with a large group from his village but had forgotten his identity card, without which he could not vote. Realizing this, he immediately set off for his village and returned again to vote as the very last person at that polling center.

The vote was a tribute to the courage of the East Timorese. When all the ballots were counted and the results announced Sept. 4, the Timorese had made it clear that their choice was overwhelmingly for independence. A vast majority -- 78.5% of East Timorese -- expressed their desire to establish a “new family” -- Bishop Belo’s words, in Tetun, the native language, that signaled to the people in the church in Suai what they were to do on the day of the vote.

No illusions

Although many people, both Timorese and outside observers, were puzzled by the fact that there were so few incidents on polling day, no one, especially not the Timorese, had any illusions about what was to follow. By the next day, the militia was out in force, particularly the hard-line militia known as Red and White Iron (Besi Merah Putih) and Thorn (Ai Tarak). Red and White Iron operate in the western mountain regions and along the north coast of the island. Thorn operates mainly in Dili, East Timor’s capital.

On our return to Dili on the day after the vote, we had to pass through six roadblocks of armed militia. At a couple, our car was stopped and searched, but fortunately our driver was from West Timor and he remained calm in the face of all threats. The rest of us in the car sat quietly, trying to appear calm and said as little as possible that might be interpreted as provocation.

Hours later an entire convoy of U.N. vehicles was stopped for hours by this same militia, demanding the surrender of the U.N.’s local East Timorese staff. Eventually everyone was able to arrive in Dili, which soon became the center of the greatest trouble.

Not all members of the militia, particularly in the case of Red and White Iron and of Thorn, are from East Timor. Many come from other parts of eastern Indonesia. Some come from West Timor and are able to fit in easily; others come from as far as Sulawesi and are much easier to detect. Because East Timor has been an area of special military operations, there are plainclothes military officers living among the population and directing the militias.

Many of these officers are from Indonesia’s Red Berets, Kopassus, or from military intelligence. They have been operating for years as a counterinsurgency force opposing the liberation forces of Falintil. These operational forces have never been under the direct command of the Indonesian territorial army, and their current relationship to Jakarta is complex and uncertain.

Just weeks before the vote, the Indonesian government changed its territorial commander in Dili. That commander, in turn, replaced various local district commanders three days before the vote took place. Suai was reputed to have one of the most vicious local commanders in East Timor. He was removed and left the district the day before the vote took place. As one Timorese said when he heard the news, “a snake does not function well without its head.” Some of these changes were an attempt by the Jakarta command to gain some measure of control over its own forces.

The army’s dilemma is that it refuses to admit that it has special forces in East Timor and that it cannot, dare not or will not control them. Plainclothes military continue to direct the militia in purposeful mayhem, hoping to provoke the armed Falintil into direct confrontation and to destroy as much as they can in the process. Red Cross headquarters, Bishop Belo’s house, refugee centers, hotels that house journalists have all been targeted and destroyed. In direct confrontation with Falintil, the army is hoping to score a victory that will allow it to depart knowing that it has managed to strike a parting blow to its longstanding enemy.

Falintil knows the Indonesian army better than the Indonesian army -- especially the newly arrived troops -- knows Falintil. Falintil is entirely equipped with arms obtained from the Indonesian military. In a confrontation, Falintil can choose its own time and place, and it is possible that the army will suffer another humiliating setback with its own weapons turned against it. Whatever happens, unless an outside force is able to intervene, it appears the East Timorese population will continue to suffer.

On the day we left Suai, we said goodbye to Fr. Hilario and Fr. Francisco and wished them well. They are peacemakers in a land torn by strife. For the moment, it is impossible to make contact with them and to know how they are surviving. The future of East Timor is in their hands and their compatriots’.

Some days after I arrived in Jakarta from Dili, I managed to make contact with an East Timorese colleague from the university in Dili who had escaped after the killings had begun. He told me that Fr. Hilario had been killed, along with many of the refugees in the churchyard of Suai whom he had tried to protect. He thought that Fr. Francisco had escaped, but by the next morning I received news from the East Timor Human Rights Center in Melbourne that both Fr. Hilario Pereira and Fr. Francisco Soares had been killed and their church burnt. Where, now, do we look for East Timor’s peacemakers?

James J. Fox is director of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. He is also the brother of NCR publisher Tom Fox.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999