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Cover story

Terror in East Timor


A dark and unsettling silence began to fall over helpless East Timor late last week as foreigners, fearing for their lives, fled the territory, which was being cut off from the outside world and left to the angry wills of bloodthirsty militiamen.

The United Nations, the last foreign presence, announced it was pulling out most of its workers because its mission was running out of food and water, and Jakarta’s imposition of martial law had done nothing to stop the slaughter.

The international diplomatic community appeared stunned and paralyzed. The Vatican was among many nations demanding an immediate end to the violence but helpless to stop it.

One observer group, the International Federation for East Timor Observer Project, which had brought more than 120 volunteer observers to the territory, announcing its departure, issued a chilling statement: “We left East Timor for safety but with tremendous sadness. The East Timorese people have no Australia to run to, no place to hide from militia terror.

“As we escaped we kept thinking of 1975, when the international community abandoned East Timor, allowing the Indonesian military to invade and kill 200,000 people with impunity.”

In the week following the U.N.-sponsored Aug. 30 elections, militiamen, backed by Indonesian police and military, have sent East Timor into mayhem, burning and pillaging homes, running wild on city streets and murdering at will. According to some reports, roads were lined with posts topped with decapitated heads.

Refugees fleeing East Timor said tens of thousands were being forced to leave the territory by Indonesian military. It was not clear where they were being taken. Some reports said that up to 200,000 East Timorese had already fled or were being forced out by week’s end.

Widespread reports of machete murders and mass killings emerged from refugees arriving in Australia. The United Nations said it was investigating reports that 100 people had been massacred in a church at Suai, on the south coast of East Timor.

Militia attacked and burned the home of Bishop Carlos Bello, who fled to Australia.

The U.N. Security Council said it could not send in a peacekeeping force without the formal consent of the Indonesian government, which at first denied complicity in the terror but later hinted that wayward military leaders were possibly involved. The government sent in more military units, but the killings continued.

Nearly 80 percent of those who participated in the election voted for independence from Indonesia. The announcement of the results Sept. 5 sparked the most violent wave of terror.

Meanwhile, world pressure mounted on Jakarta to restore order. In New York, East Timorese independence leader and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta asked for a freeze on international aid and loans to Indonesia by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The World Bank said Indonesia’s handling of East Timor could affect its decision on whether to proceed with a $300 million disbursement. Last year the World Bank lent $2.1 billion to Indonesia.

Ramos-Horta and other human rights groups also criticized the United Nations for acquiescing in Jakarta’s decision to declare martial law in East Timor.

The Clinton administration initially appeared to take a hands off attitude, but soon joined in protesting the violence.

Senior Indonesian army officers were reported as saying the violence stems from “the hardheadedness” of several generals who did not want to let the territory go. Their reluctance, said analysts, stemmed from the fact that the military had sacrificed lives and resources for the territory. There was also an underlying uneasiness in the view that letting East Timor go would set a precedent for other independence groups in other parts of Indonesia.

Said a two-star army general: “When the East Timorese voted for independence, it was a slap in the face for Indonesia. Most of the violence happening on the ground will have some connection to the military. There are officers and soldiers who will want to protect the military’s interests there. They will want to kill before being killed.”

An intelligence officer, a colonel, was reported to have said that most of the active generals were “furious” that President B.J. Habibie “willingly accepted” the election results. He added that a core group of senior officers wanted the president to investigate charges of election fraud by U.N. personnel overseeing the polls.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999