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Eyewitness Diary From East Timor: "We Die"

East Timor Action Network
[Editor's Note: The motto of the Albion Monitor long has been "The News You're Missing." No finer example can be found than this short article.

For the last week, East Timor has endured a seige of terror following a referendum vote to determine if the nation would declare independence from Indonesia, which brutally invaded the country in 1975. Despite intimidation by Indonesian-funded militias in the months leading to the vote, virtually all of the eligible Timorese voted, with over 78 percent of the votes cast for independence. As shown in the article below, retribution from the militias was swift and brutal.

In the U.S. press, these horrors have been tucked into the corners of the front or inside pages and dryly chronicled as if these were all just diplomatic matters. The September 8 New York Times is typical: the small news story is reported from the New York / United Nations perspective, with today's brutality half a world away. While their coverage notes that as many as 200,000 Timorese have fled their homes in the last four days, a far larger space is given to a photograph concerned with 30 dead from an earthquake in Athens. A more important story? Hardly.

But in much of the rest of the world, the genocide in East Timor is headline news. Daily new reports appear from journalists risking their lives to document the slaughter of the Timorese people -- reports almost entirely ignored outside of Asia or Europe.

If all this seems familiar, readers might recall we produced a lengthy 404 report last year describing how the American media failed in its coverage of the overthrow of Indonesia's dictator. "Anyone comparing Asian and American newspapers during the past weeks would think they were reporting on completely different events," we wrote. "The differences were Orwellian; the American reporting was whitewashed, the historic and dramatic turned humdrum and predictable." All this is true again with the genocide of East Timor.

Below are vignettes culled from about dozens of non-U.S. news sources that appeared between August 31 to September 8. In these fragments can be found the heart of the Timorese people -- as well as remarkable courage by a few journalists. Surely John Aglionby and Lindsay Murdoch will be nominated for Pulitzer's next year; they clearly have the lock on the year's most important story to date, even though it's been shamefully ignored by the U.S.]

August 31
It took nearly a quarter of a century to arrive, but when voting day finally came, hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic East Timorese grabbed the opportunity. "It was amazing coming here this morning. There were hundreds of people walking, some of them barefoot, coming to the station," said United Nations electoral officer Martin Landi in the town of Manatuto, 50km west of the capital, Dili.

About 1,500 people waited in line, trying to shade themselves from the tropical sun with their voter registration cards. Some had walked 30km to vote.

-- South China Morning Post

September 1
In one of East Timor's most populous and strategic border areas, people power yesterday seemed to blow away the militias.

Charging through the night to catch the opening of the polls in Maliana at 6.30AM, we found them walking the road in their Sunday best. Young, craggy or crippled, many had been on the move for 10 hours and more...

Many had been there for hours clutching their laminated UN registration cards and ID. They were in great form, waving and smiling at the international community that came to help them express themselves. One little old man shook hands and kissed my hand.

-- David Shanks, The Irish Times

Anyone brave enough to venture out in Dili yesterday morning soon regretted it. Groups of menacing young men, all wearing the black shirts of the militia, were all over the city.

They call themselves Akaitarak -- or Thorn -- and though few were carrying weapons in Dili, out of lip service to last weekend's peace agreement, their violence was clear in their verbal threats.

"Where are you going? I don't think you need to be going this way. Why don't you just get out of here. Go on. Go home," was the typical greeting. Few disobeyed and by early morning the city was almost deserted except for the army of observers and journalists who had descended on East Timor for Monday's independence referendum.

-- John Aglionby, The Guardian [UK]

The militiamen simply appeared out of nowhere, and set upon us. We ran as fast as we could, and I sought shelter with my colleagues behind a building. I don't entirely recall what happened, though I gather colleagues of mine saw me being beaten. I think I'm quite lucky to be alive.

It was a very chaotic situation. While I was being beaten, there was Timorese man being beaten and hacked to death just across the road.

-- Jonathan Head, BBC

Finally, when we could see no militias, we made a break for the UN [compound in Dili], squelching through a muddy two meter- wide drainage ditch and vaulting over another glass-topped wall using a carry bag to protect us from cuts. UN people saw us and urged us to be quick.

We ran across another front yard and forced a narrow hole in a barbed wire and bamboo fence. A burly UN policeman was waiting on the other side and pulled me through and then almost carried me and threw me through the guardhouse.... We crouched panting, caked in mud and with minor cuts from the barbed wire in a compound crowded with dozens of foreign journalists and hundreds of UN staff.

-- Hamish Mcdonald, Sydney Morning Herald

September 2
Members of the Aitarak militia then fired shots into a group of independence supporters and the shooting moved towards the [UN] compound. During the attack, an Indonesian military truck was seen to drive through the militia, then turn round and leave. A group of Indonesian police was also seen driving near the fighting without intervening.

UN staff radioed the police, who said their arrival was delayed because they did not know the way to the compound, used by the UN since June.

-- Joanna Jolly, South China Morning Post

September 3
Yesterday's violence began, as it always does here, with rumors. At the Hotel Turismo, where many of the foreign press contingent are staying, somebody had heard that there was shooting on the other side of town. Five-hundred yards from the offices of UNAMET my canny driver urged us to go no farther. Ahead, figures could be seen darting and ducking -- a couple of dozen boys, throwing stones at a retreating pack of militiamen farther down the street.

A burning house was billowing black smoke; occasional pops could be heard from the homemade guns favoured by the militia -- treacherous blunderbusses consisting of a welded pipe packed with nails and gunpowder and set off with a cigarette lighter. The militia seemed to retreat and for a few moments the incident seemed to have sputtered out. Then events began to move very fast.

-- Richard Lloyd Parry, The Independent

Prepare to act or prepare to weep.

Predictions of slaughter in East Timor appear to be coming true now. Maliana is burning. Thousands are fleeing. Journalists are leaving in droves. The eyes of the world are being dimmed.

-- Press Release, Friends of East Timor (Western Australia)

September 4
Furious United Nations staff -- evacuated from Maliana following the murders of two UN poll workers in the district -- yesterday blasted Indonesian police for doing nothing while anti-independence militiamen rampaged.

A 38-car convoy from Maliana, carrying 40 foreign and 14 local UN staff, arrived at the UN Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) headquarters in the capital Dili yesterday afternoon, with some saying Maliana was in anarchy. The UNAMET staff had sought refuge in the Maliana police station after the militia went on the rampage and torched houses.

-- Ian Timberlake, South China Morning Post

The sound of the smack across my friend's face echoed like a gunshot. I whipped round to see her clutching her left ear and a fiery man shouting at her: "Get out you foreign dog."

This appeared to be a signal to the six men with him to attack us, five journalists investigating an attack by pro-Jakarta militias yesterday morning on the pro-independence suburb of Becora in the East Timor capital, Dili. Another man pulled out a pistol. It was only a homemade gun but we did not hang around to see if it would work.

-- John Aglionby, The Guardian [UK]

They wear black T-shirts with a little red and white Indonesian flag.

They carry machetes, knives and guns. A whole variety of guns: Medieval looking blunderbusses which are fired by lighting a fuse; home-made pistols with three barrels that fire three bullets simultaneously; and M16s probably supplied by the Indonesian military...

While I was running towards the UN compound a pro-independence supporter was being hunted down like an animal.

The young man fell after being hit on the head with a machete. Then six black T-shirts descended on him.

A colleague hiding in a shack just opposite the gates to the UN compound filmed the whole thing. It took only 30 seconds to hack the man to pieces.

-- Matt Frei, BBC

A skinny boy in filthy threadbare clothes hangs around my hotel. Ameu, 10, is a good kid, keeping an eye on my room when I am out. He has suffered a great deal; both his mother and father are dead. This morning he was running his finger along the blade of a sharp dagger. I asked him where he got it but he just shrugged. "I will not be killed," he said.

-- Lindsay Murdoch, The Age [Australia]

September 5
Yesterday afternoon, an American policeman, serving with the UN as part of their unarmed civilian force, was shot in the stomach as the UN team were evacuating in a convoy from the town of Liquisa.

Last night, it was reported that his attackers were not the anti-independence militia men who have already taken over large parts of East Timor, but a member of the Indonesian police -- the very organization that is supposed to be protecting the UN police monitors.

-- The Independent [London]

The truth is that the pro-Jakarta militias were created and financed by the Indonesian army. Yesterday they were moving quickly to take over. Many of the members of the militias are not East Timorese but thugs who have been trucked in from West Timor, Flores and as far afield as Java -- stoked up on drugs and alcohol. But that only tells half of the story. For more than half of the estimated 50,000 militiamen in the territory are not carrying guns voluntarily -- they are conscripts. Domingos Pereira, a one-time militiaman who fled to the independence guerrillas in the western highlands, said soldiers had threatened to kill him and the other villagers in April if they did not join. 'We had no choice but to burn houses and beat people,' he said...

Now death, destruction and terror are the order of the day -- all with the complicity of the 1,400 army reinforcements who arrived in East Timor last Friday, allegedly to quell the militia gangs.

Final confirmation of this alliance -- if it were needed -- came at the Mahkota five hours after the first attack. Several militiamen, led by a Bob Marley- meets- Rambo character brandishing a submachine gun, advanced on the front door.

First came a young man with a machete rushing up the steps and smashing the windows of the front door and the glass-fronted restaurant. He then ambled away, dropping his weapon on the way. The nearest policeman bent down, picked it up and handed it back to him.

-- John Aglionby, The Observer/Guardian [UK]

Thousands of Timorese were fleeing the city today. All along the main western road leading out of town people were loading up cars, trucks and battered blue taxis with possessions, not even looking up when the occasional pop of an automatic weapon came out of the surrounding suburbs.

No one was sure if the road blocks on the road leading west that were operated by violent militia yesterday were still there.

Horrible stories were circulating about killings and road blocks outside of town but with no traffic coming into Dili no one knew if the stories were true.

-- Sydney Morning Herald

This report has been compiled under extremely difficult circumstances as the situation in Dili deteriorates by the hour.

Saturday night there was shooting throughout the night in the Dili suburb of Becora which continued till sun rise. Early Sunday morning, hand grenades were heard to be exploding. Becora is now blockaded -- nobody can get in or out.

There are unconfirmed reports of many killings of men, women and children. An unconfirmed number of 77 bodies are reported to be scatted throughout houses, lane and water ways. Bodies of young children are reported to be among the dead including one with a twisted neck. There are also reports of children's bodies being thrown on fires.

The Red Cross and UNAMET have been denied access to the dead and injured and are under strict orders not to leave their compounds. No one is able to investigate these reports. One witness that has come into the IFET (International Federation for East Timor Observer Project) office to report on the Becora killings, but other people are too fearful to move out of the area.

Approximately 1,000 people are seeking refuge in a local church.

There are also reports of people killed in the mountains above Dili. Lots of trucks were seen travelling up out of Dili loaded with uniformed men.

Another report estimates that 200 refugees are at the Protestant Hosana Church. At 2PM Sunday there was shooting coming from the downtown area of Dili where the church is situated. At this time there is

At 4PM the police moved into the Mahkota hotel and forced journalists out of their rooms and escorted them to the airport. The building next to the hotel is on fire.

It was reported at 5PM that buildings in the suburb of Balide were on fire and 300 refugees were held up in a church school with Silesian Sisters. The Timor Aid office in this area was looted.

There has been a warning that the Motael Clinic will be attacked tonight and the building destroyed. There are three doctors and two nurses, some of them Australian. At present there are 25 patients and their family members. A total of 57 people people.

The situation is now extremely critical. IFET-OP believes that unless there is an immediate intervention by a peace-keeping force within days, the consequences will be catastrophic.

-- Eric S. Piotrowski, IFET-OP U.S. Interim Coordinator

September 6
There's no question. This is a clear targeting of UN staff. Going out in a UN vehicle is a death warrant.

What we've seen is three or four months of complicity between the TNI (the Indonesian army) and the militia and the police. Now it's not just complicity, it's the three of them acting together, actually shooting at the UN.

-- Vaudine England, South China Morning Post

Most of the 500-odd foreign journalists who were in Dili for the ballot had left, along with thousands of Indonesians who have packed Indonesian military Hercules operating a shuttle evacuation service from Dili, and crammed boats and road convoys.

About 20 guests are holed up in the Hotel Turismo where the UN cleared out most of the food, and nearly all the staff have fled.

We have dangled a rope out the back from the roof. If the militia come the idea is we drop into the grounds of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

-- Lindsay Murdoch, Sydney Morning Herald

Maree Colvin, an American journalist, watched the terror unfold [at the Red Cross compound in Dili] from her hotel window next door.

MAREE COLVIN: Women and children rolling around on the floor in terror for their lives. Militia looked on by the military pointing guns at women holding their arms in the air and screaming. They were basically being forced out of the compound. But you have to realise there was so much gunfire, you know, crying all over the place [inaudible] these people thought they were being taken out to be killed.

-- Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Shortly after nightfall, in a well-organized exercise in terror clearly intended to look like civil war and to paralyze UN operations, gunmen started firing streams of tracer fire over a crowded camp in a school area next to the UN compound. It had the desired effect. Men, women and children threw themselves at the razor wire that surrounds the compound in a frantic attempt to escape what they had been warned would happen to them.

The women had been told to dance and enjoy the day because it would be their last.

Shredding themselves on the wire, they ran screaming into the UN base; 1,400 men, women and children crammed into the hall. They were already hungry and tired from days in the camp.

-- David Watts in Dili and James Bone in New York, The Times [London]

September 7
Evacuees reaching Darwin in northern Australia described Dili as a city of fear last night, with hundreds of severed human heads on sticks erected on roads leading out of the East Timorese capital.

Hundreds of people are feared to have died in the terror inflicted by pro-Indonesia militia and the Indonesian army, the TNI.

-- Conor O'Clery in Jakarta and Liam Phelan in Dili, Irish Times [Dublin]

A frightening pattern has developed throughout East Timor, with the Indonesian army using intimidation to force out foreigners.

The pattern involves foreigners first being told they will soon be attacked and that the police are unable to protect them. Militias are then used to attack foreign offices and missions, often firing into the air and not directly at the foreign workers. The army then has an excuse to come in and evacuate foreigners.

-- Joanna Jolly, South China Morning Post

The shots intensified as we raced inside the UN's compound. But several hundred UN staff camped out in the former Indonesian school didn't seem too worried.

"They shoot all the time. You'll get used to it," an Australian federal policeman said. But as the night wore on we found ourselves diving more often under tables or behind doors. Tension turned to fear when somebody lobbed a hand grenade at the front fence. UN officers became even more worried when they heard self-propelled rocket grenade launchers being fired in the distance.

The compound had been orderly until the militia opened fire on hundreds of residents taking refuge in an adjoining school yard. People panicked as a 15-minute burst of fully automatic rounds splintered into the school.

Between the gunfire and the UN compound stood a razor wire fence. Terrorized mothers threw children over it, some of them breaking bones. Older children braved deep cuts to their legs and hands to climb over the wire.

Within minutes UN guards had thrown open the complex and hundreds of refugees were streaming inside. UN staff carried wailing children, some only toddlers.

-- Lindsay Murdoch, Sydney Morning Herald

Australia's ambassador to Jakarta, John McCarthy, was shot at while escorting foreign evacuees to the airport and the Australian consulate also came under fire.

East Timorese screamed at the passing vehicles, imploring the foreigners to remain. They fear that without foreign monitors the atrocities will escalate. "No one is prepared to stop the Indonesian army," said a priest at Dili's Motael church. "There is no help from outside. So in the next three days we are all going to die."

-- John Aglionby in Bali and John Martinkus in Dili, The Guardian [UK]

September 8
There was a lot of activity in town. Parts of Dili were burning. There were heavy explosions. We heard rumours that the militia were torching buildings but had become bored with that and then started blowing them up. We saw, I saw TNI soldiers looting in the streets. There's basically it was a scene of anarchy. There were refugees fleeing. There were displaced people everywhere.

-- Steve Tickner, Australian Broadcasting Corp.

The electricity in the UN compound is out, the phones don't work and nervous local employees ask if they will be abandoned to the fury of East Timorese death squads. By night, machine guns crackle outside. Indonesia's army and its vigilante militias rule the streets.

We know the outside world is watching this small compound, filled with tired staff of UNAMET and more than 2,500 East Timorese workers and refugees.

-- John Martinkus, The Guardian [UK]

I talked with one foreigner, one American last night who was in Dili, and said that virtually the entire center of the city has been burned down. It's not surprising since apparently there's no electricity and most of the water system, people have their own wells and electric pump, so if there's no electricity there's no water. There are almost no people. Everyone has either fled to the mountains or been herded into churches, into UNAMET compounds or put on trucks and taken by boats and taken out of East Timor.

The people who are in churches and compounds are being surrounded by militias. There are reliable reports that, in one church building, 25 people were killed by a militia attack on a church. People are absolutely desperate. The one protection that they thought they had was the protection of God in the implementation of the churches and the Bishop's house and the Bishop's residence...

The East Timorese people know that these are not people who can be entrusted to protect them, and it's only the United Nations and the Australian Government and the United States Government that have accepted this kind of fiction, that somehow the Indonesian military is going to protect the people of East Timor from the militias. There is no difference between the militias and the Indonesian military.

-- Charlie Scheiner, Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Eyewitnesses have told how the Indonesian military combined with militias in Dili to storm Catholic Church and Red Cross compounds, forcing out thousands of East Timorese people sheltering there.

Speaking after his evacuation to Darwin, the head of the Red Cross in Dili, Mr Jean Luc Metzker, said that on Monday morning militia men armed with automatic weapons broke into the Red Cross compound where 2,000 people, including children as young as two- day-old babies, were sheltering. They were backed by Indonesian police, who surrounded the compound's perimeter so people could not flee, and by Indonesian Army units who pulled up in army trucks to help transport the refugees away.

-- Bernard Lagan, Sydney Morning Herald

There are not many of us left, here in the United Nations' besieged compound. It seems the military's operation, to terrify the UN and media out of Dili, is running right on schedule...

The compound had come under direct fire yesterday and the utter despair was articulated by Ian Martin, the head of the UN mission in East Timor, as a line of mothers queued at the door, waiting to see a UN doctor.

The first mother was crying. Along the line, others were either crying or appeared distressed. Asked what would happen to them if we all left, Mr Martin could not answer. Asked what would happen if the killers came over the fence, he hesitated, then said: "We die."

-- Lindsay Murdoch, Sydney Morning Herald


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