- 12 Mar 01
East Timor may be out of the headlines but for those on the ground the problem in that ravaged country is less one of re-building than of almost total construction from scratch. MACDARA DOYLE reports.
The violence came early to Ermera. Situated to the south of the capital, Dili, the region was always particularly cherished by senior Indonesian army (TNI) officers.
Ermera s fertile soils are renowned for the high-quality coffee they produce. The TNI had long enjoyed a monopoly on the sale and export of this lucrative crop, just one of their many spoils of conquest. There was more at stake in East Timor than simple imperial prestige.
As in other selected areas of the country, the TNI s meticulously-planned campaign of terror in Ermera, began months in advance of the August 30 referendum. It followed a pattern that was to become depressingly familiar throughout East Timor: houses burned and looted, men beaten and killed, women sexually assaulted and raped.
After September 4 when the massive vote for independence was announced the killing and looting intensified. Jacinta Salsina, a mother of eight, fled with her family and crossed into West Timor. Avoiding the militia-controlled refugee camps, Jacinta and her family pooled resources with other refugees and managed to rent a small house.
For over four months, 17 men, women and children crowded into a cramped, three-roomed house. There was no electricity and no running water. The families survived on rice rations provided by the UNHCR. It was only in late January that Jacinta felt safe enough to return.
In Dili s refugee transit centre she heard from friends that her home in Ermera had been targeted by the militia. Although looted and burned, it was said the fire had not fully destroyed her house. It might still be habitable, she was told. Might.
At first sight, the wholesale destruction in East Timor seems unplanned and haphazard. So much was looted, laid waste and burnt to the ground it seems inconceivable that it could have resulted from anything but an outburst of deeply violent, deeply irrational anger.
But very quickly a certain consistency becomes discernible, the contours of a very clear strategy. Everywhere, private houses were targeted but not all private houses. Those considered pro-independence were hit first and hit hardest. Thereafter a sliding scale of suspicion determined the level of destruction. Where the melisi and their Indonesian masters deemed it necessary, whole villages were put to the torch.
In Raumoco a small settlement about four hours east of Dili language difficulties led to confusion over the level of destruction that had been experienced. Sixty families, a village spokesman answered in response to our queries. Sixty families.
Eventually it became clear he was informing us that all sixty houses belonging to all sixty families in the village had been burnt to the ground. Ashes and a square of blackened stones are all that remain of their largely wooden dwellings.
The people of Daudere fared marginally better: 90 percent of their homes were destroyed.
In Manatuto, a large town also to the east of Dili, the destruction is virtually complete. Shops, offices, health facilities, public buildings, schools and private houses were systematically looted and destroyed. Practically every single structure bears the blackened scorchmarks of the militia s passing. Manatuto is the hometown of Xanana Gusmao, head of the East Timorese resistance.
Remarkably, this chronicle of destruction was largely foretold. Leaked Australian intelligence documents warned of Indonesian plans as far back as March 1999 should they lose the referendum.
A scorched earth policy was predicted, in the event of a loss at the polls. Explicitly, the Indonesian strategy would entail: A coordinated process of revenge, destruction of infrastructure and records, killing of pro-independence leaders and both short and longer-term destabilisation of East Timor.
The TNI s campaign proved remarkably faithful to the Australian predictions. Over 90 percent of East Timor s infrastructure was destroyed. Particular attention was paid to anything that might conceivably be of benefit to the newly-independent state. Thus, an estimated 95% of schools were laid waste and educational materials looted.
A recent UN Inquiry into human rights violations in East Timor noted that: Most school buildings have been destroyed. The education system is in a state of paralysis.
The country s health services suffered similar attention. Again, the UN inquiry team concluded that: More than 70 per cent of health services have been disrupted. Even where the buildings have not been destroyed, equipment, drugs and files were looted.
As Xanana Gusmao recently observed, the task in East Timor is not one of rebuilding: East Timor is not going to be reconstructed, he clarified, it needs to be built from ground zero.
The Indonesian army planned their campaign of violence over a year in advance. Local militias were recruited often pressganged to create the impression that the East Timorese were fighting amongst themselves, and to afford the Indonesian army maximum deniability , according to the Australian intelligence documents.
An attempt was even made to confer a pseudo-legitimacy on these hired henchmen: the Indonesians called them Wanra the People s Fighting Force.
Despite Indonesian protestations that the militias were merely out of control the campaign of violence conformed to a distinct strategy. Prior to August 30, the people were to be terrorised and intimidated into voting against independence. Care was also taken to intimidate journalists and UN workers, thereby discouraging potential witnesses. After September 4, the scorched earth policy was implemented.
Attempts were also made to conceal evidence of atrocities. One East Timorese witness told the UN inquiry team that he had been forced to remove 15 bodies from the site of an April 6 massacre, in Liquica, a town to the west of Dili. He disposed of the bodies in a nearby lake. The victims had sought refuge in a church, where the TNI and militia went on a shooting spree.
Another told how on April 12, next to the TNI residence in Cailaco, people were forced to stand in a line by militia and TNI, and then to kneel and pray. Then they were killed with automatic guns and pistols. The dead bodies were thrown on a truck and driven away. 22 bodies were found later, 13 of them in one grave.
In early February, the remains of 45 people were uncovered in shallow graves along a riverbank that marks the border with Indonesian-controlled West Timor. Another ten bodies are believed to be buried there.
UN officials said the victims were rounded up by the TNI, their names registered, and their hands bound with palm twine. They were then taken a short distance to a pre-arranged site where militia members hacked them to death with machetes.
The UN s inquiry team concluded that during the campaign of violence the TNI had engaged in a systematic attempt to destroy evidence, including removal of bodies from the site of killings.
So far, over 300 bodies have been unearthed, but the final death toll is likely to be over 1000.
In opting for independence, the East Timorese chose a future that entails a great degree of uncertainty, a sense of uncertainty compounded by the current ravaged state of their country. Nonetheless, there was absolute certainty about what they were voting against:
In December 1996, East Timor s Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos Horta were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Belo returned to Dili, shortly after the awards ceremony. Outside the city s cathedral, he was greeted by a large crowd of supporters.
The Nobel Award was viewed as perhaps the first sign, since the 1974 invasion, that the prevailing international attitude towards Indonesia s occupation either outright support or feigned ignorance might be changing. Not surprisingly, the award outraged the Indonesians.
On the day Bishop Belo returned, an unidentified woman was detained by the TNI, outside the cathedral. Three days later, her partially clothed corpse turned up on a nearby beach. Her body bore signs of rape and torture.
Twelve months later, a remarkable series of photographs fell into the hands of the East Timorese resistance. Among them was a series of 24 graphic images detailing the explicit savagery the unidentified woman had been subjected to in Indonesian custody. It was common practice for the TNI (and others) to photograph their torture and murder sessions.
The pictures detail the methodical manner in which the TNI went about their business. Not content with torture, they set about the ritual humiliation of the woman.
The pictures show Indonesian soldiers posing with the trophy-like corpse of their partially-clothed, blindfolded victim. One holds up a sign that mockingly reads: Hidup hadia Nobel Long Live the Nobel.
Similarly taunting graffiti is scrawled across the woman s body.
Above her breasts is written: This is a Timorese champion, this is what becomes when anti RI. (probably Republic of Indonesia)
Her body is turned over by her killers. On the back of her right leg they have written: Champion cat shit, Dead like rat.
On her exposed abdomen, a cross is drawn, a mocking reference to the woman s christianity. In the last photo, the woman s body is laid out under an image of Jesus and a sign placed at her feet: If you are God s child, try to come down and resuscitate your faithful.
The pictures provided but a brief if harrowing glimpse into a 25 year long catalogue of horror from which East Timor is only now emerging. Nonetheless, there is some optimism. Colloquially, East Timor is known as Timor lorosa e , a term also favoured as the official name of the newly-independent entity. Loosely, it translates as Timor where the Sun rises . n
* Macdara Doyle is a Communications Officer with Concern. To date, Concern has distributed educational materials worth over IR P70,000 to schools and schoolchildren throughout East Timor: the materials include basic, but badly-needed items such as: notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers, chalk and blackboards. This has helped kickstart the country s education system. Concern is also examining proposals to help with the reconstruction of school buildings. In addition, the organisation is engaged in a programme to rebuild over 3,000 destroyed homes, over the coming months.