by Max White
In honor of the 20th anniversary of Timor-Leste’s vote for independence, HAI is sharing stories from current and former employees and volunteers who experienced life in Timor preceding, during, and following the passage of this momentous referendum.
On July 4, 1999 I was in an aid convoy heading to a rural district of East Timor (now Timor-Leste) that was attacked by Indonesian-led militias. The irony of the Fourth of July date was not lost on me during those three long days, twenty years ago. By the end of the year, East Timor would be independent of Indonesia, on the way to becoming a new country.
After 25 years of an illegal, brutal occupation of East Timor, a new Indonesian government agreed, nearly by accident, to a UN-supervised referendum on independence. The “stinking agreement” with Indonesia, as I heard UN people call it, stipulated that UN personnel and outside observers of the referendum could not be armed. Only the Indonesian military, police and their Timorese militias could carry weapons.
When the referendum was announced, it was time for these compromised young militia members to do their dirty duty for their Indonesian masters. The Indonesian military had organized local militias with names like Besi Merah Putih (BMP, “Iron Red and White”). Since childhood, vulnerable Timorese boys were cultivated and seduced into supporting the occupiers. Under the direction of Indonesia, militias dramatically increased their repression and terror tactics against the Timorese population in the run-up to the referendum. They forced people from villages, burned their homes, abused and killed people. People were driven farther and farther from Dili, into rural areas where less international help could reach them.
A coalition of East Timor non-governmental organizations (NGOs) decided to send food, medical supplies and other help from Dili to Sare. This was a small town southwest of Dili that sat behind two villages, Guico and Lissa Dilal, that had been destroyed by the militias. The NGOs were emboldened because the United Nations was now in the country as “peacekeepers.” Even though the UN staff was not allowed to have weapons, East Timor briefly had the attention of the world press. A UN presence, went the reasoning, would deter attacks of those delivering aid.
July 2, 1999
Early morning as the sun rose, I walked to the United Nations Food Program warehouse, filled with fat white bags of rice and other supplies. A Portuguese news crew – the director and a cameraman – drove up in a bemo (slang for a small van). They jumped out the side door and filmed us, bags of rice and all. More cars and bemos showed up. Men jumped into the warehouse, eager to help load.
The first truck arrived, a yellow Kijang (Indonesian Toyota), a big box-on-wheels with high wooden sides. The driver backed toward the loading ramp watching in the mirror as men with hands spread moved them closer and closer. The scene took me back to high school summers “bucking hay” and jumping out to signal the same way as the boss backed up. Those had been a warm summer days like this. Briefly I felt at peace.
We began passing fifty-pound bags person-to-person, to be stacked in the truck bed. In black letters the bags read “United Nations Food Program,” with the names of countries – Thailand, Japan, USA. I pictured a Thai farmer wading in a rice paddy, never dreaming that the plants he set would feed starving folks in a sister country. The trucks filled up, and the convoy formed as we waited for the UN to arrive.
Tension piled up like the sacks. Where was the UN? The night before, they had asked Indonesians for a police escort, as per the very unpopular agreement. The police agreed but the next morning refused. This was a typical move: the military did everything they could to sabotage the vote. I admired the head of the UN mission, Ian Martin, for his refusal to be intimidated. (I’d heard of one “negotiation” when Martin told an Indonesian officer, in polite British accent, “You are not telling me the truth, sir. Would you please re-phrase that?”)
As the loaded trucks lined up with cars behind, we were getting anxious. I wondered when to send word to Dr. Dan Murphy that we were ready to go. I was a manager for an international NGO, Health Alliance International, and we worked with Dan. He was seeing patients at Motael Clinic a few blocks away, and asked to be notified when to join us. We waited. Men smoked, women talked in groups. Men kicked a soccer ball around without enthusiasm.
Around 10AM a Land Rover with UN markings slowly rolled past and parked in front of the warehouse. Patrick Burgess, the UN Human Rights Coordinator, and a representative from the IOM (International Organization for Migration) stepped out. Patrick, a tall, blonde Australian, appeared young for that responsibility. Their Timorese driver sat in the Rover and lit a cigarette, and I sent a boy to Motael Cinic to fetch Dan. The UN reps agreed that a woman from a Timorese NGO, HAK, and I would ride with them in the Rover. Burgess described a heated argument at the UN headquarters: should they escort the convoy without a police escort? Burgess and others prevailed.
We took off, and in half an hour we were at the east end of Liquica, enjoying the view of clean beaches to our right. Patrick said, “My mates and I used to come here to surf. Loved it. Now here I am again.” Shortly after Liquica we were in second gear on unpaved roads, for a trip that would have taken an hour or so if we were in Oregon, where I’d come from. It would take us nearly six.
The convoy eventually drove across a wet creek bed where a truck got stuck. A journalist from Germany named Ingrid was strangely optimistic as she jumped out of the Portuguese bemo. She chirped, “I helped get convoys unstuck in Africa. I know how.” I thought, “Militias will descend on us like lions on weak prey.” We scrambled, tossed rocks and branches under the spinning wheels of the truck, which tilted to the left, deep in mud. We pushed, though it was futile and dangerous. We yelled instructions to the driver, who ignored them. Finally the truck lurched up and forward.
What followed was hours on a narrow, depressing, rocky road punctuated by abandoned villages with burned houses, charred fields and rice paddies, plundered gardens and orchards. In the car, conversation slacked. We quit speculating about when and where we would run into a roadblock. We had encountered neither militias nor Indonesian troops. “Quiet, too quiet,” someone said.
The convoy finally arrived in the center of the town of Sare, a round dirt area bordered on two sides by concrete block buildings with metal roofs plus a few benches. Trucks and cars maneuvered into a field to park, and an informal council decided to have all vehicles facing outward. If there was an attack we could use the headlights. Hundreds of people rushed to the square, some cheering and waving, a few crying. Many looked zombie-passive, deadened.
Dr. Murphy moved into clinical mode, ready to see patients. Upstairs in the largest building I found a line of rooms about three meters square each, with open doorways along the balcony that would work for the makeshift clinic. With help I found two small tables and three chairs and brought up medicines. This was now a clinic, and I the unlicensed, unqualified pharmacist. But with few medicines to dispense it was an easy task: chloroquine for malaria, mild pain pills, a few others. Clean water and a doctor’s attention were medicine. Dr. Murphy once said to me, “I don’t know what works, Max. I think sometimes it’s just laying on hands.”
The stairway was soon filled with men and boys wanting to be seen. They were the ones who hadn’t joined militias. Dan would ask each one, in Tetum or Portuguese, “What’s the problem?” and would sometimes turn to me and explain the answer: “Man beating.” The man had been beaten up. Dan would lift his stethoscope off his neck, position it, and listen. He’d done the same many hundreds of times, thousands including his previous life in another former Portuguese colony, Mozambique.
Dan prescribed. I counted, and a nurse named Gil wrote numbers onto pre-torn squares of paper, folded pills into simple square origamis and handed the packages to the patients. Dan explained when and how to take them. The patient rose and left out the opposite door as the next patient sat down. We went on like this for hours after dark.
At dawn we unloaded the trucks and distributed rice. Some of the trucks would head back to Dili immediately, as they were rented.
Dan continued to see patients, this time more women and dehydrated, malnourished children. In a room under us, women boiled water and mixed it with small amounts of sugar and salt: a simple but effective treatment for diarrhea. Villagers from farther away streamed in, and more food was distributed. Desperate families fleeing with little food for weeks calmly waited their turn – a contrast to scenes of people in similar states of desperation in other countries rioting and fighting for food. The estimate was that over 3,500 people received aid that trip.
A Catholic priest with us, who I only remember as “Father,” used another of the rooms upstairs to hear confessions from a parade of Timorese. In the downstairs room, women cooked. We took a break from seeing patients and penitents. After eating, Father and I met on the balcony and watched the ordered chaos outside. He mentioned that the UN knew we had made it to Sare.
“How?” I asked, incredulous.
“I have a satellite phone, and they called me.” In the States I had a business servicing commercial satellite equipment, but had never seen one of these stratospherically expensive Iridium phones. A day later I would think of the priest’s phone as a Godsend. So to speak.
Sunday morning Father did his thing, saying Mass in his white robes and armed with the usual paraphernalia. After the services he apologized to the congregants that he would be leaving with the convoy. I thought it fortuitous that he was with us, a clearly identifiable man of the cloth.
We set out late in the morning to return to Dili. More people were riding back than had come with us, some of whom were hitching rides. The HAK representative and I again rode in the UN vehicle, and two Timorese women climbed into the far back. Everyone was tired.
We moved a bit faster on the return trip. People were more relaxed, certain that militias would not be interested now that we were not carrying supplies. I half-slept for a while.
As we came back into Liquica, Patrick halted in the middle of town in front of a police station. When we stopped, the Timorese driver became agitated and tried to persuade Patrick to just keep going. As I understood it, the UN had instructed Burgess to check in with the local police. That stinking agreement again, I thought.
Patrick went inside and the driver became more unsettled. It was a quiet, hot afternoon, and we stepped outside the vehicle. Then as I finally saw Burgess heading back to the Rover, a van braked to a halt at the intersection in front of us. A dozen or so men wearing red and white bandanas suddenly leaped out, all with weapons–machetes, rifles, some primitive single-shot pistols. Seeing them, several Timorese leaped from the convoy in panic and ran. It seemed they knew just what to expect. For a second I started to run, too, but stopped myself. Why was I running? I recalled a cop once telling me, “The best thing to do in a panic situation is not panic.”
A young militia member ran toward me, thrusting a wicked-looking improvised weapon at me – a handle holding some eight wicked barbed spears. I stood spread-armed and stared straight ahead, hoping to intimidate him, hoping he couldn’t read my fright. He thrust closer and closer until the barbs were near enough that I thought I might be able to grab them. The standoff ended when spear-holder screamed his best scream at me and ran off. Saving face, I guessed. I exhaled and forced myself to walk as I neared the police station. Again a van careened up, spilling more militia. Two police watched passively, one smoking.
As I neared the intersection, a UN car pulled up and two officials in blue and white uniforms stepped out. One, a tall New Zealander, slapped his right hip, maybe reaching for a pistol…but alas. A militia man wearing the red-and-white bandana ran at the UN officer, hit him in the chest with his fist twice and tried to push him. The Kiwi stood passive, a stoic human post. By then I was stride-length away from them, and as the bandana-man charged past me, I impulsively stuck out my foot and tripped him. He fell on his side, rolled over, sprang back up and retrieved his machete. Ignoring me and UN guy, he screamed his best scream (did they practice beforehand?) and sprinted after another target, now running well away.
I ran, yes, ran, back to the UN Land Rover, with the cameraman filming. When would anyone see what they were filming? It turned out that the Portuguese also had a satellite phone and were broadcasting live. (Later it led to an interesting talk with my son back in Dili. He and others saw us on CNN.)
I heard a radio squawking from the Land Rover. Someone asked, “What’s happening there? What’s happening?” I reached in the window, lifted the mike, and said, “We’re under attack, in the middle of Liquica. We need help.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m a passenger in the car. Patrick is headed back here.”
Four or five women opened the rear door and plunged into the back, screaming and crying. They tried to make themselves small as Patrick sprinted to the right front door. The IOM guy jumped into the left front seat and told Patrick we should go. I got into the back seat, remembered a less-than-excellent video camera in my bag and retrieved it. Another woman squeezed in next to me, and then a Timorese guy I didn’t recognize pushed in beside her and slammed the door.
Patrick had the car started and shouted into the radio, “What should we do? Where should we go?” People in the car pleaded. “Go, go go, go! Please just go!” Patrick couldn’t hear the radio over the shouting. He turned partly around and yelled, “Shut up! Shut the f*** up!” In the back seat, I had the video camera running, though it was hard to know where to point it. A voice on the UN radio told Patrick that BRIMOB (the nasty Indonesian riot police) were headed there, and that Patrick should follow them. Shortly the black van arrived. It turned around in front of us and Patrick followed.
By then we were surrounded by hysterical militia members smashing our car windows as the Rover and the cars following us moved down the street. Glass shattered, people screamed. As we outdistanced the mob, I tried to film through the broken rear window. A man with something in his hand began running after us. I aimed the camera at him as he threw a one-shot pistol toward us, trying to get it into our UN vehicle. (The Indonesian military encouraged militias to plant weapons in UN vehicles. For weeks to come, my shaky monochrome video segment would be argued over by Indonesians and the UN alike. That’s another story.)
The pistol fell short. The Timorese man who had joined us shouted, “Stop!” When Patrick stopped, the guy jumped out, picked up the pistol, and jumped back in. Alarmed, I said loudly, “He has a gun!” The IOM rep replied, “It’s OK. He’s one of ours,” and took the pistol. Patrick accelerated. Other cars in the convoy followed, some with smashed windows, one limping along on a flat tire. The black van led us into a large compound surrounded by high cyclone fence, an office building along one side. The other cars followed us in.
When we stopped, the IOM rep stepped out of the Rover with the pistol in his hand and went up to a BRIMOB officer striding toward us. Before the Indonesian said anything, our IOM rep said, “This was thrown at us by attackers. I am, with witnesses, surrendering it as evidence. We will need a receipt.” Patrick nodded. Oh, right, I thought, a receipt! The Indonesian looked at the gun, glanced up, and started to say something. But when the pistol was thrust at him, handle first, he looked conflicted, then took it. Both UN members followed him into the office.
Two Indonesian military closed the gate after the final vehicle had come in. People got out and milled around. I stood with Father–he still in his robes!–and we shook our heads. Ingrid, the journalist, ran up to me and asked, apparently alarmed, “Where’s the doctor? He’s not here!” Just then Patrick and the IOM rep came out of the offices with an Indonesian soldier. I told Patrick that Dan wasn’t with us, and neither were a few others. The Indonesian officer replied that he would look for them. Walking beside him toward the gate, I offered to help identify Dan. The Indonesian whirled around, placed his palm on my chest with his other hand on his holstered pistol. He snarled, “We know who Dr. Murphy is.” He turned and walked to a military jeep.
It was a long, tense afternoon. Someone wrangled precious bottles of water. The Timorese sat on steps in one corner of the yard looking very glum. Occasionally Burgess would come out to report that they were negotiating to get everyone released. The key word was “everyone.” It was clear that if we foreigners left without the Timorese, it would be very bad news for them. Father and I discussed the situation, and he said that he would refuse to leave if the Timorese were not also released. I agreed to the same. I don’t think either of us was sanguine about that stance, but it did cross my mind that I wasn’t in priestly raiment. Father started toward the office to explain our decision when Patrick emerged. After our statement, spoken in low voices, Patrick nodded. “That makes five of us,” apparently including the IOM rep.
I told Father about my encounter with the many-pointed spear. We agreed that foreigners were in less danger than the Timorese during the attack, which was itself proof of how tightly the Indonesians controlled their militias. As people stood or milled about in the de-facto prison yard, Dan and a few Timorese from the convoy walked through the gate. Sighs of relief.
I sat down next to Gil on some shaded steps. He whispered, “There’s a big problem.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“There’s a walkie-talkie in our bemo. If they find it, they’ll know we were talking to Falantil.” Falantil was the political and military force resisting the occupation, still with some personnel active in the mountains.
“So where is it?”
“Under the front seat.” He looked pointedly at the blue bemo with a flat tire.
“I’ll see what I can do.” I walked back to Father, standing nearby as he punched disconnect on his golden phone. Later I would understand the importance of that little device: Father had called the office of Bishop Belo, our Nobel-prize-winning activist bishop. Someone there, in turn, put in a call to the UN. That call was probably at least in part responsible for the outcome of our trip.
He said he would try to retrieve the walkie-talkie. I casually walked to the rear of the Rover and lifted my bag and video camera through broken glass. A bit later Father stood beside a van out of sight of office windows, looking at me. A uniformed goon outside the gate was facing away. I casually sauntered back to my friend, Father. Smiling, with barely a perceptible motion, he dropped the walkie-talkie into my open bag. After we feigned small talk for a while, I sat back next to Gil. “We have it.”
Those cheap little Radio Shack walkie-talkies wielded power. It may have been why our caravan was left alone on the way to Sare: the militias knew Falantil was probably shadowing the convoy. Militias were at least as afraid of Falantil as they were of their Indonesian masters. Indonesian military had captured walkie-talkies, and Falantil fighters would sometimes use the radios to taunt them.
Things dragged on until late afternoon, when our UN guys came out and said that people from the UN mission were headed our way to pick up everyone. “Everyone?” Father and I asked in unison.
In a while a string of UN vehicles pulled up outside the gates. I felt irrationally giddy, as though the cavalry had ridden up, albeit a cavalry without swords. The Indonesians had agreed that Timorese could leave first. Patrick insisted that we wait within sight while Timorese found rides and left.
We heard that one of the UN cars was required to bring an Indonesian colonel along with them on the ride back. As they sped into Liquica, they passed a militia checkpoint. Our driver later told us the colonel ducked and shouted, “F***, they shot at us!” We all laughed. It was a relief, the first time I’d laughed in days.
There was only one serious casualty of the attack. One of the truck drivers, Laurentino Soares, was shot and badly beaten. Dan said he would survive but probably lose an eye.
At UN headquarters that evening, we were met by bright lights of TV cameras and journalists with questions. I saw Dan sitting in a car, calmly giving an interview, as though describing a just-completed vacation. Inside a large ground floor room, Ian Martin greeted us and gave a short welcoming talk. Boxes of bottled water were stacked in a corner. Bottled water, at that moment, was a sacrament.
Max White lives in Portland Oregon. In 1999 he was the Amnesty International USA “Country Specialist” for Indonesia and Timor-Leste (now retired). He is a member of ETAN (East Timor and Indonesian Action Network). White continues to be active in human rights work.