Date sent: Thu, 16 Sep 1999 11:20:33 -0400
Send reply to: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: Andy Lehrer <alehrer@SPRINT.CA>
Subject: Letter from Timor

(Please forward and distribute)

Below is a letter from Rev. John Campbell-Nelson who has been working on the National Council of Churches East Timor Working Group. Campbell-Nelson is a pastor in West Timor. His letter is a personal account of the destruction being visited on the East Timorese people by the Indonesian military and its surrogates, the militias.

Dear friends,

It is 5:30 a.m., September 11, and I am sitting on my porch watching the sunrise over the rice fields. A chain of roosters from one end of the village to the other is arguing over who should take the credit for it. Across those peaceful rice fields lies a bus terminal that has been hastily converted to a refugee camp. An estimated 10,000 people are there now, and another 60,000 have passed through on their way to other camps in the area.

Every day more thousands arrive, fleeing the terror and destruction in East Timor. Unfortunately, the terror seems to have followed them here. The camps are haunted by armed militias seeking pro-independence leaders. Police here, as in East Timor, are disinclined to intervene. After winning nearly eighty per cent of the vote in last month's referendum, supporters of independence for East Timor find themselves hunted as criminals and forced to seek shelter in the very nation that hunts them down.

Everything had begun with so much hope. I went to East Timor on August 24 as a translator for a group from the Asia Pacific Center for Justice and Peace, which was invited by the Protestant Church of East Timor to observe the referendum on behalf of the church. Our group of 12 included a mixture of Presbyterians, Quakers, UCC and a Maryknoll priest. We were among more than 2,000 international and Indonesian observers, many of whom had been engaged for years in advocacy for the right of the East Timorese to determine their own future. Our joy that the opportunity had finally come was nothing compared to the profound longing of many East Timorese who had preserved hope through 24 years of Indonesian occupation.

The day after we arrived we attended the pro-independence campaign rally. Tens of thousands came onto the streets of Dili in trucks and on foot, singing, laughing, not so much campaigning as celebrating their collective spirit -- people of all ages, men and women, children hanging off the sides of trucks. An elderly nun stood by the side of the road and blessed each truck and bus as it passed.

By contrast, the pro-integration rally the next day was a grim affair. There were probably more vehicles than in the independence campaign, but all were nearly empty, and most bore the red license plates that mark an Indonesian government vehicle. The trucks that were full carried mostly young men who rode with the blank expression of people simply wanting for it to be over. The one exception to the general mood of resignation was the militias, black-shirted youth who scowled and shouted and shook their fists. In the afternoon, their campaign turned violent when they attacked a neighborhood known to be pro-independence. By the end of the day, five were dead, including three who were seen shot by Indonesian police. That night the first of several families came seeking shelter in our rented house. They included three children orphaned in the killing that day.

On Friday, August 27, we left Dili to begin getting acquainted with the areas where we would be observing the referendum. My group (Andrew, Bill and Pete) went to the coffee growing region of Ermera, in the mountains southwest of Dili. After co-ordinating coverage of the various polling stations with other observer groups in the area, we settled on the two villages of Leorema and Railaku. There was a Protestant congregation in the village of Matata, which is located between our two polling stations, and we made that our base. The pastor there seemed to know just about everything that was happening and who was doing it, and his guidance proved invaluable.

He told us that Leorema was a pro-independence stronghold, while Railaku was a base for the Aitarak militia. Matata was split down the middle, with a militia outpost on the hill just above the church.

Friday night, there was a militia attack on Leorema which left one man seriously injured. Saturday afternoon, Andrew and I went up the hill to the militia camp to introduce ourselves, in the hope that the presence of observers might deter further attacks. To our surprise, we found a ragged group of farmers with few weapons who were obviously frightened. The pastor later told us that many of them were members of his congregation and that they had formed an Aitarak militia there mainly to keep out the Besi Mera Putih (Red and White Iron), a militia group that was considered much more vicious than Aitarak. Mostly, they just acted tough to show the Indonesians they were doing there part. They attacked pro-independence people only half-heartedly, and only when they were forced to by the clandestine Indonesian Special Forces. That night there were a few guns fired at the stars but no actual conflict.

On Sunday we attended worship. As we were shaking hands with the congregation afterward, a woman told the pastor, "Thank God they are here. Now perhaps we won't all be killed." In the afternoon we walked up to the hill to Leorema, where Bill and I were to spend the night in order to be in place for the voting the next day. Andrew and Pete would cover Railaku. The pastor introduced us to the village leaders, who welcomed us warmly and provided a room for the night. We learned that in Leorema was a group of 66 people who were registered to vote in Railaku but were afraid to go there because of their known pro-independence sympathies. I asked if they would be willing to go if we accompanied them and they agreed.

That night people began to gather in the village square and they danced and sang until nearly dawn. When I arose at 5 a.m. hundreds were already waiting for the polls to open at 6:30. As I watched the sun come up over the mountains, someone said, "This is a good dawn to see."

I got a ride part way down the mountain and joined the group of 66 for the 12 kilometer walk down the mountain to Railaku. We wound through gardens and coffee groves, making good time despite the fact that many were carrying small children. Some even carried suitcases, planning to shelter in Dili immediately after casting their votes.

We arrived in Railaku at about 7 a.m., and already four neat lines stretched across the field in front of the polling place. Most of the voters came within an hour of the polls opening and we later learned that the voter turnout had been more than 98 per cent throughout the territory. In contrast to the atmosphere of celebration at the campaign rally, today people were quite, dressed in their Sunday best, and waiting reverently for the chance to cast their vote.

As I accepted a welcome cup of coffee from Giuseppe, the hyper stimulated Italian election officer, I noticed that to one side of the voting line was a group of perhaps 30 people who were visibly frustrated. He told me they were militia members and their families who had registered to vote in Leorema, but were afraid to go and had hoped to vote in Railaku instead. After verifying that this was not possible, I offered to accompany them back up the hill to Leorema and then to stay with them until they had arrived safely home after the vote. They agreed and I was soon in the back of a truck headed up the mountain again.

On arrival in Leorema, the truck was surrounded by pro-independence supporters. I explained the situation and the militias were checked for weapons and allowed to proceed to the polling station without interference. However, when the voting was finished that afternoon, a group of young men approached me and explained that I could take the women, children and the old men back but that they were going to hold several of the young men hostage as insurance against further militia attacks. I explained that I had just taken 66 pro-independence people down the hill to vote that morning and if militias were held in Leorema there was a danger that pro-independence people would be detained in Railaku. They quickly changed their minds and released their captives. We walked back together and they insisted on delivering me to the church in Matata, where they thanked me and the pastor. "We would have been killed for sure," they said. I don't know whether that really would have happened but the experience of accompanying these people up and down the mountain gave me a whole new sense of what it means to be a pastor.

Bill and I slept at the church that night. Andrew and Pete had gotten a ride to Gleno, the regional capital, where we were to be picked up the next day for the return trip to Dili. I was up before dawn again, enjoying the view from the ridge where the Matata church sits high above Gleno. The valley was blanketed with fog after the cold night. Beneath the fog I could see a strange red glow. As the sun rose and the fog melted away, I could see that buildings were burning in Gleno. Soon the UN helicopter flew over on its way to pick up the ballot boxes. It descended, we heard gunshots and then it rose immediately. We decided all was not well in Gleno.

After some discussion, Bill and I decided to walk down to Gleno to look for Andrew and Pete and try to telephone for a ride back to Dili. When we got to the asphalt road leading into town, the only traffic we found was an army truck headed the opposite direction. At the bridge leading into town we walked into a militia roadblock. After a fair bit of negotiating, they agreed to deliver us to the military post on the other side of the bridge to get permission to enter the town. The local military commander seemed mildly amused and nodded us on. We learned that Pete and Andrew were at the UN compound and the town had been taken over by militias. They would allow the UN international staff and observers to leave but they wanted the East Timorese election officials turned over to the militias. The UN staff weren't about to let that happen.

The standoff lasted eight hours, until just before sunset. We were in and out of the UN headquarters, up and down off the floor whenever shots were fired and finally roasting in cars in the sun waiting to drive off. That was when I realized I hadn't had a chance to bathe in three days. The militias took the opportunity to burn a few more houses while we waited. The police stood a few yards away, smoking and joking.

The East Timorese woman sitting next to me in the car turned out to be a pro-independence leader whose house had been destroyed by soldiers looking for her the night before. I was supposed to hide her somehow if the militias checked our car. An Indonesian policeman wandered up to the car and looked in the window. Seeing the woman, he said, "Praise the Lord." Turning to the Australian driver, he said, "You know the meaning of friendship," and walked on. After our hearts resumed beating, the woman told us that he was the one who had saved her from the army the night before and had smuggled her into the UN compound. He was a Christian whose mother was from Ambon and father from Irian Jaya -- two islands whose people have also known the cruelty of the Indonesian army.

At sundown, our caravan finally pulled out. We travelled to Dili without further incident and were met by a storm of TV cameras.

The following days were spend alternately avoiding militia activities in Dili and observing the vote count. Each night brought more gunfire, more burning houses and escalating tensions. By the time the referendum results were announced on Saturday, we had about thirty people sheltering in our house. The courageous pastor at the protestant church in town had 80 people in his house, mostly women and children. His (mostly Indonesian) church council had told him he may not use church property to shelter refugees and advised him to get out of town. He replied, "I'm a pastor and I can't turn anyone away. If I have to I'll die here with them." I was with him when the vote was announced. 21% in favor of remaining a part of Indonesia, 78.5% in favor of independence. We embraced and he wept long and hard.

People seemed to know what was coming. There was little time for celebration. Dili began to go up in flames and a long procession of refugees began making its way out of the territory. The first wave was mostly Indonesian civil servants; East Timorese could leave only with a letter of permission from the militias. Pro-independence leaders were being sought out and murdered. The UN headquarters was under siege, with special threat against the local East Timorese staff who had served so well and so courageously in carrying out the ballot. Foreign observers and press began leaving by whatever means they could. Nearly everyone felt a burden of guilt at leaving the East Timorese to face the violence alone.

I left on Saturday soon after the vote result was announced. If I had stayed longer I was concerned that I would have been evacuated to Australia and would then have found it difficult to rejoin my family in Kupang. A pastor's wife who remains fearless throughout the whole ordeal offered to give several of us a ride across the border into West Timor, where we could then catch a bus on to Kupang. She got the necessary letter of permission from the militias and we slipped into a caravan leaving Dili with a police escort. We ran a gauntlet of militia roadblocks all the way to the border, but the police managed to clear them. It was the only intervention we had seen during a week and a half of conflict in East Timor.

That evening we arrived in the West Timor town of Atambua, where we got the first inkling that the terror would not be limited to the other side of the border. The town was swarming with police, army and armed militias. The same uniforms, the same scowling faces, the same fear.

A week later, we are completely absorbed in efforts to help the flood of refugees coming into Kupang. I keep watching and listening for news of friends left behind. Susana, who helped us get out and then turned around and went back to Dili, is now in Atambua. Several pastors have shown up seeking shelter in Kupang. But of those who had decided to stay with their congregations, who opened their homes to refugees, we have heard nothing. We know only that the churches are now empty and the phones don't ring.

I know nothing profound to say about all this. Evil makes no sense; no matter how you try to explain it, there is never reason enough to understand genocide. We know only that the Indonesian army is carrying out a planned destruction of East Timor and its people and that it has somehow learned how to beastialize the young men of the militias with terrible efficiency. Stories of mass murders and dismemberment are repeated daily, while Clinton ponders cutting off arms sales. We also suspect that this operation is but the final stage of a coup d'etat that has put the army back in power in Indonesia, leaving President Habibie to play the role of clown in the wayang shadow play of General Wiranto and company are now performing before a befuddled world audience.

The East Timorese who came to vote for freedom in the face of terror and intimidation showed the best of the human spirit. UN workers and observers from all over the world were inspired by their hope and courage. Perhaps if I had more of that hope and courage I could better control the shame and the helpless anger I feel at their destruction

Kotak Pos 1004
Kupang, NTT 85001