In 1999, after East Timor voted to reject Indonesian rule, the region was plunged into violence. Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen was one of the journalists who covered the resulting mayhem, along with her husband and cameraman Andre.
As part of the Al Jazeera Correspondent series, Vaessen returned to East Timor to trace the devastation wrought by one battalion of the Indonesian army as it retreated from the country, and to unravel the events surrounding one act of violence that would have lasting repercussions for Vaessen and her husband.
I am back in East Timor, a country that I came to many times during much more turbulent days in the late 1990s. I have returned to retrace the steps of one particular battalion of the Indonesian army, to find out exactly what they did, and to whom, on one of the saddest days I have ever known.
It was September 21, 1999; the day that Battalion 745 murdered my friend, the Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes.
Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, leading to an occupation that was often violent and bloody. The pro-independence guerrilla force, Falantil, fought for freedom. It is believed that one-quarter of the population died. But in 1998, a change of Indonesia’s president brought hope to the East Timorese.
When President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie declared a referendum would be held on the future of the region, it was a story that my husband Andre and I were eager to cover.
In the run-up to the August referendum, in which the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence, the Indonesian military and the pro-Indonesian militias they had established in East Timor grew increasingly violent. Journalists were no longer considered merely observers and instead became targets.
At one point the hotel Andre and I were staying in was besieged. We were on the roof when we came under fire, and I was in the lobby when a militiaman armed with a sword attempted to attack journalists. Our last report was filed while we were barricaded in our room.
The following morning, the Indonesian military came to our hotel, loaded us onto trucks and drove us to the airport – removing us from one of the biggest international stories at the moment. We were frustrated at being denied the opportunity to cover the events we knew were inevitable, and we feared for the lives of those we were leaving behind.
Trail of murder and devastation
When we returned to East Timor on September 21, 1999, our first glimpse from the plane windows confirmed our worst fears. The destruction was on an even greater scale than we had imagined. We readied ourselves for one of the toughest stories we would ever have to cover.
|Trail of murder – Extra|
Just as we set off on our journey to hell, Battalion 745 of the Indonesian army embarked on their own – although with vastly different intentions.
Having set their base alight, the battalion headed towards the capital, Dili. A couple of days earlier they had been given the order to “destroy and kill everything you find on your way”.
And it was not long before the Indonesian soldiers encountered their first victims of the day. Within minutes of the battalion leaving their base, brothers Egas and Abrio were dead.
Unbeknown to the soldiers, there was a witness to their actions. Zeila Pinto’s account of what he saw is bitterly sad. But it was just the first of many tragedies on that day and as I continued retracing the battalion’s route, I came across many others who were willing to share stories about the violence they witnessed.
Just outside Baucau one man showed me where his uncle was gunned down in the doorway of his now-abandoned home. Another family led me to the spot where their daughter, herself a young mother, was shot in both legs as she held her infant daughter and left to bleed to death.
The only resistance the battalion encountered that day came from Falantil rebels, who though prohibited by their leaders from reacting to the random killings, could take it no longer. Four Falantil fighters were killed in a skirmish before the Indonesian battalion continued on their way.
A young man, who had returned to his village with some friends to collect supplies, became one of their next victims.
His aunt, Jacinta da Costa, recounted the events that unfolded in a testimony more shocking than I could have predicted.
Costa says not only was her nephew killed and his body hidden in a small river, but that members of the battalion raped her.
“When we were running to the forest they, the Indonesian soldiers, caught me … I was in my 20s and raped by the Indonesian military,” she told me.
An unsafe shelter
After we landed in Dili’s deserted and partially destroyed airport, we took shelter in a convent. Although I have returned to East Timor many times in the years since, I have always avoided visiting the nunnery.
Returning now, I remember the fear we felt then.
But there was little time for fear as a story was unfolding right across the road from us on a beach where thousands were cramped together, seeking safety. We went to interview them.
It was there that we encountered a young local called Florindo Aroujo, who had spent the day driving journalists around Dili on the back of his small motorcycle.
Sander wanted to go to Becora, and although Aroujo warned that it was too dangerous, Sander insisted.
Today, Aroujo recalls seeing a military post with three soldiers on motorbikes as they turned into Becora. He describes how the soldiers started shooting at them and the moment a bullet hit his front tyre. He lost control of the motorcycle and, although wounded, managed to run away.
The last time he saw Sander, he was alive.
Battered, bruised and bleeding, Aroujo returned to the convent to tell the journalists there what had happened.
The message reached us that Sander was missing. Through the night we sought information about his whereabouts.
The following morning, a journalist called Paul Dillon was one of the first to venture out of the convent. When a young East Timorese man approached him to tell him about the “dead foreigner”, they walked together to Becora, where they found Sander’s body.
When we learned of what had happened, my husband Andre helped to identify his body, which by then had been recovered by Australian peacekeepers. It was an experience that left him traumatised.
The subsequent police investigation revealed that Sander was most probably alive when the soldiers dragged him off the road, took him to a piece of scrubland and shot him in the back. By the time his body was found his face had been mutilated beyond recognition, presumably by his murderers.
Beauty borne from tragedy
The special crimes unit in Dili eventually indicted General Wiranto, the commander of the Indonesian military at the time of the withdrawal from East Timor, for gross human rights violations, but he never appeared in court.
Today, Wiranto tells me that he followed state policies and that President Habibie was responsible for those. Habibie rubbishes his claims and says there are no facts to suggest he instructed Wiranto and his soldiers to kill.
Meanwhile, Wiranto has big aims for the future. He hopes to be elected president of Indonesia in the country’s 2014 election.
I am left more reassured by my meeting with Taur Matan Ruak, the former East Timorese guerrilla leader and current president of East Timor. He tells me: “I should apologise to his [Sander’s] family because he shed his blood for the good of the Timorese, for our country. The people of East Timor will not forget him.”
I have had to undertake this journey alone. Shortly after the events of September 1999, Andre began suffering from depression. His bouts were minor at first, but they grew increasingly severe. Then, three years ago, life became too much for him and he decided to end it.
In Indonesia and East Timor I have learnt that we must accept life and death as it comes. And while I no longer have Andre in my life, I do have our wonderful son, Agus. Conceived during that terrible time we spent together in Dili, I see in him the spirit of his father. He is the love of my life and proof, it seems, that true beauty can be borne from tragedy after all.
Click here for more on Al Jazeera Correspondent.