Step Vaessen believes Indonesia is not yet ready to confront its dark past, but is optimistic change will come soon [Steven Gray/Al Jazeera]
Al Jazeera Correspondent

How my murdered friend became my story

Step Vaessen moved to idyllic Indonesia in 1997, where two years later she lost a close friend in a brutal massacre.

Everything seems easier in my role as a journalist; I handle the death, pain, danger and even murder I encounter scarily well. Protected by my professional shield I can observe, write, report and analyse without being too badly wounded myself. At least that is what I like to believe. But while making the film Trail of Murder I stepped outside of this role and confronted all of these things just as me, as Step, and it was shocking to realise how much it hurt.

When I decided to embark on this journey a little voice inside my head kept warning me: Why do you want to go back there and confront those dark moments all over again? But the urge to somehow try to close this unfinished chapter was stronger than my sense of foreboding.

After everything I had experienced in my personal life I was feeling surprisingly well. And, more importantly, my 13-year-old son, who had lost his father so sadly and so suddenly just a few years before, was in a good place. So maybe this was the right time to go in search of some answers, answers that might help assuage the sense of guilt I, as a journalist, felt for failing to achieve justice for my friend and for all the others who were murdered in cold blood.

Flowing through my veins

Indonesia has been my home for more than 16 years. I feel a deep love for this beautiful and intriguing country that has so captivated outsiders for centuries. It is hard to describe what exactly it is, but there is something about Indonesia that gets under your skin and flows through your veins, never to leave your system again.

When I arrived, in 1997, the country had been ruled by President Soeharto for 32 years. A year later he was forced from power and, before my eyes, Indonesia was engulfed in a whirlwind. I became a witness to one of the most significant and bloody transitions the country had ever experienced.

Together with my husband Andre I traveled to remote parts of the archipelago to cover the religious and ethnic conflicts that surfaced as soon as the tight control Soeharto had exerted disappeared.

And, it was in the midst of all this tension, that the newly-installed President Habibie announced a referendum for East Timor, the region that had been violently annexed by Soeharto’s troops 24 years earlier.

It became one of the biggest international stories of the year and definitely the most difficult to report on. Despite reassurances by the government that the vote in East Timor would be fair, all Jakarta-based journalists knew better.

In the month’s leading up to the August referendum, I tried to gather evidence about a military plan to systematically destroy the territory if Indonesia lost the vote and the East Timorese chose independence. My sources within the military confirmed that such a plan existed, but nobody wanted to talk on the record. In my stories leading up to the vote I showed how the military was arming East Timorese militias and how voters were being systematically intimidated.

The United Nations, which was organising the vote, could clearly see that we were all walking into a ravine with our eyes wide open. But nobody, including the East Timorese leadership, wanted to stop the voting process because this would be exactly what the Indonesian military wanted.

Voting for freedom

I was in the Mahkota Hotel in Dili when the result of the vote was announced. More than 71 percent of the East Timorese had ignored the threats and intimidation and bravely voted for their freedom. There were no celebrations, not even any cheers. With tears in their eyes and fearful smiles on their faces my East Timorese friends began to cautiously hug one another. I had never before experienced a moment when such extreme fear and joy had come together in one instance.

I learned that day that a peoples’ need for freedom is a force unstoppable even by death.

Our role as journalists felt even more important after the announcement, because only we could counter the Indonesian propaganda and show the truth of what was about to happen. Being fully aware of this, the military did everything they could to scare us away.

Their first move was to evacuate all of the Indonesian journalists – this included our producer at the time – because they could not ‘guarantee their safety’. Then militias suddenly began to attack hotels where foreign journalists were staying. I told my worried bosses at NOS television in the Netherlands that despite all the threats we were staying put. But when all the international TV channels decided to move out, including the European Broadcasting Union we used for our transmissions, NOS decided to pull us out too.

When the military evacuated us in their trucks I felt utterly defeated. While being driven away, I looked at the scared faces of the hotel staff and our East Timorese friends and all I could think about was how badly we had failed them.

Death and destruction

Then the bloodshed began. Back in Jakarta we heard about the massacres. Little information made its way out so we depended on freelance friends who had stayed behind.

When we finally returned, two weeks later, on a chartered plane, East Timor had been systematically destroyed. I don’t remember seeing my friend Sander Thoenes that day. He came in on the second plane and we were all so focused on our mission: covering a story we had come late to while simultaneously trying to stay safe.

Trail of murder – Extra

Sander had arrived in Jakarta at around the same time as me. He amazed me with his knowledge and how quickly he learnt to speak Indonesian.

In the short time he was there, he had made many friends and we would often spend time with a group of journalists speculating about where the country was heading. We traveled together to Liquisa for the referendum in East Timor and we shared the excitement of witnessing that historical day together.

On September 21, 1999 – hours after we had arrived on that chartered plane from Jakarta – we heard that Sander was missing.

We had taken shelter in an abandoned convent, and a long night ensued during which we waited, worked, tried to sleep a little and attempted to find out where Sander was.

Early the following morning, friends burst into our room with the news – Sander’s body had been found. In that moment, I suddenly realised that I had never expected one of us to die.

In shock and grief I continued my work. That day our friend and colleague had become our story.

Unanswered questions

A week later we all attended his funeral in the Netherlands. I met his mother, brother and other relatives and felt lost as they asked the questions we could not answer.

I understood then that something had changed.

In 2002, I decided to confront Sander’s killers. A Dutch police investigation and a UN report had shown that Battalion 745 was responsible for his death and the deaths of many others on the same day.

I traveled to East Timor to talk to survivors and relatives of the deceased and reconstructed the events of September 21, 1999.

Then I went to the Indonesian side of the island of Timor and visited Camillo dos Santos, an East Timorese member of the Indonesian army and, according to witness reports, Sander’s alleged killer.

Alone, I walked into his military compound with a small camera. I found him sitting on his veranda with his wife and five children. He was suffering from malaria.

I began filming and asked him about Sander’s murder. He denied any involvement. And, worried about the reaction of the soldiers on the compound, I quickly walked away. As soon as I climbed inside the waiting taxi, I began to shake. In that moment, I was not a journalist, I was Step and, emotionally, I told the driver: “This man has killed my friend, please hurry and get out of here.”

When I later interviewed the commander of Battalion 745, a man named Jacob Sarosa, he too denied everything.

The meaning of forgiveness

All my efforts to get the story out and to confront the alleged killers never resulted in any form of justice. When the East Timorese leadership told me that we should move on and forgive them, I decided to let it go. But while it might be better for East Timor to bury the past, I do not believe that is right for young Indonesians. No child should ever grow up learning that murder goes unpunished in their country.

Now, 14 years on, I have accepted the fact that Indonesia is not ready to confront its dark past. The real change has yet to come and it will come soon enough. After all, it took the Dutch government 67 years to apologise for mass murder in Indonesia.

When I met East Timorese President Taur Matan Ruak – 14 years after we first met in the jungle when he still was a guerilla commander – I understood what forgiveness means. It means wisdom, confidence and truth – all the things the East Timorese have gained from being on the right side of history, at least in 1999. It means maturity and vision.

It is sometimes difficult to live in a country that has allowed so many mass murderers to go unpunished. But my journey has taught me that while justice is not always about right or wrong, forgiveness is.


Al Jazeera Correspondent can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2000; Friday: 1200; Saturday: 0100; Sunday: 0600; Monday: 2000; Tuesday: 1130; Wednesday: 0100; Thursday: 0600.

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