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Thursday 19 September 2019


War and peace

Joanna Jolly returns to East Timor 20 years after being airlifted from the violent struggle for the country’s independence

By Joanna Jolly

War and Peace 12’20”

There is a photo of me taken 20 years ago against the ink-dark backdrop of a night’s sky. I’m standing with my arms around a group of dark-haired children wearing a checked shirt I vaguely remember wasn’t mine, but something I’d borrowed to replace my own sweat-stained top. A casual glance might register the scene as happy, and indeed one of the kids is smiling. But a closer look reveals our expressions are tense. If it were possible to transport yourself back to the time when the picture was taken, you’d immediately hear the ear-splitting clatter of gunfire and smell the smoke from burning buildings. If you were to ask me how I felt to be standing there with my arms full of children, I would have answered with just one word: ashamed.

The picture was taken in September 1999, a few days after the people of East Timor had voted overwhelmingly for independence from 25-years of brutal colonial rule by their larger neighbour, Indonesia. For months, the United Nations had maintained a mission in the territory, with electoral officers and unarmed police overseeing the registration of voters and the referendum itself. “We will be here before, during and after the vote,” UN officials had said to reassure the population, worried about reprisals for asserting their independence.

A wounded man is carried away during clashes between pro-Indonesian militia and pro-independence activists

I had arrived in the East Timorese capital of Dili in July 1999 – a young, freelance journalist who had worked in India and Australia before landing in Indonesia during the turbulent months that followed the fall of the country’s long-term military dictator, President Suharto. An editor had suggested I cover the build-up to the vote in East Timor and I had instantly fallen in love with the charm of the sleepy beachside city with its bright bougainvillea, white Portuguese-era villas and mountains that dipped into the sea. When the same editor complained about the expense of flying me to and from Jakarta, I told her the solution was simple. Timor was the better story and I would stay where I was until the vote.

Although Dili was sleepy, it was also tense. One of my first memories was turning a corner to be confronted by a truck-load of Indonesian soldiers dressed in balaclavas sitting with automatic weapons across their knees. East Timor had been a lucrative colony for the Indonesian military and they weren’t going to let it go without a fight. The Indonesian armed forces maintained a pretence of needing to keep the peace between independence supporters and groups of pro-Indonesian militia that were springing up throughout the country; a rag-tag bunch of young thugs with a taste for heavy metal T-shirts and crystal meth, armed with machetes and home-made guns. At first I didn’t take them seriously; then it became clear their attacks were directed by the state.

People wave the East Timor flag after the referendum vote on September 3, 1999 in Dili

One afternoon I was caught on foot with a group of other reporters as angry militia stormed towards us shouting: “Kill the journalists!” We were saved by armed Indonesian police who let us shelter in their armoured truck while the militia crowded around, rocking the vehicle from side to side. I looked out of the window to see the policemen laughing. When they felt we’d been frightened enough, they ordered the militia to move on.

On 4th September, 1999, the United Nations announced the result of the referendum. There was a brief moment of elation before the mood quickly turned to fear. Outside the hotel where the announcement had been made, Leandro Issac, a political leader from the East Timorese independence movement, solemnly told me: “We will die if we have to.” Metres away, militia were already exchanging their home-made weapons for M16 rifles.

In the mountain village of Odo Mau Atas, a long line on voting day

The violence came swiftly. International journalists were targeted in their hotels and in the streets. The BBC correspondent, Jonathan Head, thought he was going to die when a militia man struck him with a machete. At the point of impact, the soldier had turned the blade around, hitting the reporter with its blunt side breaking his arm. As buildings burned and gunfire rang out around the city, news editors deemed the situation too dangerous for correspondents to stay. Most climbed on trucks to the airport. But a small number of us, many, like me, freelancers who did not have a boss to answer to, were determined to stay.

For a couple of days we held out in our hotel as militia sprayed the windows with gunfire before being evacuated to the UN headquarters on the outskirts of the city. The UN compound, as it was known, was a former teacher training college made up of a small collection of buildings which backed onto the hills. We arrived to find it full of UN staff and police from around East Timor – many who had traumatic stories to tell of how they had fled their stations under fire, able to take some local staff with them but knowing that those they had left would be singled out to be killed by Indonesian forces.

In A pro-independence neighborhood of Dili, women and children flee their homes

Sitting down to eat on my first night in the compound, I became aware of the growing sound of gunfire and screaming. Next door, militia were firing into a school where hundreds of Timorese families had taken shelter, hoping that proximity to the UN would offer some protection. As the gunfire increased, families tried to scale compound walls topped with razor wire. “I thought this was the beginning of the end, not just for the Timorese, but the UN,” said David Savage, an Australian police officer who climbed the walls himself to help lift children over. “To see women and children in such terror, caught in the razor wire was haunting.”

Among those who came into the compound that night were Jeronimo de Carvalho, his wife Maria and their six children. The family were long-time covert independence supporters. Though he had worked as a civil servant for the Indonesians, Jeronimo had helped the Timorese resistance by passing messages, and Maria had sewed banned independence flags.

Australian troops patrol an area of Dili as violence escalates

Once safely inside the crowded compound, they had found a small corridor by the side of an office and made a makeshift camp from their belongings. This is where I first met them. Passing by one morning they had offered me coffee and I fell into the habit of stopping to chat in between filing my reports.

All the time, the gunfire continued around us. One by one, we watched as buildings in the capital went up in smoke. Some of those sheltering had tried to escape by climbing up the hills behind, but had been picked off by Indonesian snipers. We were surrounded and it was not at all certain how long we could hold out.

Then, on my fourth day in the compound, I and other journalists were called into a meeting to be told that the UN would be leaving the following morning. Officials repeatedly told us that they were not evacuating but “redeploying within the mission area” to Darwin, Australia. The UN said they would take their local staff with them, but the 1,500 Timorese who had fled into the compound for safety would be left behind. We all knew their chances of survival were slim.

The World Food Programme delivers its first shipment of food to the remote region of Saui

The mood was bleak as journalists asked each other if they would be prepared to stay. I didn’t know how we could protect the Timorese, apart from a naive idea that we could somehow form a circle around them like a shield, but I knew I couldn’t leave. Neither could my colleagues. As the afternoon turned to night, I ran around collecting goods that I thought could be useful to my family – batteries, food, money. When I went to hand them over, I couldn’t speak for tears of shame at the UN’s decision. I took a picture of each family member and wrote down their names, thinking I could give the information to the International Red Cross. As I cried, they comforted me, reassuring me they would do everything they could to survive. In the chaos, someone grabbed my camera and asked me to pose with the children. I remember trying to smile as the flash lit up the sky.

That night, the journalists were not the only ones to protest the UN’s decision. One by one, UN staff members added their names to a petition calling on the organisation to work out a solution. A 24-hour stay of execution was granted and it was eventually agreed that everyone who had taken shelter in the compound could be evacuated to Darwin. I left two days after the original evacuation order on the back of a truck manned by Indonesian soldiers. We were ordered to keep our heads down as we drove to the airport, but I managed to look out onto the surreal landscape of empty, burning streets. A week later, international peace-keepers were deployed as the last of the Indonesians forces left.

An estimated 1,500 East Timorese had been killed during those few weeks of violence, many of them known independence supporters. Horrific stories filtered back to us, like the account of the 26 people massacred inside a police station in the hill town of Maliana. Indonesian officers had told them they would be safe there, but had barred the doors and prevented them from leaving when the militia began to attack.

Timor Leste is one of the world’s youngest nations

I returned to Dili just as the peace-keepers landed. On my second day back, I hired a local motorbike driver to take me up into the hills where many Timorese had fled. On our way down he became nervous, telling me militia were still roaming the streets. But, after dropping me off, he agreed to pick up another passenger, the Dutch journalist, Sander Thoenes. An hour after leaving with Sander, the driver came back, his clothes torn and stained red with blood saying his journalist passenger had been shot. It was a day before my colleagues were able to find Sander’s body lying on the roadside. He had been shot and his face had been skinned for a trophy by a Timorese member of an Indonesian battalion returning to Dili from the east of the country. Although we later found out the name of the officer who killed our friend, no one has ever been prosecuted for the crime.

This September I returned to Dili, having been invited by the government to join the 20th anniversary celebration of the referendum. Though it remains a poor country, East Timor has come a long way from the destruction of 1999 and I found its capital infused with optimism. I drove down Dili’s new roads past high-rise apartments, shopping centres and municipal parks. Money from off-shore oil reserves has helped development, but the country still has a long way to go.

During the anniversary ceremony, the former independence fighter turned East Timorese President, Francisco Guterres Lu’Olo, spoke of an urgent need to develop the economy, improve agriculture, fight malnutrition and tackle rampant unemployment. “Let us celebrate this day together in a spirit of joy, honouring our past so that we may learn to look forward to our future,” he told the crowds before joining them in a mass traditional dance. For those like me who had returned after years away, it was a time for laughter and tears. It was joyous to see old Timorese friends and hear how they had prospered since the vote. But it was difficult not to remember the violence and relive the trauma of the compound, and I wasn’t alone in crying when we spoke about those who hadn’t made it.

There was one reunion I was very keen to organise. In 1999, the picture of me with the children had been published in Time Magazine. Using an old copy, a friend had helped me pin down the location of the family. On my last night in Dili, I made my way to the outskirts of the city to where the road branched into a drainage ditch and ran through half-built houses. Here in a house tucked away behind banana trees, I met my family.

Joanna Jolly recreates a photograph with her ‘family’, 20 years later

I found them safe, in good health and thriving. The house where I met them was the same one they had lived in 20 years ago which they had painstakingly rebuilt after it had been almost totally burnt down by the militia. Jeronimo and Maria had now retired and their children had gone on to have children of their own. Jeronimo told me proudly that his eldest son was now working in my country, studying at a college in Oxford. When I said yes to their offer of tea, they laughed and told me they always thought of me as the girl who’d liked coffee. Then we held hands and cried as we remembered that awful night in the compound. “Was it worth it,” I asked them of the pain and the suffering. “Yes,” they both nodded. “We finally got our result and we’re proud of it,” said Jeronimo. “It was our goal.”

I had one last request before leaving. I had deliberately worn a checked shirt I had packed in the hope I would see them. On the verandah of their house, we laughed as I attempted to choreograph them into a recreation of the photo from 20 years ago. It’s not a perfect reconstruction, but I’m happy with the result.

Further reading

ABC Australia radio documentary on life inside the UN compound

– BBC special report on the violence in East Timor

– A journalist’s account of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and the vote for independence: A Dirty Little War by John Martinkus