Exception to the Rulers, Part II

by Amy Goodman

Z magazine, December 1997

from a talk at Z Media Institute, 1997


... East Timor is a small island 300 miles north of Australia and it was a Portuguese colony for more than 400 years. In 1974, Portugal began to disband its empire-East Angola, Cape Verde, and East Timor. On December 7, 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor. The day before the invasion, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Ford went to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and met with Suharto, who remains there today-the longest reigning dictator in the world. Ford and Kissinger met with Suharto. They had the go-ahead for the invasion. Suharto sent in soldiers by air, sea, and land, and bombed East Timor. The killing was massive in the first few days. Thousands of Timorese were killed. They would drag people out of their houses, bring down their families to the harbors and shoot people into the harbor as their family members counted them off into the sea. The whole sea became red. People talk about it still, 22 years later.
In the next few weeks, even the State Department became concerned. Suharto met with Ford and Kissinger because there is a bilateral agreement that Indonesia has with the U.S. that they will get weapons from the U.S., but they will not use them for offensive purposes. And here they were using them for offensive purposes. He wanted to make sure that the weapons flow and all the support for the U.S. would not end when they invaded East Timor. Well, he got the go-ahead. The State Department knew that this could get a little out of hand, that Congress would look at this, especially how bloody it was and say, perhaps you shouldn't be giving weapons to Indonesia. They sent some high-level memos back and forth to Kissinger. When Kissinger arrived back in the U.S., he held a high-level meeting with his top State Department officials and castigated them for putting down on paper what was happening in East Timor and said, we will not kick our ally in the teeth and there will be no more paper trail about what is happening there.

That was in 1975. For the next four years, the killing got more and more intense. In 1979, whole villages were leaving because the Indonesians were moving in and killing people. Then the people would go up into the mountains. The Indonesians would surround the mountains and starve them out. Those that didn't die would be put into settlement camps.

They wouldn't be allowed to farm and they would die of starvation or massacres. In 1979 some aid workers got into East Timor and said that the malnutrition and starvation was worse even than in Biafra. At this point, Indonesia closed East Timor to the outside world and committed this genocide-one of the greatest since World War II. In 1988, Indonesia got so much pressure from the outside world that they decided to open East Timor, just a bit. A few people got in. In the summer of 1990, another journalist, Allan Nairn, and I went into East Timor and what we found there was hell on earth, with a complete totalitarian military dictatorship. Everywhere we went Indonesian military followed us. Indonesian military were in the streets, going into villages. Every market was watched over by Indonesian police. All people were monitored. Every village had a house with a list of names of everyone in the village; people had to sign in and out. When the Indonesians were not happy with a family, if they didn't drag someone out and kill or torture them, they would move into a house to keep control and make sure that no discussions were going on. At one marketplace, a young man came up to us in full view of the police just to practice his English. After we left we were taken to the police station and questioned for 20 minutes. The young man was arrested and interrogated overnight. If people were caught using short-wave radios they were arrested. If they were caught with a newspaper from the outside world they were arrested. When we talked to people sometimes they would dig up newspaper articles they had buried in their backyard. Through this period of 22 years, they killed a third of the population-700,000 people. In 1979, when the killing was at its worst, there wasn't one main stream press article in the New York Times and the Washington Post-not one. ABC, NBC and CBS "Evening News" never mentioned the words East Timor and neither did "Nightline" or "MacNeil Lehrer" between 1975, the day of the invasion, except for one comment by Walter Cronkite the day after, saying Indonesia had invaded East Timor-it was a 40 second report-until November 12, 1991.

In October 1991, Allan and I went back to East Timor because Indonesia had agreed to a UN request to allow a Portuguese parliamentary delegation to investigate the human rights situation in East Timor. We went to the main Catholic Church in Dili. After the mass we learned that the night before the Indonesian military had surrounded the church and shot into it, killing a young man named Sebastiau Gomes when he came out. They did this because young people around the country were leaving school, work, and their homes to take refuge in the churches. They wanted to speak to the delegation and they were afraid the Indonesian military would arrest them before the delegation got there. The church is the only civilian institution left standing in East Timor. They outlawed all institutions where people gather. So the church is where the greatest amount of political and independent activity takes place. No matter what people feel about politics, on one issue they are almost completely united. More than 99 percent of the people want the Indonesians out.

Bishop Belo, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 along with Jose Ramos-Horta, officiated at the mass for Sebastiau Gomes late in the afternoon. A thousand people came to the church for this. After the mass, his family carried the coffin in the street and more than 1,000 people marched, holding up their hands in a V sign shouting "Viva East Timor," "Viva Sebastiau," "Viva Independence." This is unheard of in a place where there is no freedom of assembly, no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press. This was the boldest act the Indonesian military had ever seen.

The Indonesian military lined the route of the procession that wove its way to the Santa Cruz cemetery to bury Sebastiau. As long as the soldiers didn't do anything, the people were peaceful. They marched to the cemetery. They sang hymns, they chanted, they buried Sebastiau, and they ran home. They were afraid, exhilarated for what they had done, the defiant act they had just engaged in, but absolutely terrified. It was getting dark. You don't go out after dark.

For the next two weeks, we went around the country talking to people. Everywhere we heard the same story. The Indonesian military had gone into every village and told people that if you speak to the delegation, we'll kill you after they leave. We've already dug mass graves to put your bodies in. That was the kind of nationwide death threat that was issued against the people of East Timor. We met with Bishop Belo in Dili and he told us the line that was commonly used for the Timorese was "we will kill your family to the seventh generation.

Somewhere in that two weeks news started to be passed from one person to another that something had happened and the Portuguese were not coming. This was a tremendous letdown to the people, not to mention the young people who had taken refuge in the churches, because the delegation was their only protection. They had risked their lives and there would be no chance that the delegation would hear what they had to say. We later learned that the delegation decided not to come at the behest of the U.S. After all, people around the world might learn about U.S. complicity in this genocide and the fact that when the Indonesian military invaded, 90 percent of the weapons used were from the U.S. That was under Ford. Then came Carter. Mondale went to the capital of Indonesia and the military there asked for Bronco planes and helicopters because, although they were continuing to kill people, the people were running up into the mountains. They wanted to strafe them out of the mountains. So Mondale made a phone call to Washington and expedited the shipment of weapons to the Indonesian military. Reagan and Bush continued that policy and President Clinton was not doing anything different after 1992, but this is right before 1992 when President Bush was still in power.

People in East Timor follow U.S. politics more than many Americans. They know when every new bill is in Congress. They hear about it despite the fact that they have almost no mainstream information flow. They get it by word of mouth. They get it through underground sources. So there we were in 1991 in November and the delegation wasn't going to come. Two weeks after the funeral for Sebastiau Gomes, the Timorese decided to hold a memorial procession for him. A mass was held at 6:00 AM at the church. People retraced the march from the church to the cemetery. But this time, more than 1,000 people showed up. As they went into the streets young people took out bed sheets that they had hidden under their shirts that said things like, "Portugal we are your responsibility; why does the Indonesian military shoot our church," and they held up these banners.

The Indonesian military was everywhere because every other building in Dili is some kind of military or police installation or a home of a general or an officer. There are torture houses throughout Dili. All the Indonesian officers have to do is come out of their buildings and they will line the streets.

The Timorese marched to the cemetery. The young kids, boys who are six and seven, would run ahead putting their hands up in a V sign and the older boys would line up trying to hold them back and shout "diciplina, diciplina" to try to keep people marched. By the time they got to the cemetery there were 4,000 or 5,000 people. On one side of the road is the people's cemetery and on the other side was the Indonesian military cemetery and on both sides of the road were high walls. We were interviewing people in the road as they got there. Some young people climbed on these walls and they were holding up banners. They were chanting. Some were singing and going in to where Sebastiau was buried to put flowers on his grave. We were interviewing people, why are you here? Why are you doing this? And everyone said, well, we'll risk any thing for our freedom. Over and over they would say that.

We saw an Indonesian truck pull up with about 50 soldiers. Then hundreds of Indonesian soldiers marched up, weapons in the ready position-U.S. M 16s. Hundreds of them marching in full uniform, 12 to 14 abreast. When we saw that very ominous sight, I took out my headphones and put them on and I held up my microphone like a flag and I took out my tape recorder. Allan put the camera above his head. We never brought our equipment out in East Timor because of how dangerous it would be for those we talked to. But we thought somehow maybe we could avert an attack just by being Western journalists. We knew they had committed many massacres in the past but never in front of Western journalists.

In the time leading up to December 1975, there had been five Australian and British journalists covering events leading up to the Indonesian invasion. They were in a small border town between West and East Timor and they put up a big sign on their house that said "press." The Indonesian military came over the border from West Timor. They lined them up against the house and they executed all of the journalists. There was one journalist left on December 7. His name was Roger East. He was from Australia, covering it for all the news wires. He was at a radio station in Dili when the Indonesian military dragged him out on the first day of the invasion. As they dragged him out he shouted "I'm from Australia, I'm from Australia." They shot him into the harbor.

That's what happened to journalists in 1975. But this was 1991. You have the 17 years of, at that point, total U.S. support for the Indonesian military. We started to walk to the front of the crowd. It got very, very quiet because no one could run away. People were trapped by the high walls of the cemetery. We could hear the beat of the boots and the whispering of the kids behind us.

The Indonesian military marched up, turned the corner, and without any warning, without any hesitation or provocation, opened fire on the crowd. Gunning people down from right to left. A group of soldiers enveloped us. They started to shake my microphone in my face and slammed me to the ground with their rifle butts and their boots and started to kick me. At that point, Allan had gotten a photograph of them firing on the crowd but he threw himself on top of me to protect me. They took their U.S. M-16s like baseball bats and they slammed them against his head until they fractured his skull. As we were Iying on the road everyone around us was being killed. About 12 of them took the U.S. M- 16s and put them to our heads and screamed "politic, politic," saying we were political. Allan was covered in blood. His whole body was in spasm because he had been beaten so badly. All I could say was "we're from America, we're from America." They would say, "Australian? Australia?" We knew what happened to the Australian journalists and we said, "No, America." They stripped us of everything but I still had my passport. I threw it at them and they saw we were from the U.S. They screamed and held the guns to our heads but eventually decided to pull the guns away. We think it was because we were from the same country their weapons were from. They would have to pay a price for killing us.

They moved on and killed the Timorese who were not able to run away, but who were not yet dead. They dragged an old Timorese man next to us and they beat him into the sewage ditch behind us. Every time he got up he would put his hand in a prayer sign and they would take their rifle butts and smash his face. He would still climb out of the sewer and try again to get out and they would beat him down. The whole road had become a killing field, an extension of the cemetery, as hundreds of people were dead around us.

At that point a civilian jeep pulled up and we were able to get into it and the driver picked up the old man and we drove down the road. Dozens of Timorese hailed us, begging to get in. They jumped on top of the truck, hanging off the spare tire in the back because the military was sealing off the whole area and killing everyone inside. We drove like that, as a human mass, to the hospital where we saw the "lucky" Timorese-the Timorese who were wounded, the Timorese who had their arms shot off, whose backs were blown open. The first little boy to go down was about six or seven and he had his hands up in the V sign as they shot him.

When the doctors and nurses saw us they started to cry because they saw the American people both as the supporters of their killers, but also as their only protection. At that point I was sure that the Indonesian military would raid the hospital. This would be a logical place for them to come, so we decided to go into hiding.

Tanks were now rolling through the streets. We realized the only way the killing could stop would be from outside pressure. We decided to make a dash for the airport. Allan was covered in blood. We got him cleaned up enough. The blood was pouring out of his ear. It was under his hair. The blood was like a bathing cap over his head. But we thought if we cleaned it enough and got to the airport quick enough and get on the plane, they wouldn't see that we were at the massacre site. At the airport we told the young Timorese cab driver to wait because we thought they might chase us out of the airport. We went to a counter in the airport which is all run by the military. We said we want to leave right now. They said, where is your luggage? They had already surrounded the hotel, so there was no way we could go back.

I took Allan's shirt that was covered in blood be cause I knew they would say that this had never happened. I wrapped it under a towel and had it around my waist. I thought this was the only evidence we would have. But we also got someone to take pictures of us. I had that film tucked away. We said we wanted to get on the plane. We fought back and forth about it. First they gave us the tickets, then they ripped them away. They said, let us see your documents. Somehow I still had my ticket and my passport. But I couldn't show my passport because Allan had had his confiscated. So I said, my documents are these, waving my ticket, and I wouldn't let them see it. I said, we have to get on this plane. Eventually we did. I don't know if it was because they had decided not to kill us so now they wanted us out or if there was a gap in communication between the military at the massacre site and the military here.

There was a filmmaker at the massacre site named Max Stahl who was doing a documentary for Yorkshire TV. He was at the cemetery when the shooting started and he filmed the Timorese running through the tiny portal in the cemetery wall. Max videotaped for ten minutes at a time, then he would bury his videotape in a fresh grave. Videotape and then bury it. He was eventually arrested and interrogated for nine hours. He got out that night, went back and dug up the videotapes, and had them smuggled out of the country. That videotape aired in Holland and in Japan. Then it later made it all over the world.

Meanwhile, we made our way by plane from East Timor to West Timor to Bali. At Bali we got on an American flight to Guam. When we got to Guam there were naval doctors on the flight and they wanted to take Allan to the military hospital. But we were quite sure they would cut off all access to us saying they were protecting us. So we went to the small provincial hospital in Guam, where we were able to use the emergency room as a switchboard. For the first time in 17 years the international media was interested in East Timor.

That's what happened on that day in East Timor. We have names of 271 people who were there who are no longer there. We came to the U.S., held a news conference at the National Press Club and the place was packed with cameras from all the major networks and news reporters, but not one television station ran a report that night. This was right after the massacre. The press covered it in the Washington Post and the New York Times but not on television, which has the greatest impact on American society. They said it was because we didn't have pictures.

After Max Stahl's video aired in Britain a poll was taken. The people of Britain said the one foreign policy story they would like to hear more about was East Timor and the Indonesian occupation. The CBS correspondent in Britain told Dan Rather, we have to do this. That videotape aired on the "CBS Evening News" about ten days later. Allan was interviewed in that piece and kept inserting that these were U.S. M-16s.

I had a chance to question then Governor Clinton, who was running for president the following fall. He gave a major foreign policy address in New York after which I asked him, "Would you consider cutting off aid to Indonesia, considering the massacre that took place of more than 200 Timorese; the beating of Western journalists with U.S. weapons? Would you consider cutting off aid?" He said "Well, we would have to look at the situation."

I said "What would it take, a hundred, a thousand, the journalists killed?" And he said, "No, we would have to look at it and I think that the problem in East Timor is unconscionable." He made quite a strong statement actually. He clearly seemed to know about it. That was before he became president.

The Bush White House condemned the massacre and then called for an increase in military aid to Indonesia. An increase in IMET funding-international military education and training money that goes to cement the relationship between the Indonesian military or whatever country it is and the U.S. military. But, because of tremendous grassroots pressure from a group that grew out of the massacre called the East Timor Action Network-which has become very significant today-thousands of calls were generated around the country using church, activist, and student lists. At the time, the head of the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee said they got more calls on East Timor than any other foreign policy issue. By the fall they had cut off military training aid to Indonesia for the first time in 17 years.

This sent serious ripples through the Indonesian military. Not that the executive branch had anything to do with it but because the congressional branch was getting pressure from its constituents. And it was bi-partisan. It was Republican and Democrat. You had some religious Congress members, you had some Republicans who felt strongly about this like Frank Wolf of Virginia who is a conservative Republican but feels strongly about the issue of human rights, as well as Tony Hall who has long been an anti-hunger activist and also a champion of the people of East Timor, and Clairborne Pell, who was born in Portugal and feels very guilty about what has happened in East Timor. He has been a strong supporter of the Timorese in the Senate. So for the first time there was progress. IMET was cut.


Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now, " Pacifica Radio's grassroots political talk show.

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