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
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
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
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
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
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
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.