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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 29, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 43

'This Was Systematic'
In East Timor, a trail of death and destruction
By BEN BOHANE East Timor

As soldiers belonging to the U.N.'s International Force for East Timor (Interfet) secure the territory's western region after a slow start, troops, aid workers as well as journalists have begun grimly cataloguing the destruction that followed the Aug. 30 vote for independence. The scale is huge, and any pretence that this was the work of pro-Jakarta militias alone or rogue elements of Indonesia's military has been dropped. "The only word for it is systematic," says Interfet spokesman Lt.-Col. Rob Barnes. "At best, the TNI [Indonesian military] helped facilitate it with their militias. At worst, they organized and participated in the whole thing."

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Town after town has been torched and deserted. Some 200,000 people are believed to be in hiding in forests and mountains beyond the reach of aid agencies and Interfet. Says Michel Barton, a U.N. spokesman: "We are obviously concerned about the fate of [so many] people still unaccounted for, particularly with the monsoon approaching." Another 260,000 are estimated to have fled after the ballot, many forced into militia-controlled border camps. They are now starting to return following an agreement reached between the U.N. and Indonesian authorities.

Then there are the bodies. In the picturesque hilltop town of Ermera southwest of the capital Dili, a woman is near tears as she says prayers for the dead during a recent Sunday mass. Filing out of the church afterward, many worshippers kneel and kiss the hand of Fr. Sanso Amaral, thanking him for not fleeing. With the killing of more than a dozen priests and nuns across East Timor, not even churches have been safe from the terror. Eleven bodies were found here, says Amaral, with more uncovered in nearby Glenoo. Adds the priest in a matter-of-fact tone: "There could be 100."

On Oct. 19, at least 20 bodies were discovered in the coastal town of Liquica - the largest number Interfet has found in a single place. In Maliana in western East Timor, returning locals claim that 45 people were killed there. In a waterhole in the town, decomposed and chopped-up bodies are clearly visible. Within an hour's drive out of Ermera, pro-independence Falintil guerrillas display at least a dozen victims, many decapitated, buried below mounds of stones along the road. Other bodies are found in the backyards of destroyed homes. Villagers here remain afraid, and with good reason. Interfet has yet to establish a firm presence in the area, and the locals say that militiamen are still hiding in the coffee plantations on the edge of town. With safety still an issue, Falintil's chief field commander, Taur Matan Ruak, has told people to return to their homes only to collect whatever food and possessions remain, then to go back to their hideouts until Interfet consolidates its hold over the territory. Says Ruak: "Interfet is doing what it can, but it's worrying that there are still zones they do not control."

At the moment, U.N. personnel refuse to speculate how many people have been killed, not least because they have been slow to move into the hinterland, waiting for Interfet to secure it first. Says Barton: "We don't believe that people in the thousands have been killed and their bodies buried or thrown in the sea. If this had been the case, by now we would have found evidence." Evidence has been hard to find partly because, in the time that Interfet is taking to control all of East Timor, many clues have disappeared. But reliable eyewitnesses speak of Indonesians loading up bodies into trucks and taking them to West Timor, and of corpses that have washed up on East Timor's shores.

Interfet is also only now beginning to get an idea of what might be transpiring in Oecussi, the East Timor enclave of some 91,000 people which is actually within West Timor. About a fortnight ago, Interfet soldiers entered the deserted border town of Bilbao and came upon a boy carrying a written plea from people in Oecussi belonging to Falintil's political wing. The message said they were "waiting for death." On Oct. 18, East Timor leader Xanana Gusmao asserted that Indonesian soldiers together with militiamen had two days earlier slaughtered at least 50 people in Oecussi.

But most of the killings have clearly taken place within East Timor proper. Before Interfet troops entered the southwestern town of Suai, Falintil men armed with machetes and crude spears accompanied this reporter to a half-built church - a haunting end to a journalist's gruesome tour through East Timor. Inside were body parts, including a skull. The roofless, concrete structure had bloodstains all over the walls, and ripped women's dresses lay on the ground. It was here that the single-biggest massacre of the post-ballot period is believed to have occurred: Three priests and more than 200 sheltering refugees killed, most hacked to death with machetes. The Falintil rebels were overcome. One by one, they dropped to their knees and wailed in unrestrained grief. Soon after, they stood in the gutted church and began their own prayer service, as if it would somehow exorcise the evil that had taken place. All across East Timor, people are trying to do the same.

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