The scorching of Timor-Leste



I chose not to watch Timorese get shot at as they escaped to Dare. Instead, I marched back towards the buildings, leaving Ralph to vainly yell at them not to run. I passed Timorese families sitting on the ground near the buildings. They were just looking at one another as if trying to memorise each other's faces, as if trying to say their goodbyes. I could see their look of hopelessness. Others were dancing closely for the last time. I had to block out my emotions to prevent myself from crying for them.

Scorched Earth by Tammy PemperMitch was racing towards the rear of the compound. He detoured towards me. 'What do we do if they come over the wall and attack?' he asked, breathlessly. He was wide-eyed. Frightened. Maybe I looked the same.

I glanced back at the Timorese, the hills. 'There's nowhere to run. What can we do? It's over.' We'd placed ourselves in this position. We'd chosen to stay.

I surveyed the nearest building. From it, artificial lights illuminated rectangular sections of the ground where Timorese huddled near the exterior walls. The roof behind them seemed a good option. I scanned the length and width of the other rooves. I didn't know why. We could just as easily be shot there. I decided then that I would position myself at the front of the prayer room. It would be fruitless, but it seemed better than doing nothing while waiting for death.

'Take a set of keys to a UN vehicle,' Mitch said, cutting into my irrational plans. 'There's keys in Brock's room. Drive to the sea and start swimming. Militia have overrun a Catholic church in Suai,' he rambled on. 'Two-hundred were inside. Military and police backed the militia. They threw grenades into the church and finished those trying to escape. They burned their bodies in a pile in front of the church.'

The lights went out. A hushed stillness suddenly fell upon the compound. I gazed around, not knowing what I was searching for. The mournful wailing drifted on, like a peculiar tune accompanying the continued weapon fire. The eerie atmosphere had shut Mitch up. Good. Why on earth did he feel the need to tell me those details? A throbbing started. The drumming of the engines of our diesel generators. Lights flicked back on.

'Militia have cut off our power,' Mitch said, starting up again. 'How long can our fuel hold out? Our water supplies will be next. They want to end it tonight. Go to Brock and grab the keys before there's none left. I'll meet you at the driveway.'


"Machetes had hacked into voters as they ran out the door, bullets had sprayed into their backs. Through my mind ran images of how the people in the church in Suai could have died."


'No,' I said, placing some distance between him and me. 'I'm making a phone call.' I strode away from him. I never expected to see another sunrise, another dawn. Why didn't I feel afraid? Wasn't I supposed to? What was wrong with me? I just felt numb. Having nothing else, I clung to my faith ...

I sifted to her number and paused. I scrolled past hers, not knowing how to say goodbye, not wanting to say goodbye. How do you say goodbye to your heart? I clenched my jaw, fighting back tears. I didn't know if I could return to her.

I skimmed over names of family and friends, too, not wanting to alarm them or show them my vulnerability. Choosing to call the best person I could think of in my current situation, I pressed the button and waited for a line out. The phone rang several times and I felt lost, suspended in time, before the call connected. 'Hello?' said a man's voice.

'It's not looking good. I don't know whether I can get out of here,' I blurted out.

The man, Matthew, a pastor from a church I knew, must have recognised my voice. He wanted the details and I briefly told him. I summed up the militia surrounding the building, the soldiers standing with them, the grenades, the snipers, the militia's final determined onslaught. To a backdrop of automatic weapon fire, I blurted out everything.

I pictured the previous attack on my polling station, machetes had hacked into voters as they ran out the door, bullets had sprayed into their backs. Through my mind ran images of how the people in the church in Suai could have died. No place was sacred to the militia, police or military. We had no weapons to fight back with. Why would they not just as easily attack us?

'Wow, wow! Okay, I'll ring around,' Matt said. 'I'll ask everyone we know to pray.'

'It'll take a miracle now,' I said. 'Either way, I know it rests with God.'

I ended the call. I wanted to hold my head in my hands and cry for my lost future, but I couldn't. Timorese families were watching me.

I knew they had families. They, too, wanted to say their goodbyes. I extended my mobile phone to one of them, the woman nearest me. She gladly took it and dialled some numbers. It must have connected. She started to sob on the phone as she said goodbye to the voice of her loved one at the other end. Her family pressed in close to her and she passed the phone around to them. They each briefly, tearfully, said goodbye. Watching it wrenched my heart from my chest and replaced it with cold, black fury at the militia and the military who had the means to hold them back. With tears still pouring down her face, the woman calmly handed the phone to me. I passed it to the next family. And the next. And the next.

Then, after receiving the phone back, I stood up to continue on foot around the UN compound. I kept walking, ignoring the screaming, the shooting, the panic. Timorese looked to us. I needed to give them hope. I held a duty to be there with them. I took motivation from them. More than that, I wanted to stay on my feet. I required time to respond and do what I could when the end came.


Friday 30 August 2019 marks 20 years since the independence referendum in Timor-Leste. After the referendum returned a result in favour of independence from Indonesia, violence erupted. An estimated 1400 civilians died.



Tammy PemperTammy Pemper has worked with the United Nations, Australian Federal Police, and the US Peace Corps. The essay above is an edited extract from her book Scorched Earth, which was completed through five years of interviews and experiences in Timor-Leste.

Published by Big Sky Publishing, Scorched Earth is available now in paperback or as an eBook from online bookstores including Amazon, Booktopia, Fishpond, QBD, Dymocks, and Angus & Robertson. All proceeds are donated to Timor-Leste. Click here for more information

Topic tags: Tony Smith, Hiroshima, nuclear weapons, Russia, United States



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Existing comments

Thank you to Tammy Pemper for this very moving article and to Eureka Street Magazine for publishing it. And how appropriate it was that Tammy's book "Scorched Earth" was published just before the twentieth anniversary of the 1999 UN supervised independence referendum in East Timor. While we must pay great tribute to the East Timorese defenders in the armed and civil disobedience resistance for the independence of Timor-Leste, we must never forget the great contribution made by the UN personnel and the civilian police who had to supervise the exercise. Thanks to the decision of the Australian government at the time, the referendum was carried out with the Indonesian military (TNI) and its trained Timorese militias being present. According to James Dunn, the former Australian consul to East Timor and the author of "Timor- A People Betrayed" and "East Timor - a Rough Passage to Independence" this led to a further 2000 more deaths and 80% of the nation's infrastructure being destroyed. In addition, many Timorese children were abducted, tens of thousands of Timorese became refugees and a large percentage of the population was traumatised. Already, about a 1/3 of the population perished during the 24 years of illegal occupation and many suffered torture, rape and other sickening crimes against humanity. On the twentieth anniversary of the East Timor independence referendum, we remember the great courage and determination of the volunteers in the UN Civpol police force who, while unarmed, had to try to keep law and order against the TNI - the largest terrorist force in our region - and its murderous militias consisting of Quisling Timorese. People who genuinely believe in democracy, the rule of law, human rights and social justice salute you.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 26 August 2019  

And after all that suffering, we send in the spooks, to deny one of the world’s poorest countries a level playing field in negotiations over an oil and gas field, just about their only resource. We are not very nice people.

Peter Downie | 29 August 2019  

Well said Tammy, Even my experiences in Vietnam cant compare with what you must have seen and heard. I for one will be purchasing your book. It's so sad how badly our government and spooks have treated these brave people. Now our government prosecute those who dare to call it out!

Gavin A. O'Brien | 29 August 2019  

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