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Timor-Leste's bloody sunrise



'Even if I die, I am going out there to vote' — a Timorese friend told me of the determination of his 84 year old mother in the face of the intimidation by militia during August of 1999.

This cartoon by Chris Johnston portrays a church with blood running under the door and a large Indonesian flag looming over a tattered Timor-Leste flag.Long lines formed early at polling stations across Timor that Monday 30 August 1999. It should have been the brightest dawn of long delayed democracy. Instead it was a bloody sunrise. The vote's unmistakeable result opened the way for three unrelenting weeks of savage slaughter and destruction that only began to diminish with the arrival of Interfet, the peace keeping force. Then thousands of Indonesian soldiers withdrew and Timorese danced in the streets. Conservatively, 1400 are estimated to have died in those weeks, including two Jesuits, some diocesan priests and several Canossian sisters.

In the first week of September, as violence escalated across Timor, my fellow Jesuit Steve Curtin and I were in Damak, Nepal, visiting our teams working with Bhutanese refugees. Steve was the Asia Pacific Director of Jesuit Refugee Service, and I was then its International Director. We called Dili to speak with Jesuit Fr Karl Albrecht.

A German by birth, Karl spoke English with an Irish lilt because he had studied Philosophy in Milltown Park, Dublin. For many years a missionary in Indonesia, he took the name Karim Abie when he gained Indonesian citizenship. He was sent to Timor in the late 1980s, and witnessed the Santa Cruz massacre in November 1991. Karl's understanding of Indonesia's role and of the part that he could play in Timor dramatically changed at that moment.

For years he had been the JRS Director for Timor. That August and early September he was moving around fearlessly to defend and rescue people, challenging machete wielding militia and distributing food when the markets had closed. Karl told us of the mayhem in Dili and on the road to Ailieu. We were the ones to tell him of the killing in Suai on 6 September of Tarcissius Dewanto, a young Javanese Jesuit on his first mission, hardly six weeks after his ordination as a priest. That news had not yet reached Dili.

On 11 September at night, Karl was himself shot dead by an unknown intruder at the Jesuit house in Taibessi. No realistic investigation was ever possible, except to identify the bullet that killed him as Indonesian issue ordinance. Karl was then a couple of days short of celebrating 50 years as a Jesuit.

Early the next year a Timorese Canossian sister, who had been evacuated to Milan, came to Rome for the 2000 AD celebrations and visited me in my office there. She had been in Suai in September 1999, and from the convent opposite had witnessed the church that was the site of the massacre that took Dewanto's life. Around 100 people had taken refuge in that small church. A noisy crowd of Timorese militia, shepherded by several Indonesia soldiers, besieged the church.


"Many Timorese fled the furious vengeance that was unleashed. Those who worked with the occupier left for West Timor, lured by promises of safety and citizenship that have rarely been fulfilled even 20 years later."


The first to come out was the young Romo Dewanto, presumably sensing that, as an Indonesian, he could negotiate with the aggressors. According to the sister's account, the young gang members were wide eyed and clearly drugged. A soldier called out, 'Stop, he is one of us.' But it was too late, one man rushed at Dewanto and cut him with a machete. The sister claims that the slaughter then began. Blood flowed out under the doors of the church like a river. Was this what she saw then or what she could not stop seeing in her nightmares? Or both? Over 100 died in Suai that day.


The Referendum

At least 20 years earlier, my former Indonesian politics professor and in many ways a mentor, Herb Feith, seeing my discouragement at the suffering of occupied Timor, opined that Suharto would not be in power forever. It was then hard to believe his prophesy that the authoritarian structures by then cemented into Indonesia politics could ever crumble.

The fall of Suharto in 1998 occasioned the improbable temporary accession of B. J. Habibie to the presidency. Originally an engineer and always a pragmatist, Habibie favoured democratisation for Indonesia. He saw the losses that their military, untrained for war, suffered in Timor, the unpopularity of the occupation in international circles and, most of all, the fact that the heavy subsidies to the military brought no benefit to Indonesia's economy.

To diffuse the Timor impasse he requested the UN sponsor a referendum asking for a choice between autonomy (within the Indonesian state) or independence: 98.6 per cent of 451,000 registered voters turned out; 78.5 per cent of them rejected autonomy, indicating an overwhelming rejection of Indonesian political control.

Many Timorese fled the furious vengeance that was unleashed. Those who worked with the occupier left for West Timor, lured by promises of safety and citizenship that have rarely been fulfilled even 20 years later. Even now some still trickle back to Asia's youngest nation where remarkably, forgiveness is possible.

A UN Special Session was held. Yet despite the best efforts of Mary Robinson, then the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, it was not possible to get the UN Security Council to vote to investigate or to establish a War Crimes Tribunal as had been done in the case of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Timorese people are patient, tenacious, resilient. When pushed they can respond with anger. As the traumas of centuries of colonial rule and decades of brutal occupation recede, so do the traumas. More evident now are the laughter, smiles, songs and easy acceptance. Evident too is fierce independence and determination not to be controlled again.



Mark RaperFr Mark Raper SJ is a former International Director of Jesuit Refugee Service and a former Superior for the Jesuits in Timor Leste. He is currently Superior for the Jesuits in Myanmar.

Topic tags: Mark Raper, East Timor, Indonesia



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Existing comments

A vivid account Mark. Guterres and Thorn were bastards indeed and many atrocities occurred during Scorched Earth. Prior to the vote we had regular visits from Timorese priests, as Soybada was a sister parish to St Mary's Coomera. One priest said 200,000 had disappeared over the years (men and boys) before the vote never to be seen again. Their bodies were dumped in the sea for the sharks. They were followed if they went to mass and then invariably disappeared. During the occupation The Indonesian Government only paid 25% of the military wages. The soldiers made up the difference in Dili by running prostitution, illegal alcohol and drugs, black market operations. Two elderly German nuns visited after Scorched Earth and said the Indonesian Military dismantled their hospital, stole all the equipment including the beds and xray machines and even took the doors off the buildings. They were left destitute, but alive. How brave were the Indonesians? The massacre at Suai was of unarmed civilians and obviously genocide ordered by the military to intimidate the population to not vote. And now the same brutal occupation occurs in West Papua where protest and standing up to the oppressor invariably results in death.

Francis Armstrong | 29 August 2019  

“Timorese people are patient, tenacious, resilient”. And forgiving. Sounds like the stuff of Resurrection to me, and we all need it. Thank you, Father, for this article, another act of priestly re-membering, for Timor L’Este and for the many.

Joan Seymour | 29 August 2019  

Thank you, Mark. Beautiful. May our martyrs pray for us and the people they served so willingly and faithfully.

Bob Billings | 29 August 2019  

An extraordinary first-hand re-membering, Mark. I recall being involved in a very remote way at Newcastle, where the University employed an Indonesian academic who had sided with the Timorese and lived in fear of returning to his country. Roll on another two decades and we still have the underhand plot to subvert this fledgling nation's oil revenue into Australian hands. Disgusting!

Michael Furtado | 29 August 2019  

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