Indonesia unilaterally claimed the integration of East Timor in 1975 as its 27th province. During the 24 years of Soeharto’s presidency, Indonesia made every effort to get the international community to recognize this “integration,” while the United Nations otherwise classified East Timor a non-self governing territory (or non-decolonized).
The political climate in Indonesia changed drastically when President Soeharto stepped down on May 21st, 1998, one year prior to the end of his term, and was replaced by Vice President BJ Habibie. No one expected President Habibie to celebrate the New Year in 1999 by releasing East Timor from the Republic of Indonesia pending the results of a referendum offering East Timorese two options: either “special autonomy” within the Republic of Indonesia or independence. The referendum was held on August 30th, 1999. The results were announced on September 4th. East Timor chose independence.
The publication of the book from which the following excerpt is taken not only resulted in the loss of my 20-year tenure as war correspondent for Kompas Daily, the highest circulation national newspaper in Indonesia, but also in my ongoing exile in the US due to threats to my life. The book created controversy because of its explicitly unbiased coverage of the atrocities committed in East Timor between July and November 1999 in which I name East Timorese factions responsible for numerous deaths, but more seriously the names of Indonesian National Army figureheads that were involved in conspiracy and campaign propaganda days before the referendum.
The excerpt is taken from Chapter III and describes events that took place in Dili, the capital of East Timor, between the day of the vote and the day the results were confirmed. A million thanks to Linda Gaboriau and Dylan K Widjiono for their contribution to this translation.
Days of Loss and Sadness
“He is bleeding! He is bleeding....!!!”
Sister Bernadette shouted while aiding a wounded man. She is a nun from the Philippines who served at the Convent of Saint Paul of Chartres, while the injured man was a campaigner from the pro-autonomy faction. I came rushing over. Her left hand appeared to be bleeding and was holding a watch also covered in blood.
“Sister, what happened? Whose watch is that?” I asked.
“Nothing happened to me. I was only helping a stabbing victim. This is his watch. He's being rushed to Motael Hospital by Sister Carmen,” she said.
It was Thursday, August 26th, 1999, the last day of the referendum campaigns. The city of Dili was seething as the rivalry between the pro-autonomy and pro-independence camps grew more palpable, and more violent. People fiercely threw stones at pro-autonomy campaigners passing through Bekora and Kuluhun, two villages in southern Dili known as centers for pro-independence fighters. The campaigners immediately turned back.
A small car headed straight for the pro-independence neighborhood of Bekora, riling its residents into a fit of rage. The car was full of passengers wearing red t-shirts emblazoned with the word otonomi (autonomy). Villagers reacted by bombarding them with stones. In front of the Convent of Saint Paul of Chartres, where Sister Bernadette served, the car made a U-turn. A panicked passenger got out of the car. He tried to escape the scene, but was soon caught by riotous locals and stabbed.
Other campaigners passed by. The mobs were hitting everything around them to sound the alarm that danger was near. They ran and threw more stones. They burned a motorcycle that they thought belonged to the pro-autonomy campaigners (as it happens, it did not; it belonged to Kornelis, a local journalist).
A moment later, more campaign supporters arrived, in larger numbers now. They wore uniforms that were completely black but for the word Aitarak written on their backs (1). They were militias, or pro-autonomy squads, from the greater Dili area led by Eurico Guterres. They headed towards the pro-independence neighborhood Bekora throwing stones and firing shots in the air. Bang! Bang! Bang! They shot Kornelis, who was distracted by the destruction of his motorcycle and unaware of the more serious danger in front of him.
Five bullets hit his flak-jacket and one his leg. He immediately threw himself into a dry riverbed nearby, then ran about one kilometer before he was saved by a pro-independence supporter and rushed to a local hospital. The Aitarak member also shot Bea Wiharta, a Reuters photographer who was busy documenting the violence with his camera. In the midst of the shooting and chaos, the militias also managed to ransack a pickup truck rented by the English-language daily The Jakarta Post.
The Aitarak brigade, a mass of solid, black-clad, muscular bodies, grew more vicious now. Thousands of bullets and stones flew en masse towards Bekora. Many of Bekora’s civilians jumped into the riverbed and prepared to fight with bows-and-arrows. The group of militarized integration supporters pressed on toward their target.
Five journalists – three men and two women – tried to take cover beside a bridge across the riverbed but became pinned down by the flying bullets and stones. They were reporter Dicky Wahyudi and cameraman Toni Cahyono from the Indonesian TV station RCTI, German Mintapraja from the European TV station EBU, a foreign female reporter whom I could not see very clearly, and myself.
As soon as the militiamen saw us, one of them, a stocky man with dark skin wearing a solid-green army uniform with a green beret and the word Aitarak written in yellow above his left pocket, whipped out a hand grenade. Turning the grenade around and around in his right hand, he approached, coming closer and closer to the five of us.
“Jornalista!” one of us yelled, trying to let him know who we were. Unfortunately, the shouting only prompted the soldier to harass us further, pretending to pull the pin out of the grenade. I felt as if my heart stopped beating. I realized we had been shouting in the wrong language. Of course! I should have known that with pro-autonomy forces, we should have shouted in Indonesian wartawan (journalist) instead of the Portuguese word jornalista.
He decided, for whatever reason, only to scare us and went away, but another group approached almost immediately, wearing the same black uniforms. All of the militiamen carried guns. They stopped as soon they saw us. One set up his black rifle, which looked like an M-16, and aimed at us. Others followed suit. One man, in a white t-shirt and blue pants, took a hand gun out of his waistband and assumed a firing position. He surprised me by pointing the barrel of the gun right at my forehead.
“God, please forgive me.”
I could only utter this one short prayer when the weapon was cocked directly at my head, its barrel pointing between my eyes. I don't know why, but I could not take my eyes off the man. Some of the others were kicking Indonesian TV cameramen Toni Cahyono. Before any more weapons could be fired, a group of Indonesian Police arrived on the chaotic scene and rescued us.
Meanwhile, at the other end of Dili, two cameramen for Televisi Repulik Indonesia (TVRI), Sabianus Bambang Ekosroyo and Sus Irianto, and the newscaster Angela Carvalho, were moving through the city. Just as they arrived in front of the Governor's office, they saw the Aitarak militia. The reporters were documenting the shootings committed at the hands of Aitarak members. The cameramen had followed the mob from the District Military Command, which stood next to the Governor's office. The sound of gunshots led the two cameramen along the circuitous route paralleling the beach that the Aitarak troops took toward Kuluhun.
Enthusiastically, the two cameramen had followed a truck of the Brimob (Indonesian Police Mobile Brigade) moving through the area. As soon as the Aitarak saw them, they shouted, “Kill them! Kill them! Kill them!” They ripped Sus Irianto's camera from him and he fled. They slashed at Eko but hit his camera instead. They also tried grabbing his camera, but he would not let it go. A tug-of-war ensued, the Aitarak kicking Eko. The camera broke in half.
Eko tried to run but the sand he was standing in tripped him and he fell headfirst into a ditch. All the while, behind him, the Aitarak were screaming, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” One of them jammed a makeshift pistol to the back of Eko's head. Eko prepared to die. “But all of a sudden, someone fell onto me saying ‘No! No! No! Don't kill him! Bring him to the base!’ But I couldn't see who it was, who had protected me,” Eko said later.
With Eko finally saved, two bullets struck Bernadino Guterres, a university student from Satya Wacana, Salatiga, Central Java. He was shot through the neck and fell head first. Bernadino lay drenched in blood on 15 Oktober Street, Audian, right in front of the Convent of Saint Paul of Chartres.
The sun was about to set when Bernadino had joined his friends in Kuluhun earlier that day. He threw a stone at the campaigners, then ran away as fast as he could. But someone yelled, “Instigator!” pointing in Bernadino's direction. The Brimob chased after him.
Bernadino zigzagged across the street and bolted toward Audian village. An officer wearing a white t-shirt and blue pants fired a warning shot into the air to try and stop him. “Don't do it, there's no need,” yelled someone nearby on the street, pulling down the officer's hand. A few seconds later, another Brimob officer advanced two steps. His face was expressionless and ice-cold. He braced the butt of his gun against his chest and then: Bang, bang...!
The two bullets lodged in Bernadino's neck, close to his left ear. He toppled over and slumped to the ground. Blood flowed from his body. The asphalt beneath him reddened quickly. All was quiet. Everyone stopped to look at the body: skinny, dark, wearing a red hat and crumpled, stained jeans. The shooter, a Brimob officer with fair skin, round eyes and a stoic face, turned around. With chilling calm, he simply walked back and resumed his original position in the line of Brimob officers.
At dusk, the whole city of Dili was overtaken by a deathly silence. The only sound was the wailing of Bernadino's mother, whose eyes rolled in disbelief when she saw her beloved son shot dead in the street. “He’s my son…He’s my son…He’s my son…” she cried. Later, the nuns of the Convent of Saint Paul of Chartres took her to safety and comforted her.
Bernadino lost his life on that bloody day alongside his pro-independence friend, Marcus Nunes, and two pro-autonomy supporters, Apolinario Pio and Virgelio Martin Pinto, former members of the Regional House of Representatives from the district of Viqueque.
Bernadino's remains were brought to the hospital. Residents took sand and stones and encircled the bloodstained patch of 15 Oktober Street where he died. They also placed a barrel filled with rocks in the street in which they stuck a sign: "Mati Ditembak Brimob" (Shot dead by the Brimob).
* * *
Wednesday, September 1, 1999. Life in Dili went on. It was quiet, somber and unpredictable. Happiness and sadness, hope and fear, life and death lived side by side in everyone’s mind. That day, Dili was friendly enough. I decided to go out for lunch at one of our favorite restaurants, either Trenggalek or Tulung Agung Fried Chicken. In this gloomy situation, these were the only restaurants left open.
After lunch, I met with Ambassador Agus Tarmidzi, chief of the Indonesian Task Force for the Referendum in East Timor, at his residence. We discussed the implementation of the referendum, as well as the all-important question of how to guarantee the safety of the journalists who had decided to stay in East Timor, since the mandate of the Task Force, which had included responsibility for journalists' safety, officially ended that day.
The telephone rang. “Speaking…” said Ambassador Tarmidzi, answering the caller. He was told that the Territorial Military Commander IX/Udayana, Maj. Gen. Adam Damiri, was about to arrive at his residence. Five minutes later, he was standing right in front of me. It was 2:45 pm local time. Before I was able to leave, Amb. Tarmidzi raised the question of the journalists with Damiri.
“We will take over it,” said Damiri. “Anyway, it will be okay, don’t worry.” He was very friendly.
I was relieved by his promise and walked home. “No need to worry, the commander guaranteed our safety,” I reported to Pipit and Kiki, my journalist neighbors who worked for Japanese Fuji TV, when I passed by their house. I shared this information with Eddy and Kreshna, journalists who were staying with me, and any other journalists I could reach.
Just minutes later, Pipit came rushing over to our house: “The militia attacked the UNAMET [United Nations Mission in East Timor] Headquarters at Balide! Come on!” he shouted. He had heard reports of the attack on UNAMET on closed-circuit radio. Kreshna, Eddy and I jumped into Pipit’s car and sped to Balide in southeast Dili, together with Kiki and Joao Baretto, the East Timor correspondent for Fuji TV.
Hundreds of bullets started flying through the air around us the second we got out of our car. I was mesmerized and froze. “Hurry up!! Run! Run!!!” someone shouted, pulling me by the hand. We scattered. I saw Kiki running towards the East Timor University campus. No choice: I followed him. We jumped over the fence and hid behind a wall. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! The gunfire continued as if nothing on Earth could stop it.
Some other journalists who had arrived earlier were trapped in the UNAMET Headquarters. Three militiamen attacked Jonathan Head, the BBC News correspondent in Indonesia, wielding the butts of their rifles and kicking him in the head. They attempted to stab him in the chest, but the flak jacket he wore saved him (the attack was filmed and broadcast by CNN, which would make it less dangerous for me to include the information in my own September 9th article for Kompas).
We crouched behind a white wall, out of breath, perspiring, our hearts beating wildly. I tried to contact Amb. Tarmidzi in his residence. I was quite sure that Damiri, the territorial military commander, was still there. Only 15 minutes had passed since the commander had guaranteed our safety. But the call failed, the telephone line perpetually busy. We were in a truly hopeless situation. We leaned on the wall not knowing what to do. I closed my eyes, trying hard to think of a solution, but I couldn’t find anything. I blocked my ears but the gunfire was louder than ever. I opened my eyes periodically, but I couldn’t see a thing.
Less than an hour later that day, I received an anonymous phone call on my cell warning me that there was an order out for the militia to kidnap and execute me, and to mutilate my body afterwards so that it could not be identified.
“Please, move out! Don't stay at home tonight,” the caller warned. He told me I would be kidnapped sometime after 6 pm and interrogated through the night, then killed and mutilated by morning. “They will kill someone else if they can’t find you. Sorry, we can't protect you,” he said, then hung up. I was in a daze.
“Who called?” Eddy asked.
“Clandestine,” I said.
“What did he say?”
“They will kidnap me.”
 Aitarak ("thorn" in Tetun, the language of East Timor) was the name of one of the most feared pro- Indonesia militia groups in East Timor during the late 1990s.
Rien Kuntari is a freelance journalist and Indonesian national. Kuntari spent most of her career with Kompas Daily in Jakarta. During her tenure at Kompas Daily she reported from more than 50 countries in Asia, Europe, the Americas, Africa, and the Middle East. Kuntari covered the Gulf War, the Rwanda War (1994), Cambodia (1996) and East Timor until its independence (1992-1999-2002). She was a presidential correspondent from the Soeharto administration through that of Abdurrahman Wahid. She lives outside Indonesia, unable to return due to ongoing death threats.