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Path to freedom – looking back on the terror and hope 20 years after East Timor’s independence vote

Freedom push: East Timorese villagers proclaim their support for independence ahead of the 1999 referendum. Despite the presence of militia intent on disrupting a free vote and stopping a break from Indonesian rule, these villagers from the mountainous Bobonaro district shouted “Viva Timor L’este!” (Long Live East Timor!). Photo: AAP

IT is 20 years since East Timor, Australia’s neighbour, voted for independence, ending 24 years of often-brutal struggle against ruling Indonesia. East Timor, with its vast Catholic majority, has long been a focus for Australian parishes supporting human rights and justice. Thousands of Australian Catholics have worked, volunteered and donated their energies to support East Timor, where faith, hope and community was inevitably tied up within the independence struggle. In 1999, Mark Bowling was an ABC journalist covering events in East Timor.  He has spoken to Australians who were there, recalling the historic vote and the dark days of chaos that followed.

THE atmosphere leading in to the vote on August 30, 1999, was one of fear and intimidation, rather than hope.

For months, pro-Indonesia militias – essentially thugs armed with homemade pistols and carrying machetes – had warned of a “scorched earth” revenge if East Timor’s population used a United Nations-backed referendum to vote to leave Indonesia, and opt for independence.

There was ample evidence that the militias were paid for, trained, and often supplied with alcohol and drugs, by elements within the Indonesian military.

Fr Leo Wearden has a clear memory of the pall hanging over voting day. 

A Missionaries of the Sacred Heart priest, Fr Wearden has spent the past 15 years serving a parish in the remote Northern Territory Indigenous community of Wadeye.

But in August 1999 he was in East Timor’s second city Bacau, working for Caritas as an election monitor.

“There had been threats, and predictions of violence leading up to voting day,” he said.

“Very early I attended Mass, and then people were on the move to a local school to line up and vote.

“It was hot and steamy. There were long lines of people waiting quietly to vote.”

Polls open, violence starts

In Dili, it was a similar, eerily quiet day at the polls.

Before first light I set off to a school polling station just near the infamous Santa Cruz cemetery – the place where dozens of students had been massacred by Indonesia soldiers in 1991.

There was already a long line at the Santa Cruz school, and the first in line was a 79-year-old Noko Boro, from the farming district of Viqueque – proud and upright, and with a glint in his eyes.

He had lived his life under two regimes – 50 years under the colonial Portuguese and then 24 years under Indonesian rule. 

Noko Boro told me there was nothing more he wanted to do than to have a democratic vote.

By the time the doors opened at 200 polling centres across East Timor, half of all registered voters were lining up. 

In the picturesque hill town of Gleno, the arrival of the United States ambassador Stapleton Roy and a team of US voting observers sparked the first violence, around noon.

Hundreds of militiamen were milling around the polling station, and suddenly burst into the building firing guns and shouting that they would kill all election observers, accusing UN election workers of being biased in favour of independence. 

Burned out: A Salesian Sister with her class at the sisters’ school in Comoro Dili. The school was burnt by the militia.

The ambassador was whisked away, at least two UN staffers were injured, and it was left to some of the international police to protect election volunteers inside the polling station.

“The militia just swarmed in like ants. It was absolute chaos,” Peter Watt, an Australian Federal police senior sergeant and part of the election UN peacekeeping force in Gleno, said.

Mr Watt now lives and attends a Christian church on the Sunshine Coast, and last week recalled how he stood in the doorway of the polling station while the militia fired handguns into the wall beside him.    

“They were shooting, throwing rocks and slashing with their machetes,” he said.

Mr Watt tried to negotiate with one of the militia leaders, who he believed was drugged and in a dangerous mood.

“His eyes were blood, from the ‘Crazy Dog’, I believe, and I just said ‘Mate, call these guys off’,” he said.

Amid the battle Mr Watt and other police managed to protect election staff, and then they tried to leave by car, but they were surrounded and blocked by militia.

“There was a tap on the window, I looked, and there was a militia holding a revolver to my head, through the window,” he said.

Mr Watt survived the attack, but there were more outbreaks in Gleno that day, as houses were set alight and shooting continued. 

He and his international police colleagues were forced to sleep under siege in the town’s police station, guarding the ballot boxes before evacuating to Dili with the boxes the next day.

It took the UN five days to count and confirm the vote, and on September 4 media crews from around the world were in Dili for the declaration. 

It was clear-cut – almost 80 per cent of voters rejected the offer to stay part of Indonesia, voting for independence instead.

But there were no victory parties that day. 

Escaping vengeance

Driving  with a cameraman through the dusty suburbs of Dili we stopped at the Balidai church where a few nervous young men told me militiamen were close by and preparing for vengeance.

Just then we spotted the first signs that an exodus had begun. 

In the distance and trudging single-file through the dust was a human line heading for the hills. 

Old men and women carrying babies averted their eyes as they passed us. 

Many carried baskets of belongings or rolled-up mattresses on their heads. 

The most vulnerable were taking what they could and getting out. 

By mid-afternoon the sound of sporadic semi-automatic gunfire echoed through the streets. 

War: Falintal Freedom Fighters in Dili in February 2000. These pro-indepedence guerillas were the force behind East Timor’s struggle against Indonesia, but during the independence vote they were ordered to stay in their mountain bases and not to fight. The order came from East Timor’s jailed independence leader Xanana Gusmao.

“It began in earnest – the campaign of violence that resulted in so many homes, and schools and hospitals and other buildings being destroyed,” Australian Jesuit Father Peter Hosking, who was the director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in East Timor, said.

During the following days an estimated 1500 people were killed while an estimated 500,000 people – more than half the Timorese population – were forced to hide in the mountains or herded into refugee camps across the border into Indonesian West Timor.

Under the threat of death, families were loaded aboard ferries, into cars, taxis and minibuses, and squeezed onto the back of trucks. 

The military stayed behind, looting and destroying. Their orders were to erase everything Indonesia had built up during its 24-year rule.

Fr Hosking was part of an international contingent forced to take cover in the UN’s compound in Dili. 

Sergeant Watt was there too, and was one of the last Australians to be evacuated by plane to Darwin, with Dili in flames, and the militia ruling the streets, looting and killing.

The Church targeted

Among those targeted by the militia were priests, nuns and Church workers.

One of the worst tragedies occurred in Suai, where thousands of displaced villagers were taking shelter in the grounds of a cathedral, Our Lady of Fatima Church that was under construction. Soon after the independence vote, the local priest Fr Hilario Madeira urged these refugees to leave the grounds, but some were too frightened to go.

They were there because the militia had threatened them, driven them from their homes and in some cases burnt their houses to the ground.

On September 6, about 400 unarmed people were trapped when the militia surrounded the church brandishing pipe guns and knives. 

Fr Hilario tried to raise the alarm by telephoning police and army headquarters but nobody answered. 

He did manage to reach Bishop Carlos Belo in Dili. Bishop Belo told his priest to pray. 

What happened next was a massacre. 

About 2pm, eyewitnesses say heavily armed militia charged into the church grounds, shooting, throwing grenades and setting buildings alight. 

The refugees inside ran for their lives, screaming.

Amid the smoke and confusion many of the refugees escaped. 

But about 100 people were slaughtered, including Fr Hilario and two other priests, Fr Francisco Soares and  Fr Tarcisius Dewanto.

Martyr: Jesuit Priest Tarcisius Dewanto who was shot dead at Suai, Fr Franciso Soares who was cut down by gunfire on the church steps at Suai, and Sr Celeste De Carvalho Pinto who was also martyred.

Sister Mary Barudero described how the militiamen entered the church and began firing long bursts from their guns at the crowd of refugees. 

Then they threw hand grenades among the huddled victims.

The Vatican’s missionary news agency Fides soon confirmed the killings and how Fr Hilario, who had been in the town for some time, was well known as a supporter of independence. 

Fr Dewanto was an Indonesian who arrived in Suai only three weeks before the massacre and had been ordained only a month before that. 

Within two months an investigation team uncovered three graves on a beach about 20km from Suai, across the border in West Timor. 

The graves contained the remains of the priests, buried there, it is presumed, in an effort to cover up the evidence of these terrible crimes.  

The bodies of the three priests and 23 other victims were disinterred and brought back to East Timor for a commemorative service and burial.

Autopsies showed that most of the victims had been killed by gunshot or knife wounds.  

It was Australia that helped push for peacekeepers to be sent in to East Timor on an urgent rescue mission.

They headed the multinational force called UNAMET that started arriving on September 20 – 5500 Australians under the force command of Major General Peter Cosgrove, with the task of restoring peace and security, and providing humanitarian assistance.

Fr Bryan Pipins, now the newly appointed priest in Murgon, was part of the Jesuit Refugee Service team that returned to Timor soon after the peacekeepers.

“I remember as we were coming in to Dili Harbour, and the first thing you noticed was that your mouth was dry, because all the ash was being blown out to sea,” Fr Pipins said.

“Even before we could see all the destruction we could taste it.

“It was a war zone. Burnt buildings everywhere.” 

Fr Pipins’ role was to organise the logistics for the Jesuit Mission – part of an international effort to help the Timorese rebuild their lives and livelihoods.

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