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Allan Nairn Reports from East Timor

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Today, Democracy Now! departs from its usual reporting of the headlines to bring you a report on the latest events in East Timor. Immediately before today’s broadcast, host Amy Goodman had the opportunity to speak with journalist Allan Nairn, who is in the United Nations compound in Dili. [includes rush transcript]

Fears of a massacre inside the besieged UN compound in East Timor rose after most of the staff was evacuated to the airport, leaving little protection for refugees inside from rampaging militiamen.

Even under guard by Indonesian troops, the trucks of evacuating UN staff came under fire from militiamen as they passed through the streets of Dili, scattered with debris and ash from days of burning and looting, witnesses said. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Militiamen also stopped a party of Roman Catholic nuns who tried to make it to the airport to catch one of the Australian air force flights to Darwin. Their driver was beaten, but the nuns managed to reach the airport.

Militiamen have been running rampant since a sweeping independence victory in an August 30 referendum. The Indonesian military is accused of supporting the militias in a bid to prevent East Timor’s break, and troops in the territory have done little to stop the militiamen.

In East Timor’s provincial capital, Dili, militiamen entered part of the UN compound after the convoy of 350 UN staffers was evacuated. They vandalized and looted UN vehicles and terrified refugees holed up inside, the United Nations and witnesses told Australian Associated Press.

In Jakarta, President B.J. Habibie came under pressure when twenty members of his own ruling Golkar party joined a call for him not to seek another term in an electoral college vote in November because of his conduct on the East Timor referendum. The call came amid increasing worries that the president had been effectively sidelined by the military.

Many East Timorese have been taken at gunpoint by ship and truck to refugee camps in West Timor. Refugees have reported seeing neighbors killed, their bodies dumped and mutilated. Confirming the death toll is impossible. Militias have threatened to kill foreign journalists or observers who try to enter East Timor or the refugee camps.

Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 as the territory was gaining independence from Portugal. The army has been constantly accused of brutality to suppress independence groups.


  • Allan Nairn, journalist, from Dili, East Timor.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


Well, we’re going to move now, as that news conference did yesterday, between Puerto Rico and East Timor and the latest that is happening there. The Vatican is saying that Roman Catholic institutions have been singled out for attack by militias in East Timor and has called for a United Nations peacekeeping force to restore order. The Church is responding to reports of slayings of about a hundred people, including four Catholic priests, in an attack on a church in the southern town of Suai. Also, word is that another victim was said to be the head of the East Timorese office of the Catholic aid agency Caritas, the Reverend Francisco Barreto, a prominent voice for moderation in the territory. Also other Caritas workers apparently have been killed. A well-known nun has been killed in Dili, and the Reverend Jose Carbonel of the Silesian order said in Jakarta six nuns of the Canossian order had been killed in the city of Baucau. The Roman Catholic bishop of Baucau, Basilio do Nascimento, reported to have been wounded and forced to flee into the hills.

This all coming as the United Nations compound is being evacuated of some UN personnel. Hundreds have flown to Darwin, but a number have volunteered to remain with the refugees who have taken refuge in the UN compound, braved razor wire, jumped over the fence to escape from the gunfire and the terror in Dili, the terror of the militias and the Indonesian military.

And just before we went to air, we heard that heavy gunfire had broken out near the UN headquarters in East Timor. Just a few minutes ago, I spoke to Brian Kelly, the deputy chief of information in Dili, one of the people who has said he will remain behind. He talked about the internally displaced people and the fact that a number left the compound when the gunfire broke out, and they have run off to hide, afraid that even the compound isn’t safe.

And just an hour before we are broadcasting this, I reached Allan Nairn, trying to reach him over the last twelve or thirteen hours. It is extremely difficult. The Indonesian military turns on and off the whole cellular system at will. They had cut the land lines to the United Nations, the phone lines, but now some of them are back up. And since I was able to get him on the phone, we thought we would just run what he has to say. Allan has decided to stay in East Timor for now. This is his description of what’s happening.


    Well, Dili remains under siege by the militias and the Indonesian army. This morning, the UNAMET of the United Nations evacuated a substantial number of their international staff and their entire East Timorese staff, plus their families. As the convoys were going to the airport to be met at the airport by the Australian military, which was managing the physical evacuation, as that was happening, the Aitarak militias, which are run by the Indonesian army, they were gathering just a few streets away from the UN compound, and as soon as the final convoy had left from the airport, the Aitarak rode up on motorcycles, the Aitarak men dressed in their black T-shirts and red-and-white bandanas.

    One group of them went into the courtyard of a next-door church, which the UN has been using as a place to house some of the 2,000 refugees that have been sheltering there. They went into that courtyard demanding the keys to a truck, a UN truck, stealing motorcycles, some of which had been brought in by people who had fled, and also just mingling among and threatening to attack people in the crowd. As that was happening, another group of Aitarak people nearby rode up right near the entrance, to the gates of the main UN compound. As this proceeded, there were many, many shots that were fired. From what I am told, it caused a great deal of fear among the refugees, who are mainly women and children. The refugees who are staying in the church schoolyard next to the main UN compound are — many of them are either very old or very young. There was a great deal of terror there, and it also, from what I heard, really shook the UN. And that set the stage for a siege from the outside that has continued throughout the day.

    They’ve also continued to light fires throughout Dili, some very large, massive fires. There’s one — I can’t really tell exactly where it is, but it’s along the Areia Branca, the white sand beach, or just back from the Areia Branca. It’s in the general vicinity of a hostel. That may be what’s burning. It’s hard to make out in the distance. But very, very heavy plumes of black smoke rising through the air. They have also been burning buildings in the north — or rather, south-central part of the city, which is the neighborhood where UN headquarters is located.

    So, it’s been a return to the terror tactics directed at whatever the remaining population of Dili is — I mean, it’s not really clear now how many people remain in Dili in their homes; if I were forced to guess, I would guess less than half of the population — so, directed against them and against foreigners and the United Nations, clearly attempting to drive UN and foreign journalists and others out of Timor.


    Allan, we haven’t spoken to you since a revolt took place within the UN compound when the United Nations originally announced it was leaving. Can you explain what happened in the last day?


    Well, I’ve lost track of time a bit, but on a number of nights ago at a time when I was inside the UN compound, word went around — and this was accurate, it wasn’t rumor — the word spread that the UN was going to evacuate, but the evacuation — “evacuation,” that’s the word they use for fleeing, for getting out of the country — it would only include the foreign UN personnel, the local Timorese UN staff and the families of the Timorese staff, but the refugees would all be left behind, those who were sheltering inside the UN compound. That was the plan. It was a panicked flight for the hills on the part of the UN leadership. And when this happened several days ago, my understanding is that it happened on orders from New York, from UN headquarters there. But when the word got around that this was what was in the works, it was just a very dramatic reaction among the refugees. There was a lot of anger, a lot of fear, because it was very clear at that moment, I think, that this would have meant almost certain death for the refugees inside the compound.

    All day long, and in fact for the two previous days, there had been a barrage of gunfire from automatic rifles and, in many cases, heavy machines guns, detonations of small either bombs or mortar pieces or grenades going off all around the UN compound. It was just nonstop barrage. And this was also the time when the burning of Dili was at its peak. So even that day, in the daytime, you could barely see the sun, because there was so much ash and smoke in the air, and everyone could smell it. And it really did look like the result would be a massacre in the making if the UN pulled out and left the local staff — I’m sorry, left the refugees. So what happened was a lot of people rebelled, said, “No, we’re not leaving, regardless of what army you have come in to take us out.” And that included many of the UN staff.


Allan Nairn, reporting to us from Dili. Don’t worry, he hasn’t been cut off; just we’re going to break. Allan, a journalist who has decided to remain in East Timor, as much of the UN pulls out, although a number of staff have volunteered to stay. Hundreds of refugees remain in the UN compound in Dili. We’ll be back with Allan in just a minute, as stations identify themselves here on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!



You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, the Exception to the Rulers, as we go back to Dili, East Timor. Again, the latest news from Dili, the UN, pulling much of its staff out, has just finished that operation as they head to Darwin, Australia, have already landed. And in East Timor, more and more word is coming out of the level of violence, with nuns and priests, it looks like, have been targeted, as well. The Vatican just beginning to find out around the country, since it’s hard to get word outside of Dili, the capital, just how many people have been killed.

We’re speaking with journalist Allan Nairn. He is the only US journalist in East Timor right now, as we try to bring you daily dispatches from Dili. This is Allan describing what happened in the last few days, the debate within the UN compound after the United Nations had announced the UN would be withdrawing.


    About seventy UN staff people signed a petition saying they were volunteering to stay behind. There were many others who were willing to go even further. Among the crew of foreign reporters who at that time, I guess, were — I don’t know, maybe twenty, twenty-five, something like that, there was a — well, there was one group of us, at least half-a-dozen, I think, that was ready to sit down in front of the trucks, if they tried to pull out, to try to stop it. And many of the Timorese young people said that — the refugees, said that once we started that, that they would join in, too. And so, I think you would have had this real political spectacle if the UN tried to pull out. And it just added up to a lot of pressure from within the compound, and also — within the compound, and also, I think a number of the local UN people in the leadership, they didn’t want to go either. They didn’t like this idea.

    This all started, I think — again, I don’t remember the days exactly, but I think it was the day I was on your show talking about some of the covert US military discussions with the TNI, the Indonesian military, about the militias, and I believe, when we went on the air talking about that, this whole thing had started to brew a couple hours before, and we all were in this process of just trying to organize this uprising against this UN decision. And also it was a very, very, very, very tense time, because many people were facing the prospect of death, I remember. In fact, I think when I came back from the place that they were — we had just spoken on the phone, this woman, this older Timorese woman, she came up, and she grabbed my arm, and she’s very angry and crying at the same time. She said, “They’re going to come in, and they’re going to kill us all. The children, they’ll start with the children, and they’re going to kill every single one of us.” And, you know, that was probably a pretty accurate prediction at that moment. And then, at the same time, among the foreigners, the UN staff and the journalists, you know, a lot of people were quickly having to make the decision. Well, you know, are you willing to say, “I’m going to stay behind, no matter what, if they do this pullout,” which, you know, realistically, the way things stood politically at that point, did seem to look like it might have carried a risk of being killed.

    But as it turned out, the little rebellion worked, and a couple hours later, the decision was reversed, and instead the UN — what the UN ended up doing was very different. Some people did leave today on the — well, some international people did leave today on the convoys to the airport. All the local staff did leave. But there’s still a very substantial UN group left behind, so — with the refugees here in Dili. So what that means is that the TNI, General Wiranto and the Indonesian army, if they’re thinking of going beyond, you know, shooting off thousands of rounds, and if they’re thinking of actually storming the compound and trying to do a massacre, then politically they’ll have quite an obstacle, because there are lots and lots of foreigners in there.

    And, you know, one of the things that we said to the UN leadership that night is if decision was in the works, was we said, “You know, consider this. Think about what you’re doing, because you’ll have a lot of Timorese blood on your hands.” You know, I have to say that’s not so unusual for Western countries. But we also said to them, “But you’ll also have some American blood on yours hands, and some British blood and some Australian blood. Think about that, in terms of cold politics.” And that’s still the fact that Wiranto is facing, if he’s thinking about storming the compound. So it turned out that people just refusing to accept that initial, I think, panic. I think the UN got panicked when they made that first decision. But people refusing to accept that worked out and held it — essentially reversed what was, you know, a naked slaughter in the making.


    And yet, as the Indonesian regime is saying they’re getting violence under control, as if they’re not instigating it, Brian Kelly, the deputy chief of information in Dili, who remains there, said, as you were describing Aitarak coming into the parking lot next door, walking right past the military, and that UN personnel watched as the military, together with the Aitarak, smashed one of the cars.


    Oh, yeah. Yeah, that was the least of it. You know, from what I hear, it was — they were especially menacing the refugees in the schoolyard attached to the compound, and it was pretty clear, the way they were all set up, that they were threatening an all-out attack, especially because of the timing, because this started, oh, probably five minutes or less than five minutes after the last of the convoys had left for the airport, you know, with those who were going out, so that the convoys that went to the airport hadn’t even — you know, the drivers of the trucks and so on hadn’t even come back yet. So it was very clear what was going on, and it was also, as always, completely obvious, beyond any kind of reasonable question, that we’re talking about General Wiranto of the Indonesian army here.


    Allan, a few quick questions to ask you. One is what’s happened to the refugees who have left the compound. I just spoke to Brian Kelly, the spokesperson for the UN still inside the compound. He said they went to Dare, which is another pro-independence area in Dili. Are they in grave danger? Why did they leave?


    Well, some have left. It’s not clear exactly how many have. Actually, even before the panic of the other night, some refugees had started to filter out and go over the wall in back of the compound. And since the UN compound sits at the base of a very steep mountain, it involves a tough climb. And it’s also a mountain that has very few trees.

    I was talking today to a Timorese refugee who was comparing what’s happening now to Matebian. Matebian is a mountain in central East Timor. It’s actually great of legendary and religious significance to the Timorese. And it’s also a place that was heavily bombed by the Indonesian army military using planes [inaudible] Ford and Carter, by Jimmy Carter, especially during 1977. OV-10 Broncos came in, dropped napalm. Helicopters were machine-gunning people. Everybody who was there remembers the Matebian attack.

    And this young man who was telling me this, he was a little kid at the time, but he has some memories of it. He said, the way he put it, even though thousands were killed there — and this is typical of the way many Timorese speak, because they live in a reality that most of us in the world are not adjusted to. He said, “Well, yeah, Matebian wasn’t bad at all. Matebian was really very easy, because there were so many rocks there, and you could hide under the rocks.” So, you know, as the bombs were dropping and as the machine gunfire was coming down and this napalm was coming down, there were places to hide. But, as he said this — he was talking about it in comparison to the hills behind the UN compound. He said, “That’s terrible. That’s really bad, because if you try to go up those hills, you really have very few hiding places.” There’s not much in the way of rocks and not all that many trees.

    So, as some of the refugees decided that their options weren’t good and decided to try to hop the fence and make the climb, I mean, one of the several kinds of terror that surround the UN operation here is people standing there looking up at the hill and seeing if they can see refugees and then seeing if they can see soldiers, TNI Indonesian army soldiers, and then listening to the shots as the soldiers try to pick people off. The other day, at least two people were shot, as far as is known. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if we later learn that many more than that have been shot. At least hundreds have fled the compound and made that climb, and there’s certainly more who try it every day. I really don’t know how many refugees are left inside. It’s still a very large number who are still inside the UN compound, and they know that if they try to go out and up the hill, they’re going to be part of target practice as the target for the Indonesian army.

    You know, many of those bullets come from the United States, because even though the US has cut off the sale of small arms to — it’s supposed to have cut off the sale of small arms. That happened in ’94 in response to grassroots pressure. The logic of the move was such that, well, it’s unacceptable to sell them machine guns and the M-16s, pistols and so on, but it’s OK to send the bullets for them. So if refugees are considering climbing the hill, you know, they know that they meet up with a bullet from Olin Winchester. If you actually recover some of the bullets and look at the markings, it says, “Olin Winchester — Made in USA, Olin Winchester, East Alton, Illinois.” So that’s what people are facing if they consider fleeing.


    We’re talking to Allan Nairn. Allan, are you in the UN compound in Dili?


    Well, I’m in Dili, and it’s still very bad. Dili is still under — it’s always been under siege from the occupation army since ’75, but this is a continuation of, I guess, about a week now of very intensive attack.

    And one thing that’s interesting, I don’t think I’ve been on the air, not anywhere, since this happened. A few days ago, one morning — this is when I was — at a time when I was standing in the UN compound — one morning, I was able to get out and was out and around Dili for about three hours, I think the only foreigner who got out that day. And it was absolutely terrifying. The Aitarak — and by the Aitarak, I mean those employees of the Indonesian army who were at that moment wearing one of their black-and-red-and-white uniform, their wild bunch street gang uniform, as opposed to their military uniform. They were rampaging through the city. In fact, the method that they were using, and they kind of developed this in the past few weeks, was they would approach a target on their choppers, on their motorcycles, and as they came up to, say, a house or a school or whatever it was they were going to torch and loot, they would all gun their motorcycles, and they’d fire their guns into the air, and they’d all give this big scream of celebration and warning. And they seemed to be traveling in packs of maybe, I don’t know, twenty to sixty, something like that, big packs. So they were doing this all over town, or at least all over the western part of town, which is where I was able to move on that morning. And they’d come up, and, you know, they’d sack and burn another place. And I just hid from house to house and went — it was possible. I mean, you couldn’t have done this in normal circumstances, but this neighborhood, the neighborhood I was in, Villa Verde, and the adjoining Matadouro neighborhood, and some of the other places down by the National Cathedral, which, by the way, is next door to an SGI Indonesian military intelligence torture center. That’s the whole area I was in. That was mainly deserted. Most of the people had fled.

    So that meant that, if necessary, to escape the army and the Aitarak outside, you could just plunge into someone’s living room or bedroom, because the door was open, and so I was just doing that constantly. You know, the way Dili is set up, there are may houses, but amongst — sometimes in the back of a house you’ll find a rice paddy, or, you know, you’ll find a little grassy area where there are sties where bores are kept or where bores are roaming, or where you’ve got a little pack of buffalo and — you know, because it’s a mix of farming and city living. And so, you know, I just moved from one natural farm patch to a house and back again and just in that way proceeded through the city. And you could see that the place was just devastated. It was very hard to find a person. I mean, I ran into lots of farm animals, not many people. But the few people I met and saw were — you know, they were crushed. I mean, they had just seen all their possessions burnt in front of them. So that was the scene that morning.


Allan Nairn, speaking to us from Dili, East Timor. When we come back, we’ll get response from him to President Clinton’s announcement yesterday that military relations between Indonesia and the United States have been cut off for now and, as well, that he suggested the IMF and the World Bank were suspending the current loans that they were about to give to Indonesia, although he didn’t say anything about cutting commercial weapons sales from the United States to Indonesia. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Allan Nairn in East Timor in just a minute.



    East Timor, Allan, I’m afraid the phone is going to cut off, and I wanted to ask you about what has happened here in the United States, with last night President Clinton holding a news conference and announcing — well, we have to separate words from what he actually actions, what he actually imposed. He said that he had ordered the Pentagon to suspend its few formal contacts with the Indonesian military and that he would consider economic sanctions if the killings in East Timor didn’t stop, but he didn’t threaten an immediate cutoff of economic assistance to Indonesia, as lawmakers and human rights groups have wanted. Also, he did not cut off commercial arms sales to Indonesia, which are expected to total, in the New York Times, they’re saying, $16 million over the next year.

    Can you respond, though? He also said that he would support an international peacekeeping force led by Australia, though William Cohen has been — the Defense Secretary has been saying that there would not be US soldiers involved with this. Can you respond to all of this and the fact that the man that you exposed in your piece in The Nation, “US Complicity in Timor,” a day after your piece came out, a few hours after, he was in Jakarta telling Wiranto, the military commander, that he was cutting off military relations? You exposed, in fact, that he originally had gone to Jakarta a while ago, supposed to tell him that they were cutting — that they should stop militias, and instead was offering him all sorts of deals.


    Yeah, well, I guess the public announcement was that Blair was — Admiral Blair, the CINCPAC, the Pacific commander, was there telling Wiranto that US aid was being cut. I’d like to see the confidential cable about that meeting also, today’s — or yesterday’s meeting also, because previously Blair did the opposite of what he was supposed to do or what he was assigned to do, ostensibly.

    I don’t know the exact detail of this cutoff by Clinton. I mean, you’re just saying now that it doesn’t include commercial arms sales. That’s the first I’ve heard of that. I’d say a couple of things about it. One, it is a tremendous political victory for American activists, those in the American public who have been campaigning very, very hard for this for about eight years now since the Dili massacre, although it’s pretty clear that it’s only a partial victory, but it does sound like a step. It does sound like a major break in Clinton’s support for terror in Indonesia and occupied Timor.

    You know, when you talk to people from other countries, it’s always very, very hard to explain this particular issue, because a lot of people don’t understand the idea that in US politics it is actually possible sometimes to defeat the incumbent president, defeat the incumbent Pentagon and the State Department, and working through the Congress, force them to do things they don’t want to do, like forcing them to cut off the IMET military training or the JCET training — those are the two big training programs for Indonesia — and stopping F-16 sales and many other kinds of sales, and to sometimes, occasionally, win those victories through grassroots pressure.

    This is — it sounds like a very big victory. But even if it is pretty much what it looks like, even if there isn’t fine print that weakens it, I don’t think it’s quite enough. I think it’s getting there, but this is not going to be enough to make it clear to Wiranto that the US is serious, because Wiranto is a smart guy. He knows how politics are played. And temporary cutoffs are one of the old political tricks.

    In fact, the US used an announced temporary cutoff in 1975 at the time of the Timor invasion. As the Indonesian army was invading Timor, the US announced publicly that they were cutting off arms sales to Indonesia, and, you know, some fanfare like now. But, in fact, what later came out was what they really did was they continued deliveries of the existent arms that were in the pipeline. They continued the negotiations and discussions about contracts for particular weapons that were in the works, on negotiations that were in the works. What they actually did is not quite clear. I guess they didn’t deliver any new weapons during the period of the suspension, but, you know, they were just sitting there waiting. They were just sitting there in the warehouses of the Pentagon and the warehouses of General Electric and Northrop and McDonnell Douglas and Grumman and all the others. And then, a few weeks or a couple months — in that case, I don’t remember how long it was; it wasn’t long; it was certainly less than six months — then they said, “OK, we’re suspending it,” and they went back to the deliveries. And in that case, there were many in the Indonesian military who said that they hadn’t even realized that there had been a suspension because of the way it had been handled.

    So, if this is just a temporary move, if this is just Clinton responding to the rise in pressure, then it will be very easy for Wiranto to see that, especially since the messenger, of all people, is Admiral Blair, the man who the first time was sent in to tell him to shut down the militias and instead, I guess, got confused and ended up telling him if you ought to come up to his house for dinner at Pacific Command in Hawaii and giving him his heartfelt pledge that the Pentagon would lobby to restore the IMET military training in Congress and pledging him a whole list of other political plums. So this all depends on how it’s read, and if Wiranto thinks that this may be temporary or the US isn’t cutting off everything, he’s not going to respond to it. So it has to be more and tougher.


    Well, for your information, he was disinvited from going to Hawaii. I don’t know if it was because of your piece exposing this or what, but that was part of the break-off in military relations.


    That was one of the things — well, I guess Wiranto will have to make other dinner plans that evening. But yeah, that’s not quite enough. There’s a very, very long — you know, there’s a myth. There’s a real myth going around in US politics, also inside the US military — many military people, themselves, are misinformed about this — a myth that currently the US military dealings with Indonesia are minimal. They’re not. It’s very complicated the way they do it, very, very — in a very Byzantine way. You know, the contacts are kind of strung throughout the vast Pentagon bureaucracy, but there are lots of them. There are lots of links. Those all have to be severed.


Allan Nairn, speaking to us from Dili, East Timor, as he calls for a total arms embargo against the Indonesian regime, as well as an international aid embargo. Groups around the world are demanding that now. And while President Clinton made a major step yesterday in talking about punishing Indonesia if they don’t stop the violence, he did not go as far as that.

And if people want to get in touch with President Clinton, he is headed off to Auckland, New Zealand for the APEC Summit. You can still call the White House. You can be sure he does get his messages, or at least he gets the overall count on how many messages come in. The number is (202) 456-1414. That’s (202) 456-1414.

Again, today’s news, the UN, a large part of it, pulling out of East Timor, the Vatican saying that Catholic institutions have been singled out for attack by militias in East Timor. The Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister, said, “We are facing another genocide, a genocide that does not spare the Catholic Church.”

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