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Witness to the Persecution

East Timor’s Convulsions Through the Eyes of a UN Monitor

By Sridhar Pappu

“It reminds me of a Greek tragedy,” says Kristin Sundell, who runs the Chicago office of the East Timor Action Network and was in East Timor during last summer’s vote on autonomy. “Everyone knew what the result was going to be, and still everything inevitably led to that.”

Sundell arrived in East Timor on August 21, part of the International Federation for East Timor Observer Project. The group of 190 people–5 from Chicago–was to monitor the vote that had been authorized by Indonesian president B.J. Habibie and that was being overseen by the UN.

In 1993 and ’94 Sundell, then a junior at Saint Olaf College, had spent five months in Indonesia teaching English and studying religion, dance, and Indonesian. East Timor was rarely spoken of, though some of her professors quietly expressed misgivings. In February 1997 she began working for ETAN, and in 1998 she spent two weeks in East Timor assessing the situation there. She saw how despairing people were about the economy–the Indonesian currency had lost 70 percent of its value between 1997 and ’98–and she heard how unrest had forced long-time strongman Suharto from power. She also saw how that action had emboldened the East Timorese, who were holding rallies attended by 2,000 to 3,000 people.

This past summer Sundell arrived in Same, a city six hours from the East Timorese capital of Dili, during the last days of the campaigning on the vote. She says it was already clear that sentiment was strongly in favor of independence and that a bloodbath was likely as a result. An East Timorese friend of the observer group who knew the radio frequencies used by the Indonesian secret police had taped transmissions of orders to militia members in the city and played them for Sundell and her five colleagues. They heard instructions telling the militia to go back to a village where earlier they’d laid down their arms as a symbolic gesture and bring the weapons back to Same. They also heard orders telling the militia to hold off until the vote was in, then set up roadblocks around town and execute specific people.

On voting day Sundell and her group had planned to monitor polling stations in and around the city. Their driver had received a death threat the previous day, and his mother pleaded with them not to make him go. He insisted on driving anyway. Sundell says that when she left the house at five in the morning, groups of 10 to 20 people were already coming down the mountains, including old women who could barely walk but were supported by people on either side. At the first polling site she visited, 600 people were in line an hour before the polls opened. When the UN opened the doors at 6:30 there were 2,000. Rumors had spread that the process might take so long that not everyone would be able to vote, and people were afraid of going home after dusk.

At nine o’clock that night Sundell stood in the UN compound watching metal ballot boxes come in. As it turned out, 98.9 percent of registered voters had taken part.

The next morning Sundell and the other observers went back to the UN compound to watch the ballot boxes be packed into a helicopter headed for Dili. She says they were exuberant, but their driver lamented the number of lives that had been lost over the years to give East Timorese that vote. By afternoon the mood in the city was one of fear. The city quickly emptied of men. The women and children who remained rarely made eye contact. Members of the militia began appearing on the streets.

The following morning, September 1, the friend who was taping transmissions of the secret police brought by the latest recording. On it were orders to stop the car Sundell and her group were using. She says the voice on the tape said, “Take the white people out. Kill them and throw their bodies in the river.”

“Part of what you want to think is, well, they’re not really serious,” Sundell says. “Maybe that’s a defense mechanism. But I’m convinced they were serious. They were all business on those radio waves. They didn’t know they were being listened to.”

She and the other observers informed UN officials, then tried to find another car that could take them to Dili. They couldn’t find one. Only later did Sundell realize that no Timorese driver could have made it past the checkpoints.

It was September 2, and the group of six observers had promised that someone would stay in Same until September 15. Now they weren’t sure how they’d get out. When two seats opened on a UN convoy to Dili the following day, Sundell, who had a flight home on the 7th, took one of them. The rest of the team was evacuated the following day, and the day after that the UN observers left with all their local staff.

Sundell wound up staying in the house of a supporter of the observer project, where she watched as the election results were broadcast on CNN on September 4. Around nine in the morning came the announcement that 78.5 percent of the people had voted against autonomy and therefore for independence. In the days that followed, the militias would kill 7,000 people, and 300,000 to 400,000 of the country’s roughly 800,000 people would flee their homes. At night there was gunfire all around the house where Sundell was staying, and the next day a U.S. embassy official asked her and her colleagues to leave.

Sundell says that by the time she reached the airport on September 5 rumors had spread that the militia intended to stop international flights, and the halls were choked with reporters and foreign nationals trying to get out. Two days later the militia had closed the airport.

“There were journalists who’d covered Hebron, who’d been in Iraq,” says Sundell. “These were war correspondents, and they said they had never been as scared as they were in Timor. Because in Timor there was no one they could hide behind. The people who had been in charge of providing security for them, the Indonesian military, were the ones in direct charge of the militias–and directly working to get the journalists out so there wouldn’t be any witnesses.”

Now that the Indonesian government has dropped its claim to East Timor and the military has withdrawn, ETAN is trying to increase the pressure on Indonesia to disarm the militias that are holding thousands of refugees in West Timor and to allow the UN access to the camps to investigate stories of murder and rape. Sundell and her colleagues at the Chicago office of ETAN are lobbying for two bills in Congress that would continue the suspension of U.S. military aid to Indonesia. They’re also sponsoring a benefit for the people of Same at which Allan Nairn, a journalist who witnessed a massacre of East Timorese, will speak.

Asked whether the vote was worth all the deaths and dislocations, Sundell says, “I think it’s tragic that the cries of the East Timorese were not listened to. They said after the results there was going to be a bloodbath, and there was. And there was no action taken. None. Nothing. On the other hand, I worked for this vote to take place–we all worked for this vote to take place. Not under these circumstances, ideally, but under a UN-run vote whereby the people could express themselves freely and fairly. It was one of the things we were pushing for, and it was good to see that happen.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.