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KRISTIN SUNDELL: You can’t find a family in East Timor that hasn’t lost family members, hasn’t had family members disappeared, abducted, tortured, by the Indonesian armed forces.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: This week on Common Ground, a first-hand account of the turmoil in East Timor.
SUNDELL: I think what we’re seeing right now is just the tip of the iceberg. We have no idea what’s happening outside of Dili, for example. And I think a lot of, a lot more really horrific stories are gonna come out once the situation settles a little bit and once the process towards independence is able to resume.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Conflict is nothing new to the tiny territory of East Timor. Since the Indonesian military forcibly took control of the former Portuguese colony in 1975 more than 200,000 people have lost their lives in the battle for independence. The violence reached an all-time high after an overwhelming majority of East Timor’s registered voters cast ballots in favor of independence in a United Nations-sponsored referendum on August 30. Kristin SUNDELL, the national field organizer for the East Timor Action Network, was in East Timor to witness the historic vote and subsequent violence. I visited with Kristin in her Chicago home just days after returning from the chaos.
SUNDELL: I was there for about 2½ weeks as part of the International Federation for East Timor’s observer project. We were UN-accredited observers of the consultative process that the UN has been conducting over the last several months in East Timor. So we observed the voter registration process, the campaign period, the day of the vote itself. And our mandate was meant to last until September 30. But we were forced to evacuate the country.
MC HUGH: What was the mood like when you first arrived?
SUNDELL: When I first arrived in East Timor I was sent within 48 hours to the village of Same, which is about six hours drive over the mountains, near the southern coast, directly south from Dili. And the atmosphere there, I arrived there just under a week before voting day, which was August 30. And people were very, very afraid. Militias in that area were very active. People were receiving threats that if they voted, if they went to the polls, that on their way home or once they had arrived back at their homes that they would be killed, their families would be killed. So people were—people were facing a lot of intimidation, a lot of threats. And also, we observed people receiving bribes from pro-integration militias, which were clearly even at that time directly working with the Indonesian military.
MC HUGH: So the militias really had a pretty good stronghold in the area that you were at?
SUNDELL: Yes. Yes, they did. And before I arrived there my team actually was witness to a militia attack on pro-independence observers—or I’m sorry, on pro-independence activists—in Same. A man attacked with a machete, an older man who was a prominent supporter of independence in the area—nearly severed his hand. This man had been meeting with some students and all of them were chased up the hill to the voter registration site where UNIMET was conducting, was registering voters and where IFET observers were observing that process. And they witnessed this man walking, this militiaman walking around with his machete menacing the students, threatening. And the police just stood by and watched and did absolutely nothing. And when we left Same, about a week-and-a-half later, this man was still walking around loose and armed. And we saw him on the streets. So yes, I mean this is an indication of who was really in control, even then.
MC HUGH: Did the intimidation get worse as the election drew nearer?
SUNDELL: Yes. Yeah, it certainly did. And people became, people were very afraid. At the same time people were very determined to go to the polls and vote. We heard over and over again, “Even if they kill us, even if it means we have to die, we at least want to live until voting day. We want to be able to finally have a voice in the future of East Timor.” And the people that we spoke with saw this not even just as their voice but also the voices of their ancestors, the voices of their families, people who had been killed, who had not been able to live to see this day. So there was a very, people felt very deeply. This was a very profound experience for people, to actually be able to go and to cast their vote.
MC HUGH: So what was the actual day of the vote like?
SUNDELL: Well, it was really an incredible thing to see. People were at the polls two hours before they opened, standing in line. When we arrived at 5:00 in the morning there were already six hundred people outside and the polls didn’t open until 6:30. And then once 6:30 came around there were at least 2,000 people outside the polling center that we were observing. So, just remarkable. And part of that was also due to fear. People desperately wanted to be able to cast their vote in the morning so that they could get away from the polling center before it got dark because there were many threats that militias were going to launch an attack on the polling centers as soon as dusk fell. And there was a lot of concern that the process wouldn’t move fast enough and there would be long lines still at sundown. So people wanted to avoid that.
But, as you probably know, the turnout was, you know, 99% of the registered voters came. We observed one polling station where—each polling station had 600 registered voters—and 599 people came out to vote at that polling station. The one woman who wasn’t there was having a baby that day in Dili. So this is the type of turnout and this is the type of determination that people showed.
MC HUGH: Did that threatened military attack ever happen after the polls closed, or after sundown?
SUNDELL: Roadblocks did go up. On either side of Same the roads going back to Inaro and the road going up to Dili, were both closed. And they were not letting Timorese go through those roadblocks. That was the first thing that happened. And then within days after that—in fact the last night that we spent in Same, we heard gunshots north of town. And then as we were being evacuated out of Same the next day we counted 28 houses, the smoldering ruins of 28 houses that had been burned the night before. And we received credible reports that at least 15 people had been shot by the Indonesian military the night before. And this is before the announcement of the results of the vote. Things were already starting to deteriorate quite badly. Many of the people in Same, many of the man, any men or boys aged 14 and older, never went home after the vote. They fled directly to the mountains, thinking that if they weren’t around maybe at least the militias would leave their wives and their children alone. So the situation was quite bad even before the results were announced.
UNIMET was evacuated the day after we were because there was a militia attack on the UNIMET compound in Same. And this again was before the results were announced. So there was, all of the international presence in Same was withdrawn. And there have been reports of at least 100 people massacred there. But there are no—there’s no one there to be a witness. There’s no presence there. So we’re very, very concerned. All of us who were in Same, we’re very concerned for the people who we developed relationships with while we were there. We just hope that they’re all right.
MC HUGH: From the standpoint of the vote was it a fair and independent process?
SUNDELL: Well, no, I wouldn’t say it was a fair vote. Because we, we recorded numerous violations of the process. Mainly by the pro-integration side. The day before the vote occurred I personally photographed militias distributing rice to people in Same, the condition being that if you accept this rice then you must vote for autonomy tomorrow. This is during—I mean, the bribery is against the rules anyway—but this is also during the supposed cooling-off period in which there was no campaigning allowed. We also saw people distributing pro-autonomy T-shirts on that day. People were threatened. As I said before, people were told that if they went to vote they would be killed when they returned home. So, you know, it just is, is incredibly amazing that despite this people turned out in such great numbers. And we were afraid turnout would be very depressed. We fully expected a much, much lower voter turnout. So for the voters to turnout in such large numbers and for almost 80% of the people to vote for independence under these types of circumstances throughout the territory, I mean I think in a truly free and fair process the percentages would have been even higher. So, it’s very clear, it’s not in question at all what the people in East Timor want. They’ve spoken with a very clear voice.
MC HUGH: Was the United Nations prepared?
SUNDELL: Well, I think they were as well prepared as they could given the time constraints that they were working under. I was very impressed by the United Nations personnel that I met in the area where I was. Especially on voting day, I was impressed when there were many reports and many very credible rumors in our area that, as I said, polling centers were going to be attacked by the militias. And despite this, you know, district electoral officers went out alone in the morning with really no one to protect them and went out to very remote areas that were very inaccessible—would have been very hard to get away from if anything were to happen, if an attack were to happen—and set up the polling centers and conducted the voting. And they tried to move the process along as quickly as possible so that everyone could get home before dark. And that was definitely—people were—the UN included—was very, very afraid in the area where we were. And fortunately those attacks on the polling centers didn’t come to pass.
MC HUGH: Did you witness any violence personally after the vote?
SUNDELL: I was not an eyewitness to violence other than, other than seeing large numbers of militias driving in convoys with M-16 rifles and with homemade guns and machetes and very threatening acts. But no direct violence. I did receive a phone call from a young man who I had known from my first trip to East Timor, who’s become a friend and he was in Bakora, which was one of the first areas in Dili to come under militia attack after the results were announced. And he was, he was lying on the floor of his house whispering to me into the telephone ‘cause he was afraid he would be heard if he spoke in a voice louder than a whisper. So I was really straining to hear him, and he was saying, “Kristin, the Indonesian military is here, they’re shooting people in the streets, they’re throwing grenades into people’s homes, they’re burning people’s homes down, they’re loading people into trucks and forcing them to leave.” And he said, “Please do something, please call the United Nations. Help us.” And shortly after that the phone line was cut and we weren’t—and I haven’t been able to reach him since then.
We obviously heard the gunfire. We sat, we had a watch on the gate, on our front gate, and I remember sitting up at 2:00 in the morning just listening to the gunfire all around where we were, coming from all directions. So, you definitely felt the city being under, just under this siege of militia attack and Indonesian military attack. And it’s very clearly a coordinated military campaign. It wasn’t random violence. It was very systematic. And that was clear.
MC HUGH: Why do you think the situation deteriorated so rapidly?
SUNDELL: Well, exactly, I guess exactly for the reason I said before. Because this was very well organized and very well planned in advance. And even during our first trip to East Timor when I was just there as an independent person, just traveling and talking to people, we spoke with someone who had close connections with the Indonesian military but was pro-independence, had actually changed his mind and become an independence supporter. And he told us that he had leaked documents which outlined this plan through which rifles would be given to militias in East Timor and this had already started a year ago, in anticipation of possible independence for the territory. And he said some 5,000-10,000 rifles were already being gathered to be given to people to create chaos after the vote or after independence came. And that’s exactly what’s happening. These are roadblocks that went up the day of the vote, the actual afternoon of the vote—they went up simultaneously, you know, ten roadblocks on either side of us. That doesn’t just happen randomly. And we actually, where we were had an acquaintance who was, who knew the frequency on which the Indonesian military was communicating to the militia posts around the area. And he taped these conversations and would bring us the tapes each day and play them for us. And so we heard the direct orders being given directly from the Indonesia Kopasas, which are the Indonesian elite high-level forces, directly to the militia heads regarding these roadblocks, regarding attacks, regarding restricting travel so that no East Timorese could leave, so that they would all, the words they used was, “everyone has to stay here and die in Same,” were the words that were used.
MC HUGH: Were you ever afraid for your life when you were there?
SUNDELL: Of course. I mean, there were, we had some frightening experiences. Our team actually in the radio broadcast that I talked about earlier that we were listening to between the Indonesian military and the militias, we heard instructions, a direct death threat on our team, where the militias were instructed, were given a description of the vehicle we were using and were instructed to take us out of the car and kill us if we tried to get through one of the roadblocks. And that was frightening, listening to that obviously was frightening. But the fear that we experienced and the threats that we faced—I mean, we were so much safer than the East Timorese themselves were. We were so much safer than the people who we were dealing with on a daily basis were. And I’m still so struck by the courage of many of the people that we met there. And so if you can keep that perspective I think that you can overcome your own fear and do what you need to do in those sorts of circumstances.
PORTER: Coming up, more on Kristin SUNDELL’s recent experiences in East Timor.
SUNDELL: There was never a question in my mind that I wanted to be there. And despite everything that’s happened I’m still, I’m very glad that I could be there, even if only because now I’m able to, I was able to get out.
PORTER: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
MC HUGH: Now you mentioned that you were evacuated after the vote. Where did you end up?
SUNDELL: I was flown out of Dili to Denpasar, to Bali. And on a Portuguese charter flight, a flight that was chartered by the Portuguese government.
MC HUGH: Why do you think that they agreed to allow a vote?
SUNDELL: Well, I don’t think anyone really knows. But my, my best, my interpretation of what happened would be that Habbibi, when he took over from Suharto, wanted to distinguish himself from the past, from the corruption and from the legacy that Suharto had left. And this was a self-preservation tactic on Habbibi’s part as well, ‘cause he’d been fully a part of the Suharto regime and Suharto had been ousted in, by a movement that was outraged with the corruption that had marked his rule in Indonesia. So I think this was part of Habbibi’s attempt to distinguish himself, to separate himself from Suharto and also to appease the international community, which especially since 1991, when the Santa Cruz massacre occurred and was captured on film and broadcast around the world, has been applying steady pressure on Indonesia to do something about the situation in East Timor.
I think that—and this is becoming more and more clear now—that Habbibi did not have, either did not consult with or at least, at the very least, did not have the approval of the Indonesian military establishment when he made this decision. And clearly they have been planning for a very long plan that the Timorese would not, even if they did vote for independence, that they would not let East Timor go without a bloodbath, which is what we see happening there right now. And I think the military is trying to send a very clear message to the rest of Indonesia, to Indonesia, about what happens when you challenge the power of the Indonesian military. And they’re also desperately trying to preserve their own power. Indonesia is a military dictatorship and I think that the military feels that if East Timor were allowed to become independent that that would be a blow to their stature, and that that would inspire others to mount challenges to the control of the military as well.
MC HUGH: So sending in additional troops from Indonesia to calm the situation probably wasn’t the best idea?
SUNDELL: I think it’s ludicrous. And I don’t think anyone, anyone who knows anything about the history of what’s happened in East Timor, the fact that the Indonesian military has been responsible for the death of fully one-third of the pre-invasion population of East Timor—just the whole structure of the agreement was flawed. And was, and appears, you know, fatally flawed, that the Indonesian military was left in charge of security. And so yes, to move in more troops thinking that that’s going to make any difference other than to worsen the situation, I think is just crazy.
MC HUGH: Up until the last couple of weeks most people, especially in the United States, didn’t even know where East Timor was. Why do you think—‘cause this has been a 24-year struggle—why do you think that it hasn’t received the media attention that say, Kosovo has?
SUNDELL: Part of it is just the distance from the United States. And you still hear, you know, US government officials saying, “East Timor is of no strategic significance to the US.” So I think that’s been part of it. And I think that the attitude of the US government has also been conveyed to the US media, the idea that East Timor is somehow, it’s just marginal, it’s insignificant, it’s not something that merits our attention here in the US. This is ironic given that the United States has been so closely involved in supporting the occupation. And for one example, 90% of the arms used in the initial invasion in 1975 were supplied to Indonesia by the United States. So we’ve been complicit in this. We’ve been supporting what’s happened, the genocide that’s happened in East Timor. And I think all people of conscience in this country, if they, when people hear about the story of what’s happened there and when people hear about the role of the US, people are outraged and they’re moved to take action. But it’s been very difficult getting that story out. And frankly, the US media just doesn’t tend to cover international issues with any depth at all, in any more than a perfunctory way.
MC HUGH: Do you foresee a civil war, as many in the Western media have been predicting?
SUNDELL: What’s happening there right now is not a civil war. And I mean, even just think about, thinking about the results of the vote—80%, nearly 80% voted for independence and it’s likely that even more would have done so had it not been for the intimidation and the bribes that were given to people before election day, before voting day. So this is not, this is a very unified country. This is a people who have been unified by 24 years of incredible suffering that those of us who haven’t gone through it, we can’t even begin to understand what people there have gone through. I mean, a third of the population killed. That’s every, you can’t find a family in East Timor that hasn’t lost family members, hasn’t had family members disappeared, abducted, tortured, by the Indonesian armed forces.
So I think that the civil war, the argument that East Timor is going to collapse into civil war is really a piece of propaganda that’s been used by the Indonesians to try to argue that the East Timorese are not fit to govern themselves. I think it’s completely untrue. The violence is completely one-sided. It’s the Indonesian military and the militias massacring East Timorese independence supporters, which is the vast majority of the East Timorese population. There is an East Timorese guerrilla force, the Falantiel, but they have, with very, very remarkable discipline, they’ve remained completely inactive and they’ve remained in the hills. They have not come down and tried to wage war with the militias.
MC HUGH: When I interviewed Nobel Peace laureate José Ramos-Horta earlier this year he told me explicitly that all the East Timorese would welcome all ethnic groups under the umbrella of independence. Do you think that that’s still a realistic possibility?
SUNDELL: I think that it is. I, but I do think that East Timor is a traumatized society. The infrastructure it appears, has been completely destroyed. I mean, 90% of the buildings in Dili, the capital city, burned. There’s going to need to be a process of healing, there’s going to need to be a process of rebuilding. I expect there will be difficulties, inevitably. But I do, I do know that the leaders of the independence movement in East Timor are committed to making East Timor an inclusive place. And I have confidence that that will happen. But I think it will be generations before the Timorese are able to fully overcome what’s happened there. It’s tragic. I think what we’re seeing right now is just the tip of the iceberg. We have no idea what’s happening outside of Dili, for example. And I think a lot of, a lot more really horrific stories are gonna come out once the situation settles a little bit and once the process towards independence is able to resume.
MC HUGH: Do you think independence will ever be a reality?
SUNDELL: I think that it’s inevitable. I really do think so. I think that the people are determined. I think that—I mean people who I’ve spoken with when I’ve been there are just so committed to, even if it means their own deaths, just continuing to struggle for independence. And the Timorese have overcome incredible odds over the last 24 years in resisting the illegal Indonesian military occupation of their country. And I don’t see that momentum stopping now, despite the horrors that we’re seeing there.
I think that the United States really holds the key to a just solution to the issue of what’s going on in East Timor right now. That the United States should explicitly support the United Nations taking over the responsibility for security in the territory, that the US should have no military relations—and I think it’s a very positive step that President Clinton took when he cut off all formal military ties between the US and Indonesia?
MC HUGH: Why, knowing that when you went over that you might be put into some serious danger, I mean why risk your life to go to a country halfway around the world.
SUNDELL: I’ve been working on this issue for almost three years, working very intensively on this issue. And I didn’t want to miss being in East Timor at this time. And I didn’t want to let pass the opportunity to support this vote that the people there have been working for so long. So, there was never a question in my mind that I wanted to be there. And I, despite everything that’s happened I’m still, I’m very glad that I could be there, even if only because now I’m able to, I was able to get out. There are thousands of East Timorese who are still, who remain behind, who have no protection and are not able to voice, give voice to what’s happening there right now. And at least I can do that. So I’m very glad that I was able to be there.
MC HUGH: That is Kristin SUNDELL, the national field organizer for the East Timor Action Network. She was in East Timor as an observer for the International Federation for East Timor’s observer project before being evacuated in the days following the independence vote. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
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