Back Road Reckoning

Back Road Reckoning

August 30, 1999, should have been a day of celebration for the people of East Timor. In a referendum in which more than 98 percent of the eligible voters cast their ballots, 78 percent voted for independence from Indonesia, throwing off twenty-four years of occupation. It was not, however, a decision Jakarta was prepared to accept. Five days later, on September 4, when the results of the election were announced, forces opposed to independence set about delivering a devastating punishment. With the aim of leaving nothing but scorched earth, the pro-Indonesia militias of East Timor, with the support of the Indonesian army, began their rampage across the country.

In the weeks that followed, more than twelve hundred people were massacred and thousands of women were beaten and raped. According to a United Nations assessment, “Building Blocks for a Nation,” two hundred thousand people fled or were pushed across the border into refugee camps in West Timor, the Indonesian half of the island. Overall, 75 percent of the population was displaced. At night, observers could see hundreds of small campfires dotting the mountainside where people waited until it was safe to come back down.

“The militia told everyone in town that if we stayed we would be killed,” said Rosarinha Munis in Maliana, a town near the border of West Timor. “They killed my husband and two of my children and they burned down my home, then they made me go to West Timor, to Indonesia. We didn’t know if they would kill us there, but when they told us to go, they had knives. We knew what would happen if we stayed.”

Human rights activists consider the campaign of forced evacuations the clearest sign that the devastation of East Timor was methodical and not the haphazard, spontaneous outrage of a few unorganized militia groups. In late September 1999, Amnesty International reported, “Independence activists are being hunted down at checkpoints, on boats and in house-to-house searches. Militia and members of the Indonesian army (TNI) continue to intimidate, threaten and attack the displaced East Timorese with total impunity.” The report called the forced deportations a deliberate policy by the TNI.

“We knew it was coming,” said David Savage, a civilian police officer from Australia who was in Maliana with the UN as an electoral monitor at the time of the referendum. “In the days just after the vote, with every hour there was in increase in violence. We heard gunfire, the houses were being burned. The militia had taken over the town and we were unarmed and unprepared. The last night we were there, we were convinced we would die, they were firing on us, they were burning things down. I called my family to say I wasn’t sure I’d see them again. The militia wouldn’t let the local staff members leave with us when we finally got clearance to retreat to Dili. They told us we could either go alone or stay with them. We knew the implications. We s...