East Timor: Where Are the People?

By Adam Jones

November 15, 1999

Youth gunned down by
Indonesian soldiers,
Dili, September 1999.
Youth gunned down by Indonesian soldiers, September 1999 (Photo, 10k)While international media have turned their attention away from East Timor, the crisis continues there at levels that dwarf the imagination. A great deal remains unclear; indeed, what has occurred in East and West Timor is the biggest mystery in the world. But two facts seem increasingly hard to dispute. The first is that Timorese by the hundreds of thousands remain "unaccounted for," weeks after the arrival of United Nations (INTERFET) forces and their alleged dispersal throughout East Timor. Second, the pattern of mass killings and disappearances that many Timorese refugees attested to in September is now being borne out on a gruesome scale, despite systematic attempts by the Indonesian authorities to cover their tracks.

Consider first the missing. Reliable estimates exist of the pre-plebiscite population of East Timor: the United Nations registered 430,000 Timorese for the vote, and demographic projections put about 50 percent of the population below voting age. The generally-accepted total is 850,000. Of these, the proportion that has "disappeared" simply beggars belief. In early October, Agence France-Presse cited "a senior U.N. official" who "said ... that up to half a million people remained unaccounted for"; another U.N. official made the flip comment that "There's 600,000 people around here someplace."

Tens of thousands of Timorese have since returned to their shattered communities, from outlying areas or from prison camps in West Timor. But as late as November 1, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported "hundreds of thousands of East Timorese still missing." "We certainly hope nothing terrible has happened to them," said INTERFET chief of staff Mark Kelly. But he could offer no clues to the mystery.

Since the beginning of November, the fate of Timor's missing has virtually dropped off the world's radar screens. But the mystery has not been solved. Entire swathes of East Timor (including the western enclave of Oecussi/Ambino) remain a depopulated wasteland, with only a fragment of the original population daring, or able, to return.

Many humanitarian organizations and media commentators have downplayed the issue. The presumption has been that all or almost all of the missing Timorese are safely hiding in the hills, or in the West Timor camps.

We should certainly not underestimate the resilience of the Timorese, who after a quarter-century of Indonesian occupation and genocide are sadly used to fleeing vicious military "sweeps." Many may indeed still be hiding. But as the weeks pass, the argument that there are massive concentrations of Timorese still in the hills becomes progressively harder to sustain. And if they are not in hiding, where are they?

The militia-run prison camps in West Timor are often cited as accounting for a quarter of a million or more East Timorese. But United Nations officials have stressed that these estimates of the camps' population are provided by the Indonesian government. They may well be inflated, by up to 100,000 people, in an attempt to secure more humanitarian aid -- or, more ominously, because the authorities have a vested interest in pretending that tens of thousands of Timorese are under their control who are, in fact, elsewhere. Or dead.

Which brings us to the central issue: Is it possible that a campaign of mass extermination, with tens of thousands of dead, was waged in East Timor during September? Most journalists and humanitarian workers in the early weeks of the INTERFET occupation were frankly dismissive of the possibility. Especially snide were the comments of Michel Barton, a spokesman for the U.N. Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance. "We've heard horrendous stories for which so far there's not a shred of evidence," Barton said. "We don't believe that people in their thousands have been killed and their bodies buried or thrown in the sea. If this had been the case we would have found evidence of this by now, and none has been found ... Stories tend to be exaggerated, which is apparently a traditional phenomenon in this country."

It was ironic to read these confident proclamations from the U.N., an organization that virtually abandoned the Timorese to their fate after luring them to the polls with promises of protection. But hard evidence had, in fact, been accumulating for weeks. And three days after Barton's comments, an Agence France-Presse photographer visited the scene of the alleged church massacre at Suai, in which 200 people -- disproportionately children and women -- may have died. The photographer "saw piles of crushed and burned skeletal remains behind the church ... Pieces of burned clothing littered the ground outside. By an iron bedstead there were bigger bones."

Still the U.N. showed no detectable interest. At the time of writing, it was preparing to send "several" -- you heard it, "several" -- forensic experts to East Timor. But the process was snarled in bureaucratic red tape -- although the team is supposed to submit its report by the end of the calendar year. "The establishment of a tribunal is taking longer than expected because not all members of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) are enthusiastic for international intervention," wrote James Dunn, author of Timor: A People Betrayed. "Some western governments also seem to be weakening in their support because they fear a tribunal would either fail to attract the necessary co-operation from Indonesian authorities, or that its outcome could destabilise Indonesia's new Wahid Government, whose reformist agenda carries many hopes in the West."

But while the international community fiddles, it now appears that the picture of organized mass murder, torture, and rape to which witnesses and refugees attested was fundamentally accurate. In a pair of investigative reports for The Sydney Morning Herald (November 12 and 13), reporter Paul Daley has drawn upon Australian and U.S. intelligence sources, along with the heroic efforts of the East Timor Human Rights Commission, to argue that the territory was "the scene of a massive crime against humanity -- and an even bigger attempt at a cover-up -- by Indonesia's security forces."

Daley found "evidence of hundreds of killings in Dili alone -- and possibly many more at sea -- confirm(ing) the view of Australian intelligence figures that thousands, rather than hundreds of East Timorese have died in recent months." While INTERFET continues to publicize the number of 108 bodies found, the East Timor Human Rights Commission has independently turned up 364 in Dili alone. Many had been tortured and mutilated. The widespread allegations of Timorese being murdered and thrown overboard from passenger and navy ships also seem well-founded. Daley's sources told him of Australian signals intelligence that "specifically indicates a large number of East Timorese students ... killed at sea." The same evidence also "points to many other East Timorese being killed on boats or on land and then being dumped into the ocean."

Summarizing the discoveries so far, the intelligence source told Daley that "You have a situation where in some cases hands and feet were tied. In other cases bodies have wounds or were burnt. It leads to the conclusion that large numbers of East Timorese could be dead -- some killed at sea, others killed on land, then burnt and hidden at sea. This takes some effort and it points to a systematic cover-up." Likewise, the bodies found by INTERFET -- which does not have a mandate to investigate atrocities -- were "the ones that the Indonesians themselves missed after cleaning up what they thought were all the bodies, before INTERFET arrived and while journalists had been forced out of the place," according to another intelligence source.

The palpable disinterest of the United Nations and western governments in the issue is reminiscent of the wall of silence erected around Rwanda for twelve genocidal weeks in 1994. "It's like you come home, the house is burnt down, grandma's been murdered and the kids have been kidnapped and you know who did it," a U.S. intelligence officer told Daley. "But everyone just keeps saying, 'Oh, how awful. She's dead, the house is burnt, the kids are gone -- they should just have more kids and build another house.' I say use the evidence to drag the murderer, the arsonist, the kidnapper into court, then lock his ass in jail." (If one chooses to discount these official sources on principle, it must be explained why the U.S. and Australia -- two countries that long supported the Indonesian genocide in East Timor -- would now be providing such grim accounts.)

A further dimension to the horror must not be overlooked. From the very start of the Indonesian rampage in September, it was clear that those being targeted for torture, dismemberment, and execution were predominantly young East Timorese males. As in Kosovo, it was overwhelmingly young men who were rounded up in the streets and dragged away for torture and execution; culled from refugee populations at Dili's dockside; separated from family members aboard ships bound for West Timor, then butchered and thrown overboard; and selectively "disappeared" from the camps in West Timor. Militia members have reportedly vowed to create "a nation of widows" in East Timor. Yet to this point, no official source or non-governmental organization has issued a bulletin or report on these gender-selective atrocities -- though the rape of Timorese women has attracted widespread attention, and now the dispatching of a U.N. special rapporteur (Radhika Coomaraswamy). If the Timorese catastrophe is indeed shaping up as one of the worst "gendercides" of modern times, as a wealth of eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence now suggests, this should be acknowledged, examined, and forcefully condemned.

But the tragedy still unfolding extends far beyond any single sector of the Timorese population. And the fickle and selective attention of the international community, which tormented the East Timorese for decades, is still tormenting the Timorese with its failure to properly investigate the atrocities.

There is much that could be done. The tiny U.N. forensics team, and its absurdly short mandate, could be expanded and extended. INTERFET troops could engage in more assertive patrols through stretches of Timorese territory that they still have not penetrated -- at last count, there were 22 subdistricts about which nothing was known, weeks after INTERFET claimed to have established "control" over all of East Timor. Overflights and satellite technology could be intensively used to find remaining populations in the hills, and supply them with food and other essentials. (As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the western air forces that took such pride in dropping precision-targeted bombs on Yugoslavia seem strangely unable to mount food-drops to hungry Timorese.)

Last but not least, the international community must press the Indonesian government to withdraw the militia from the West Timor prison camps, and allow all refugees to return home who wish to do so. This issue, at least, has attracted considerable attention in media and humanitarian circles. Some brave souls from the U.N. High Commission from Refugees have even staged "snatch-and-grab" operations in the camps, against armed militia resistance.

But the Indonesian military in recent weeks has been openly contemptuous of INTERFET and international opinion, allowing the militias a free and murderous rein in the camps while consistently stonewalling and stage-managing the return of refugees to East Timor. This in itself constitutes a crime against humanity. It should be ended, either through immediate diplomatic and economic pressure, or through a cross-border military action by INTERFET to secure the camps and return the abductees before the onset of the rainy season.

Only when all of East Timor is effectively surveilled, and when the outside world is granted full access to the camps, will we have a clearer idea how many of Timor's missing can be accounted for. But surely the overriding mystery -- where are the hundreds of thousands of people? Where are the young men? -- must move to the forefront of the humanitarian equation. And if, owing to our neglect, the move comes too late to save thousands or tens of thousands of the missing, then we should at least devote meaningful resources to determining how they died, and holding those responsible to account.

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[Copyright Adam Jones, 1999. No copyright claimed for non-commercial (e.g., educational) use. For commercial use, please contact the author. Supporting materials on atrocities in East Timor can be found on the "Gender Page" of this website.]