"The young men at the roadblock, with the machetes and the daggers, had beer on their breath and anger in their eyes."
I knew I had written that before, the very same sentence. And it was easy to recall the earlier scene, somewhere in western Rwanda in 1994. There was a horrific genocide underway, Hutu militiamen (like these at the checkpoint) slaughtering members of the Tutsi tribe in an orgy of violence not seen in decades. And not likely to be seen again--not on that scale, not to that degree. Or so I thought then.
But here I was in East Timor, just an hour's flight from Australia, and far away from the killing fields of Rwanda or Somalia or Zaire, all of which I covered for The Post. And here I was again, hunched over a computer keyboard, with the very same scene--and the very same words--coming to mind. I had just come back from a trip with some colleagues to the western districts, to Maliana and Balibo, and our van had been stopped at a checkpoint by wild-eyed, angry militiamen with machetes, daggers and at least one pistol visible.
Before leaving the East Timorese capital, Dili, I would find myself thinking back more than a few times to my three-and-a-half-year tour in Africa. It would come back to me when I was watching a militia attack on a village near the U.N. headquarters--when one of the militiamen came running, spotted me with a terrified look on my face and brought the blunt side of his machete down across my back, leaving a two-inch wound. It would come back to me when I was huddled on the floor of a parked van, waiting to hear if the attackers would pass by.
And it would come back again when I was in my room at Dili's seaside Turismo Hotel, barricading the door against intruders, pulling the mattress to the floor to avoid stray bullets, positioning a tree branch near the bed to use as a last defense in case they made it through my flimsy fortification. This was, I thought then, like Mogadishu, Somalia, in the days when that forgotten and desolate corner of Africa still dominated the news headlines--and when bullets were crashing through the thin plaster walls of the old Al-Sahafi (meaning "Journalists") Hotel, at the traffic circle known as K-4. The only difference this time was that I didn't have my bulletproof vest with the ceramic chest plate and the fold-down crotch protector. I'd left it in Nairobi, believing I'd never need it again, at least not in Indonesia, not for what was supposed to be an assignment covering economically booming Southeast Asia, in the last year of the century.
Thoughts of Africa would flood sadly back, too, when I heard the news that Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes was killed in Dili last week, shot on his way to the scene of reported fighting, his mutilated body discovered the next day. In the rush of emotions, for me it was 1993 again, on the day I learned that four journalists--all friends of mine--had been killed in Mogadishu, also while racing off to the scene of a clash. "The horror show continues," said Maj. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian U.N. commander, speaking to reporters in Nairobi in June 1994 at the height of the massacres in Rwanda. That might have been the head of the U.N. mission in East Timor, Ian Martin, speaking in September 1999.
Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" became the metaphor we all used for the evil that lurked at Africa's core. But after seeing the brutality that befell East Timor, I see how the evil really lurks within, respecting no boundaries of race, geography or culture. The demon asserts itself in frighteningly common and ruthlessly efficient ways.
We don't know yet how many have died in East Timor's eruption of killing and looting following its Aug. 30 vote for independence from Indonesia. Human rights activists, Timorese independence leaders and diplomats say thousands have likely died, and there are stories I haven't heard since Africa--bodies being burned in piles, bodies being dumped in the sea. The Indonesian military commander, Gen. Wiranto, has put the toll at fewer than a hundred. In a Parliament meeting here, he said the foreign press had exaggerated the carnage. But Wiranto may have reason to downplay the bloodshed: His troops stand accused by the U.N. human rights commissioner of actively participating in the slaughter. Eventually, some could end up in the dock for war crimes.
After Wiranto spoke, one of his trusted top commanders, Lt. Gen. Bambang Yudhoyono, told reporters not to make the analogy to Africa that had long been in my head. "I am worried of opinion being formed in the international community that what happened in East Timor is a great human tragedy, ethnic cleansing or a large-scale crime, when in reality it is not," Yudhoyono said. "Please do not picture that what has happened in East Timor is as bad as the human tragedy in Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo." I have not been to the Balkans, unlike the general, who was part of a peacekeeping mission there. But based on my years covering Rwanda and Somalia, I can attest to one thing: The tragedy of East Timor is indeed as bad as anything I witnessed in Africa. When it comes to slaughter, the Rwandans and the Somalis have a new competitor on the block.
The razing of Dili has certainly been as bad--one might say as thorough--as the destruction of Mogadishu. Dili was always a bit run-down; now the seaside capital has been devastated by fires and looting. The only difference is that in Somalia the destruction was mostly random, the result of rival clans firing heavy artillery guns across a fictional "green line" for control of a few square blocks. In Dili, it was more systematic. The East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence, so the Indonesian soldiers, and their militia proteges, were determined to leave them a capital not worth having.
The use of militia proxies by the armed forces here is much the same as in Rwanda. There, they had ominous-sounding names like "The Single-Minded Ones." They wore berets, and sported T-shirts and buttons bearing the likeness of their hero, the slain Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana. In East Timor, the Indonesian army formed militias, too, as its proxies in a dirty war against the supporters of independence. These militias, too, were outfitted in berets, and had sinister-sounding names like "Thorn" and "Red and White Iron" (for the colors of the Indonesian flag). Only the T-shirts were different; in East Timor, the slogans touted the virtue of autonomy, the alternative pushed by Jakarta.
The humanitarian crisis that inevitably follows such warfare is, sadly, also much the same. Refugees hiding in the forests, eating twigs and leaves to stay alive. Aid agencies assembling, sending out appeals for funds, and dispatching planeloads of rice, wheat and medical supplies. Truck convoys of relief aid having to negotiate their way past militia checkpoints. And refugees being held hostage by gun-toting thugs, miles from those who might help--last time in Goma, Zaire, this time in Atambua, in western Timor. The pattern is familiar.
"The militias control those camps," said Fernando Del Mundo, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "What we are afraid of is the Rwanda-type situation where the people were herded into Goma and kept there as virtual hostages."
But as much as the tragedy here is familiar and the same, in many ways it is worse.
It is worse in terms of the killing. Not the actual numbers--the death toll, as I said, is not yet in. But the numbers in many ways do not matter. What matters is the systematic nature of the murders--priests, nuns, refugees sheltering in a church, and student leaders who defied the militia intimidation and tried to organize the villagers and educate them in how to vote.
During my earlier forays into Dili, in the spring and summer, one of my first stops was always at Caritas, the Vatican's aid agency. The Rev. Francisco Barreto, the priest in charge, and his young and eager staff members, would patiently brief me on the happenings in the capital and around the regions--where there was militia activity, where there were refugees needing food and what the popular sentiment was. After my first few visits, something changed; the Caritas workers had become fearful. They still wanted to talk, but they asked that their names not be used, for fear of retribution by the militias who had slowly, but violently, taken control of the streets. Now I hear reports that Father Barreto and his staff were all slain.
The violence of East Timor was different in one other key respect; we--the journalists along with U.N. staff members and aid workers--were deliberately targeted for threats and intimidation early on. Until Sander's death, I was convinced that the purpose was not to kill us, which is why, I believe, my machete attacker switched to a backhand swing, to hit me with the blunt side instead of the blade. The killers wanted to chase the foreigners out of East Timor, to close off the world's eyes and ears, so they could do their dirty work unimpeded.
Personal safety is always a tough call, and the best instincts of self-preservation say to err on the side of caution. But safety must also be weighed against the actual threat and the pressing need to tell the story. In Somalia, the story was a debilitating famine, and if the reporters were not there to tell it, and to show it, there may never have been an international effort to help. And the threat in Mogadishu was far more random; if journalists were targeted, it was only because they were the only ones left in the city with anything to steal.
The way around the threat in Mogadishu was to cut a deal with the devil--essentially hiring the gun slingers to protect you, not to rob you. It was extortion, practiced by journalists as well as aid workers, who also traveled with their own armed "protection." But it worked, and I was able to report from there even during some of the most dangerous times.
We tried the same system in Dili, but it didn't work. After the attack at the U.N. headquarters on Sept. 1, when the machete landed across my back, we paid a unit of the local police mobile brigade, called "Brimob," to position themselves in the front courtyard of the Turismo Hotel--our protection if the militiamen decided to come over the fence. In addition to cash, we paid for their coffee, soft drinks and meals, all of which were signed onto our hotel bill. But by the third day, one of our protectors confided a secret to Washington Post special correspondent Atika Shubert, who speaks Indonesian: If the militia came, he told her late one night, he wouldn't shoot them to save us. He agreed with them, he told her. "They are doing good things for the country."
It was then that I decided it was time to leave Dili.
Keith Richburg, based in Jakarta, covers Southeast Asia for The Post.