I WAS NERVOUS and sweating and my stomach was churning. I couldn't help babbling out stupid questions. "So what exactly is meant to be happening today? It's like a protest, right?" The ABC's experienced Indonesia correspondent, Mark Bowling, listened patiently. He had a relaxed cowboy-like cool that I had always envied. "Let's just see when we get there," he said. "It will probably be nothing."
It was Saturday, April 17, 1999, and in less than an hour we would be landing in East Timor. Less than an hour before my foot would touch the tarmac in another country, transforming me suddenly, somehow, into a foreign correspondent – technically, at least. Just days before I had been making weekend plans to go bushwalking in Kakadu National Park and now, instead, I was on a plane to a place of spasmodic, inscrutable violence, where I would end up living for much of the next nine months. We were flying from Bali on the Indonesian airline Merpati. A joke popular with the Jakarta press corps went like this: "It's Merpati and I'll die if I want to, die if I want too, die if I want toooo. You would die too if it happened to you." I'm glad I heard that joke a bit later because I certainly wouldn't have found it funny that Saturday morning.
Rewind. Why the hell was I on that plane? The answer: completely by accident. Or perhaps more accurately: by default. Just two days before, I had been meandering around Aboriginal communities near Darwin making radio features about indigenous music. East Timor was only 400 kilometres away but when the call came to go, it was the furthest place from my mind.
Now, on the day the pro-Indonesia militia threatened to invade East Timor's capital, I was on a plane to Dili. I really knew very little about East Timor, while many of my worthy friends carried East Timor's indignation as their own – a fact that always made me feel guilty, especially as I was now the ABC's North Australia correspondent and East Timor's terrible troubles were so close. Sure, I knew about Indonesia invading in 1975, and about Australia's blind-eyed complicity, and, of course, the killing of five journalists at Balibo – but that was kind of it. Oh yeah, and I also knew who Xanana Gusmao was, but not much more. It was the sort of thing colleague Tim Palmer did know. He also spoke Indonesian. So of course he was asked to go, but he couldn't at that time.
So it was that one Wednesday night I returned to Darwin from an Aboriginal community and discovered my mobile phone full of messages. "Geoff, would you like to go to East Timor? ... You've got to be there by Saturday," the first one said. I gulped when I heard it. I'd wanted to be a foreign correspondent since my teens but I'd expected such an opportunity would be years away, if it ever came at all. Then, in the end, it all happened within 48 hours. Well, I thought. Careful what you wish for.
Strange footage from East Timor had turned up in the Darwin newsroom a few weeks before, sent out by a news agency. One image struck me deeply. A young boy lay on his side on a hard tile floor, breathing heavily. With his back to the camera he looked almost completely normal except for a long, gaping hole along the side of his torso. It wasn't really bleeding, but it was dark and wide and all the more horrible because it was unexplained. It scared me shitless. The questions that hole begged had not been answered and the mystery sickened me. Apparently, the cameraman who took the pictures didn't know precisely what he was shooting at the time. I learned later that it was the aftermath of the Liquica massacre, one of the first of many militia attacks that would bloody the road towards East Timor's independence referendum a few months later. It's thought that more than 40 people died in the Liquica attack. I was thinking about the hole in that boy – its horrors and its questions – as our plane touched down in East Timor.
SO MUCH HAPPENED over the next nine months that my memory of landing in Dili is sketchy. I remember palm trees. I remember how small, unremarkable and vulnerable it looked – like a country town hung out to die on a rocky bit of coast. I remember Indonesian police uncomfortably glad-wrapped in uniforms of brown nylon. But what I remember most was my own confusion and fear – of violence and of failure.
We were waiting for our bags as Mark made a call on his mobile. His face scrunched with concern. "Really," he said. "Now?" Hanging up, he looked at me. "Manuel Carrascalao's house is on fire."
In a panic to fudge my ignorance of East Timor I had squeezed some cramming into the previous 48 hours, and had managed to learn who this man was. From an established pro-independence family, he had recently opened his home to villagers who had fled to Dili to escape the military-backed militia terror campaign in the countryside. Manuel's daughter Christina had lived in Darwin and was well known there among the East Timor independence lobby.
Unlike me, Mark knew what to do. "Let's quickly drop the gear at the Turismo [Hotel], and head straight there." We piled into a couple of taxis and drove towards Dili. On the way into town the streets seemed quiet but the air was thick with the anxiety I couldn't help projecting onto it. We entered Dili's main waterfront road and the atmosphere changed. A large gathering of men came into view. They were standing in rough rows, like a parading army of hobos, draped in rags of red and white, the colours of Indonesia's flag. As we passed they were starting to disband, breaking off and getting into trucks. "That's the militia," said Mark, "and that's the Governor's office they're standing in front of." It was at that gathering that the Indonesian-army-backed militia leader, Eurico Guterres, gave the order to hunt down and kill supporters of East Timor's independence. But I didn't know that then. I just gawked naively out the window as we drove by.
The Turismo had seen it all. It was the one Dili landmark with which everybody was familiar, and through years of terror, struggle and strife, the Turismo somehow managed to generate optimism in all who arrived at its gates. It was an open place, but it was also a place where Timor's clandestine movement met with outsiders, a place where secrets were whispered and plots were hatched. And all the time the bizarrely bright blue-on-white lettering of the sign "Turismo Hotel" branded the proceedings, making it look like a scene from a 1960s holiday postcard.
It was here that I met Joao on that first day, the first of many I would spend living at the Turismo. He was a spritely old man, always grinning and gentle. He had been working at the Turismo when the Indonesians invaded in 1975, and he was there when they departed late in 1999. When I returned to Dili after the carnage in September, there he was, at the Turismo. We embraced and he sobbed. "First they come and now they leave," he said. His trembling and tears said everything else.
We dumped our gear in our rooms and drove towards the house of Manuel Carrascalao. The street was blocked by Indonesian police who were donning riot helmets and goofily padded protective suits. I remember they reminded me of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Mark pointed out a house that was black with ash but no longer burning. There were still a few people hovering around the front. It was there on the bonnet of our taxi that I wrote my first ever foreign story. I could hardly read my own scrawl, my hands were shaking so much. I borrowed Mark's phone and tried to ring it in but I couldn't get through. As I hung up, the phone rang and I handed it back to Mark. A fellow journalist told him that the offices of Suara Tim Tim were being attacked.
Suara Tim Tim was East Timor's daily newspaper, staffed by young journalists, all smiling and mild and ludicrously brave. We made our way to the Mahkota Hotel, which sat on the main waterfront road just in front of the newspaper office. Much later, the Mahkota would become the last bastion of courage for most of the world's media in East Timor – where we were corralled and shamed all the way to the airport, stupidly scared witless by soldiers and secret service agents performing mock attacks on the hotel. But we were running for our lives from ... bad melodrama. On the evacuation plane to Bali we saw an enlarged photo in an Indonesian newspaper and realised that the long-haired man who had been threatening to throw a grenade into the Mahkota Hotel was wearing a wig – no doubt an Indonesian intelligence agent dressed as militia and ordered to scare foreigners out of Timor. For the most part, it worked.
But on this day, day one as a correspondent, all I knew was that a lot of loopy-looking men dressed like Manchester United supporters were waving around a gangland arsenal of pipe guns and swords. A few truckloads of them edged to the front of the hotel as we ran into the lobby. I remember panting and my heart pounding as we ran upstairs to the roof to get a look at the newspaper office from above. We could hear gunfire all around. I was recording all the time, and the stupid young reporter in me was thinking "Wow, I've recorded gunfire, wow, isn't that cool, gunfire, yeah, cool, yeah ..."
On the roof Mark Bowling was ducking and moving to the edge which overlooked the Suara Tim Tim building. As there was only sky above us, I couldn't see the point in ducking, but neither did I go very close to the edge ... just a quick peek, that was all. The attack on the newspaper office seemed to be winding down. Just a few of the militiamen were shooting at it, breaking glass and lighting fires. ABC cameraman Terry McDonald was determined to film them and stuck his camera over the roof edge. Mark was anxious for him. "Terry, be careful," he said. "Be fucking careful." Terry angled his camera and popped off a few shots.
We had to figure out what to do next. We were guessing that now the hotel was pretty-well surrounded by those fancy-dressed loons. I was learning a lesson: in Dili, being inside a building, a proper formal building like a hotel, did not afford any protection. In Australia, I kind of carried with me this naive belief that if I ever got into trouble in the street I could run into a pub, or a shop, or a hotel, and thus avoid the dark, private world in which homicidal maniacs tend to thrive. In that uncomfortable moment, I understood that in East Timor, security only existed where Indonesia wanted it to exist, which most of the time was nowhere.
We gathered at the top of the hotel's stairwell with a few other reporters and photographers. A snapper for Associated Press, Charlie Dharapak, was there. He was this too-cool Thai-American with a relaxed "how's it going, man?" manner. He was much, much more experienced than me, which of course wasn't hard because I had no experience at all. I was wide-eyed and sweating, suddenly aware that we couldn't stay on the hotel roof because it was entirely possible that the militia would come up and find us there. And that's why I just about wet myself when too-cool Charlie turned to me and said in an American accent: "Hmmmm ... not a good situation, huh?"
I said "yeah" as quickly and calmly as I could manage, anxious to shut my mouth before my heart leapt through my teeth and bounced off Charlie's forehead and onto the floor where – I had no doubt – it would run around in panicked circles all by itself.
"We've got to get out of here," said Mark, just as I was beginning to fantasise that the hotel was really quite cosy after all. We all knew that getting out of there meant running the gauntlet, past the trucks of thugs out the front. "Let's go," said Mark. And I followed, too confused to question.
We got downstairs and saw that, yes, there were now two or three big pick-up trucks full of militiamen. Some were looking wired-up and angry, others were laughing wildly, the way that little boys do when they taunt small animals. I was of course to learn later that nearly all the militia conscripts in East Timor were village men and boys who had been rounded up and trucked into town under threat of terrible things happening to their families if they did not obey. Of course, there were some real nasties among them, but many would have been more frightened and confused than I was that day. I didn't know that then, though, and amid their fear and frenzied desire to please their tormentors, they weren't exactly men you wanted to try to reason with either.
ANYWAY, WE BOLTED. Out the front foor of the Mahkota as the militiamen shouted and, I think, began to give chase (but I don't know for sure, because I was too busy running). Then something wonderful happened. A beautifully beaten-up little blue Timor taxi sped in front us and kept moving. "Alfonso!" shouted Mark. I'd met Alfonso at the airport. He was a small and smiling man (but that doesn't tell you much because just about all East Timorese are small and smiling) with a plume of grey hair sticking straight up (but there is a story in that). Alfonso didn't speak a word of English, but driving from the airport to the Turismo Hotel, Mark had told me that he was once a Falintil fighter and had been captured and interrogated by the Indonesians. They burnt off all his hair.
So you can understand why, on that day, Alfonso might have been a little anxious, and why his little taxi kept driving away from us as we chased after it. "Alfonso!" yelled Mark again, and the taxi slowed down just enough (thank God) for us to open the doors on the run and jump in. "Get us out of here," is what I assume Mark then yelled in Indonesian. But Dili is very small. There weren't many places to go.
My thinking at that moment was: "Yes, let's go, let's find safety, yes safety, yes, yes." But then the reality returned that ... oh, fuck ... we are journalists – correspondents, no less! – and our job is not to run away but to get as close as possible. As that sank in, I felt like the butterflies in my stomach had just flown through a cloud of amphetamine dust.
Mark suggested we drive to Telkom – Dili's telecommunications centre – where I could make a call to the news desk in Sydney. On the way we saw truckloads of militiamen circling the small city like sharks. Mark and Terry dropped me off and went elsewhere to shoot some pictures. The scene around the Telkom building was tense. I learned later that when trouble was cooking, Dili's locals would shut up shop and stay at home. It was one of those days. There was a heavy atmosphere in the empty streets, the ordinariness broken only by a shout or a flash of movement – a glimpse of someone being chased, or a passing figure languidly wandering in the distance, weapon in hand.
I spoke to a Telkom worker who led me into a small booth of cracking brown lino and I looked down at a decaying old phone. Scribbling on my pad, I attempted to tidy up the radio news story I'd written earlier on, adding bits and pieces I had picked up along the way, and dialled the news desk. When someone answered I realised how scared I was. I was shaking and my breathing was shallow. I so wanted to sound professional and brave, but I wasn't. It took at least five attempts before I could deliver the story in anything like usable quality. I knew they would have quite a time editing out my stumbles and curses. A guy named Barney was staffing the desk that day. Months later he was kind enough to tell me I did well in East Timor. "I wasn't sure about you at first," he said. No wonder. Neither was I.
I can't remember how I got back to the Turismo, but I did, just as it was getting dark. Mark and Terry were there and I wondered aloud about what to do next. "I've heard that 12 people were killed today at the Carrascalao house," Mark said, "including Manuel's 14-year-old son. Why don't we go down to the church hospital and have a look? There must be some wounded there." That was another lesson: the morbid checklist, which becomes familiar to all reporters covering conflicts. After violence, go to the hospital. There will always be a story there.
Our taxi pulled up outside the clinic behind Dili's Motael Church. There was a breeze blowing off the sea, carrying with it the scent of death. Of course, at that very moment, for me it was an odour without a name. It was an ignorance short-lived.
It was very dark outside, but there was a dim light in the doorway of the clinic. A nun stood under it, dressed in white, talking to some people. As I approached, I heard wails of pain. I stepped through the door and walked into a wall of humidity pungent with the pong of antiseptic and blood. Another nun dragged a mop backwards and forwards across the floor, turning a thick liquid from bright red to dull brown. Someone released a long, lingering whimper. On my right I saw a man lying motionless. Completely still. I leant over him and realised that, for the first time in my life, I was looking at the body of a man drained of his.
I turned on my mini-disc recorder and walked through the clinic, weaving between the bodies of wounded and dead. I spoke haltingly into my microphone. "There are people with machete and gunshot wounds in their chests, their arms, their legs, their heads ... a lot of pain." Some of the victims' faces were screwed up in agony, while others stared blankly, shocked and frozen in confusion. I tried to interview some of them. When I finally stepped back out into the night, I was shivering. But it wasn't cold at all.
Back at the Turismo I found Mark and Terry sitting in the dining area eating something. Mark told us that in the morning there would be a funeral at Bishop Belo's house for Manuelita, the young boy killed in the Carrascalao house. The word on the street was that the Indonesian military had removed the bodies of the 12 others killed – refugees slaughtered in the only refuge they could find.
Mark walked with me to my room on the ground floor. He checked the door and then went to the windows that faced onto the street. There were flimsy bars on them, which he held and shook as he looked through, left and right, exhibiting a protective instinct that only agitated my anxiety. "Tomorrow we might try to get you a room upstairs," he said, and left.
ALONE, THE EVENTS of the day began to sink in. I still had to write a few radio stories for the morning, but first I needed to take a few moments to try to process how my daily realities had shifted so radically in just three days. I became aware that my clothes were caked in sweat and grime. I went into the bathroom – where washing meant a bucket and cold water – and taking off my shirt, looked into the mirror and realised that for probably the first time in my life I had forgotten to eat for an entire day. A dull bare light bulb hovered above my head. It was one of those rare existential moments that never leave your memory. Looking at myself, I wondered who I was, where I was, and why. It was an indulgence thankfully short-fused by pouring a bucketful of cold water over my noisy skull.
I slept feverishly, waking constantly to the emptiness of a strange room dappled with street lights from the new and frightening world outside. At dawn I got up and wandered down the street to the early mass at Bishop Belo's house, which was just on the next corner. Dili is that small – few places in the city are more than half an hour's walk away. Soon I could hear the singing, the exquisite voices of East Timor's Sunday faithful. Brutal days, followed by mornings of serene worship. Death, then dignity. That was Timor's weird circle of survival, turning round again and again for almost a quarter of a century. Winding through the crowd I spotted a huddle of bodies embracing. Getting closer, someone told me it was the Carrascalao family receiving friends and relatives who had come to pay their respects to young Manuelita. His sister Christina was there, red-eyed and exhausted, and hugging a sobbing woman. I edged next to them and guiltily recorded their wails of grief, adding it to the catalogue of suffering I would put on the radio the following Monday morning.
It was perhaps eight months later that the missing bodies of the others killed at the Carrascalao house were finally found. They were discovered by the United Nations in a seaside grave only about one hour's drive east of Dili. Just next to the road, the graves were clearly marked with names and the date, April 17, 1999. Hundreds of journalists had driven past them hundreds of times, but no one had ever bothered to look. We had moved on to other stories, those right in front of us that were easier to tell. The thing is, those graves were right in front of us, too, but we hadn't seen them. Much as the world, for 24 very long years, had chosen not to see East Timor.