“Good morning, are you a Japanese journalist?” an Indonesian army officer greeted me politely, waking me up from my sleep on the flight to East Timor in 1991.
I was flying from Bali to Dili, then-capital of Timor Timur, the 27th Indonesian province. It was half a strip of one of the Lesser Sunda islands, annexed by the Indonesian government in 1975. The annexation lasted until May 20th 2002.
Today, Dili is known as the proudly democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.
It was two weeks after the ‘Santa Cruz Massacre’ (also known as the ‘Dili Massacre’), in which the Indonesian army opened fire against East Timorese rioters. Incidentally, two American journalists were there to witness the whole thing. Soon after, the conflict was brought into global attention. The Santa Cruz Massacre turned out to be the turning point for both the Fretilin and East Timorese in their quest for independence.
“No, I’m not — I’m Indonesian” I replied to him in Bahasa. He instantly became even friendlier, cautioning me on how dangerous the situation was. Once we landed, he even drove me all the way to Hotel Turisimo (a Portuguese hotel that doubled as a foreign journalist safe house) , which was right in the heart of Dili. When I got out of the car, there was a bunch of foreign journalists nearby. They eyed me and my army officer companion curiously. There was clearly an air of mistrust between them and the Indonesian army, since the latter was being accused of violating human rights.
Later on, I learned how these accusations were true to a certain extent. On one hand, most of the Indonesians stationed in East Timor believed that they were the savior of the East Timorese from the colonial powers of the Portuguese. By 1992, this belief had grown too warped. On the other hand, the East Timorese felt that rather than being ‘saviors’, the Indonesians were simply new invaders and masters.
Between 1975 and 1991, the Indonesian government did give the East Timorese decent infrastructure: good roads, public facilities and even public phone boxes in remote spots.
However, there was no real attempt to build a sustainable relationship with the locals. For instance, I spoke to one teacher, who originally came from Java. He described the East Timorese as a bunch of “kerbau”, or oxes to illustrate that he found them thick headed.
This was my first official photojournalistic trip. Its purpose was to record the daily life of the East Timorese for the World Health Organization (WHO).
I was really excited about this trip, since it was so close to my dream of becoming a war photojournalist (a dream that I’ve had since high school).
During this journey, I realized that when people feel that their freedom and rights are being abused, the situation could quickly bubble with fear, anger and resentment.
Soon, I went straight to work, and started heading east to a village called Manatuto. On the road, I suddenly felt the need to go to the toilet, so we stopped the car (a local was driving me) by the road and I went to the bushes. Just as I was about to relieve myself, a bunch of furious Indonesian soldiers jumped out of said bushes, pointing their rifles at me. They yelled at us to leave immediately and I fled in fear.
Afterwards, we found out that the reason they were guarding that area was because the East Timorese who had been massacred were all buried in a cemetry just beyond the bushes.
I should have mentioned earlier that I was on the journey with three other people: the driver, my friend and a Dutch lady who worked for WHO. When we reached Manatuto itself, the Dutch lady mysteriously disappeared. As we drove down the street, my friend, who was feeling a little wary at that time, noted that somebody seemed to be following us. The driver confirmed that there was indeed a car who had been tailing us all this time, ever since we left Dili.
When we returned to Dili after finishing our work in Manatuto, we were instantly picked up by an Indonesian army jeep (we didn’t have much choice but to obey). To my surprise, I met the same army officer from the plane. Instead of being the usual friendly self, he started berating me, revealing to me that the so-called Dutch humanitarian lady-officer was in fact aiding the East Timorese rebels (by supplying and funding them). That was the reason why she mysteriously disappeared from our company. I quickly denied any knowledge, let alone involvement of her activities.
Nearing the end of the journey, me and my friend were hanging around the hotel terrace, waiting for our flight home to Jakarta. An ‘angkot’ was parked nearby, its driver an East Timorese with short curly hair. He came out of the car and approached us and said “If you want to be world-famous, I know where you can take pictures of the East Timorese riot victims,”. He then explained that the corpses were getting ready to be buried in a military hospital, and that we could that the pictures from the top of a hill overlooking the location. Honestly, I was tempted and excited over the prospects of fame, and so after a short discussion, we (in retrospect, foolishly) decided to take the offer.
The angkot driver was indeed telling the truth. We soon reached the hill overlooking the hospital. I eagerly set my tripod on the ground, and looked through the camera, pointing it down to the hospital. What greeted me was not the pile of corpses getting ready to be buried, but rather a soldier looking through his binoculars right at me.
Obviously, I was immediately overcome with a sense of dread, especially after spotting a bunch of soldiers hurriedly getting into an army jeep and heading straight for us from the bottom of the hill.
“Mati kita!” yelled my friend (can be translated to we’re dead). We turned on our heels and jumped back into the angkot. Needless to say, the driver was as scared to death as we were, drenched in cold sweat and his hands trembling in fear as he gripped the steering wheel.
“I truly deeply regret ever coming here…” he said.
In my panic, I hid all of my film rolls, fearing that the army would take them away. At the same time, my mind raced as I thought about what to say when they catch us.
Not long after, the jeep caught up with us. “PUJI TUHAN! HALELUYAH!” yelled our driver (as in praise God, hallelujah), as soon as he could clearly see who was on the army jeep. “I know those soldiers, they all live in my neighborhood!”
He then confidently jumped out of the angkot and approached the soldiers. We couldn’t hear their conversation, but he was talking so amicably, laughing a lot and patting them on the shoulders. Meanwhile, we remained in the angkot, still shuddering with fear. Thankfully, the soldiers left soon enough.
That afternoon, I flew back to Jakarta, with much relief that my journey is over. As I sat on the plane, I came to realize how war photojournalism was not for me, after all. Perhaps I found the whole experience as too scary. One thing that I now know for sure is that life is especially precious when terror is right on your doorstep.
On a side note, I found out later that I was lucky to look like I come from Macau. Macau had been colonized by the Portuguese as well, and many people from Macau would trade with the locals — East Timor is famous for their coffee and Macau traders are the biggest buyers.