By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
For nearly a decade, Allan Nairn has steadfastly reported on Indonesian atrocities in East Timor. Last month, he finally had reason to rejoice, as the Indonesian legislature voted to recognize the independence of East Timor. The journalist-activist announced: ”The epic struggle that began on December 7, 1975, when the Indonesian army invaded East Timor, is in a sense finished now. And the Timorese have won and the Indonesian army has lost.“
Nairn himself deserves at least some of the credit. It was his reports that exposed the horrors unfolding in Indonesia to an otherwise inattentive American public and to a Congress that, after much lobbying, responded by cutting military aid.
Unassuming and rumpled in a plain black suit, Nairn doesn’t match the swashbuckling image of a man who, after having his skull fractured by Indonesian troops during a 1991 massacre, was deported and banned from Indonesia only to risk his life and liberty and return three times in the next eight years, getting himself arrested at least once per visit. On his most recent trip, as East Timor was being methodically sacked by government-sponsored militias, Nairn became the last foreign journalist left in the country before U.N. peacekeeping troops arrived on September 20. He continued to send dispatches homeward via cell phone even after he was captured by the Indonesian military and threatened with a 10-year prison term for violating Indonesian immigration laws.
Given all that, Nairn‘s manner is far more easygoing than one might expect, though the deep moral steadiness underlying his almost every word is hard to miss. ”If accurate history is written in the future,“ Nairn recently told a crowd at USC’s United University Church, ”the victory of East Timor will be seen as one of the great epic triumphs of the weak over the strong, of justice over injustice.“
It has been a victory a long time in coming, and a long and bloody struggle. It was that struggle which first brought Nairn to East Timor in 1990. Born in New Jersey 40-some years ago, Nairn worked for several years as a researcher for Ralph Nader before turning to journalism in the early ‘80s. His reports from El Salvador and Guatemala in magazines like The Nation and The Progressive helped expose the U.S. government’s complicity in wide-scale atrocities. ”I‘ve always concentrated on going to places where there were mass killings going on and where the United States was involved, because I’m an American citizen,“ Nairn says. ”I don‘t define myself first as a journalist. I’m just a person,“ he laughs, slightly embarrassed, ”and I want to stop these terrible things from happening and journalistic work is one way to do that.“
There was plenty of work for him in East Timor, the fate of which has been all but ignored until recently by the mainstream media. The violence that followed Indonesia‘s 1975 invasion took the lives of a full third of East Timor’s population. Those killings, and the internment of hundreds of thousands of Timorese in the years that followed, Nairn is quick to point out, took place with the explicit approval of the United States government, with American guns wielded by U.S.-trained troops.
On his second trip to East Timor, in 1991, Nairn and Amy Goodman, who now hosts Pacifica radio‘s Democracy Now, arrived in the capital city of Dili the day a funeral march was being held for one Sebastiao Gomes, 20 years old, who had been killed by Indonesian troops 14 days before. Nairn and Goodman followed the march to the Santa Cruz cemetery, where thousands of mourners were gathered. Shortly after they reached the cemetery, Nairn recalls, a column of Indonesian soldiers, armed with M-16s, arrived. He and Goodman tried to place themselves between the soldiers and the crowd, hoping to prevent a massacre. The troops marched past them and opened fire. ”I didn’t want to believe it,“ Nairn says, his voice remarkably calm. ”I thought they must be firing blanks -- they couldn‘t really be doing this. But then we saw the blood, people buckling. The street was covered with bodies very quickly.“
Nairn and Goodman’s tape recorders and cameras were taken from them, and the soldiers began to beat them. Nairn‘s skull was cracked by a blow with a rifle butt. ”They put us on the ground, and seven or eight of them put their rifles to our heads . . . They were deciding whether or not to execute us, but it seemed that when we convinced them that we were from the United States that turned the tide. I think they realized we were from the same country their weapons were from. There might be a price to pay if they killed Americans. There had never been a price for killing Timorese.“ Nairn and Goodman were able to escape and report the massacre to the outside world, but 271 Timorese, it was later estimated, died that day.
Nairn and Goodman’s reporting on what has become known as the Santa Cruz Massacre created an outrage that resulted, within a year, in the first major cuts in American military aid to Indonesia. A bipartisan effort, despite the Bush administration‘s opposition, cut off Indonesia’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) aid. The ban was renewed year after year despite attempts by the Clinton administration to circumvent it. Additional cuts on U.S. arms sales to Indonesia followed over the years, largely as a result of the grassroots organizing and lobbying efforts of the East Timor Action Network, founded by Nairn and several other activists.