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Of Carnage and Hope

Fulton, Robert Hale; Nairn, Slobodan Dimitrov

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.

Nairn and Goodman were allowed to return to Indonesia in 1994 to cover the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Jakarta, but forbidden from visiting Timor. They were arrested three times on that trip: twice while trying to enter Timor and once, after successfully crossing the border, while attempting to announce a press conference about what they‘d seen while there. Nairn sneaked into Indonesia again in 1998 and was arrested and deported once more, this time after holding a press conference in Jakarta to release ”documents showing that unbeknownst to Congress, the U.S. was training the Indonesian army in advanced sniper techniques, urban warfare and psychological operations.“

This past April, shortly after militia members entered a church in the town of Liquisa and hacked between 50 and 75 men, women and children to death with machetes, Nairn returned once more to Indonesia. While in Jakarta, he uncovered evidence of continuing U.S. military assistance to the Indonesian military despite congressional bans, and found documents revealing that just days after the Liquisa massacre, as the U.S. State Department was condemning the military for its ties to the militias, Admiral Dennis Blair, commander of American forces in the Pacific, met with the commander of the Indonesian military, promised to increase U.S. military aid, ”and then he invited him to his house in Hawaii to be his honored guest.“

In August, Nairn covertly entered East Timor. On September 4, the results of a U.N.-sponsored referendum were announced -- 78 percent of East Timorese voted in favor of independence from Indonesia. To punish the Timorese for their presumption, militias trained, supplied and coordinated by, and often interchangeable with, the Indonesian military, began methodically entering houses, evicting and sometimes killing their inhabitants, and destroying what they didn’t steal. Two days after the results were announced, two armed militiamen arrived at the home in which Nairn and another American were staying. ”One was drunk,“ Nairn recalls. ”He was the one the other called commander.“ They were joined by four young men armed with AK-47s. ”It did seem like a bad situation,“ Nairn says with typical understatement.

Nairn was eventually brought to police headquarters in Dili, held for a night, and driven to the U.N. compound. ”That was the beginning of about nine or 10 days when it was impossible to move normally.“ Nairn nevertheless sneaked out of the U.N. compound in the early mornings, ducking into abandoned homes to avoid the militias, which sped through the city streets on motorcycles: ”They would fire into the air and honk their horns as they were about to sack and burn another house.“ Many of the shell casings left in their wake, Nairn says, were American-made.

The U.N. compound was evacuated on September 14, by which point ”people were assuming that if you stayed behind, you would die.“ Everyone left, except Allan Nairn. ”I just walked out the door as the trucks pulled away, and that was that,“ he recalls. ”That was a pretty frightening moment.“

He was picked up the next day and brought to military headquarters to be interrogated. Because he was an American journalist, and a fairly notorious one locally, Nairn says, ”They handled me with kid gloves.“ Nairn‘s keepers did not even confiscate his cell phone, with which, when his guards fell asleep, he was able to call the United States and report back to American radio and television news programs. After six days in detention, including a three-day spell during which Indonesian authorities maintained he would be imprisoned for 10 years for having entered the country at all, Nairn was put on a plane to Singapore. A week later he was in Washington, D.C., testifying before the House Subcommittee on Human Rights about the United States government’s continuing complicity with Indonesian atrocities in East Timor.

Nairn does not hesitate to lay blame for the recent carnage in East Timor squarely at the feet of the Clinton administration. Despite the president‘s posturing during the Kosovo war as the patron saint of human rights, despite the Indonesian military’s enormous vulnerability to American pressure, and despite the extraordinarily brutal excesses committed in Timor throughout the spring and summer, Clinton was unwilling to cut off U.S. arms sales to Indonesia until September 9. ”The final result,“ Nairn says, ”was the destruction of Dili, the razing of every other significant Timorese town, the abduction of half the population, and the death through execution and massacre and, in some cases, hunger of a still-unknown number of Timorese.“

Shortly after his recent talk at USC, Nairn traveled up the coast to San Francisco and then Seattle, speaking to raise money for the reconstruction of East Timor and to raise support for two bills in Congress that would lock in Clinton‘s temporary freeze on U.S. arms sales until Indonesia reins in the militias, which are still spreading terror along the Timorese border. But at long last, he was also singing a victory song: ”Contrary to the wishes of big corporations, contrary to the wishes of the defense contractors, contrary to the wishes of the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon -- the Bush administration fought this, the Clinton administration fought this . . . but they lost. We won.“