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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SEPTEMBER 17, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 37

One Reporter's Notebook
How journalists came under the gun too
By TOM McCAWLEY Dili

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Indonesia
East Timor slides into anarchy and Jakarta comes under fire from the international community

Militia
Who they are; what they want

Editorial
Indonesia will need foreign help to sort out the mess in violence-wracked East Timor

  RELATED STORIES
CNN
Breaking news from East Timor

TIME
Birth of a Nation: East Timorese vote overwhelmingly to secede from Indonesia, but ongoing militia violence insures a bloody transition to independence

They don't care if we die. Three of us journalists are caught in the crossfire of an attack by militiamen filtering through farms, torching houses, going after residents. A column of dark smoke billows several hundred meters ahead near the fortified U.N. compound. The shots grow louder. Behind us, three militiamen in black flak jackets and red berets appear. One totes a homemade musket, another an automatic rife. Shrapnel whistles past. We flee to a nearby ricefield and cower behind a tin cattle shed. Suddenly a red-eyed militiaman comes upon us, wielding a rusty but sharp machete. With a grunting squeal he swings but misses. We run through a gash in a wooden fence. A wire trips me up and I fall headlong into a stagnant pond that smells of buffalo. Gunshots and cries reverberate around me. Luckily, the machete-man decides to give up the chase; all he does is hurl us a curse. We survive to record another day in the life of East Timor's terror and agony.

For reporters and photographers, the risks of getting hurt or even killed while covering conflict is an occupational hazard. But in East Timor, the militias were deliberately targeting journalists, especially Indonesian ones. At first, the animosity took just the form of menacing phone calls. But in the days following the Aug. 30 referendum, the threats intensified. On Sept. 5, the barricades surrounding central Dili's Hotel Mahkota, which housed much of the international media, were opened to allow militiamen through. They strafed the bottom rooms of the hotel with machine-gun fire. Miraculously, no one inside was hurt. The militias were not happy about journalists documenting their activities. "You foreigners don't understand their work," said a police officer. "They are just making Timor safe." The militias blamed reporters for taking a pro-independence line. Complained one militia leader: "The media depict us as killers and murderers. Why can't they be more balanced?" Yes, we should aim to be impartial, but nothing erodes impartiality like being shot at.

After repeated such attacks, most of us reluctantly decide to leave East Timor. For several successive days, police escorted journalists from the U.N. compound and various Dili hotels to the airport. When one of the last batches left on Sept. 8, as a final insult, militiamen fired at their truck, but only half-heartedly. After all, they had succeeded with their psychological warfare designed to drive out the media and prevent proper coverage of the atrocities. The remaining handful of reporters who had bunkered down in the U.N. compound along with hundreds of East Timorese seeking sanctuary were to depart with the U.N. mission Sept. 9.

In 1975, when Indonesia annexed East Timor, six Australia-based journalists died. This time, two Indonesian reporters shot in the leg were the worst cases. Compared with the terrible suffering inflicted on the majority of East Timorese, our encounters with the militia were a mere nagging inconvenience. Now we are safe, and there is no one but the victims to witness the horror.


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