The United Nation’s aid convoy to Sare in East Timor

Last August, Pope Francis appointed a new Cardinal, Virgilio do Carmo da Silva, from the tiny country of East Timor. East Timor had been a colony of Portugal until it was brutally occupied by Indonesia. I am not Roman Catholic, but I remember my time in East Timor when it gained independence from Indonesia. On July 4, 1999, I was in an aid convoy attacked by Indonesia’s dogs-of-war militias.

From 1998 through 2000, I lived in East Timor, working for Amnesty International and other human rights groups. During Indonesia’s twenty-five-year occupation, Catholic nuns and priests offered refuge in churches, convents, schools and monasteries. Those nuns and priests are some of the bravest individuals I ever met. In 1996, Bishop Carlos Belo and exiled Ambassador José Ramos-Horta shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

What follows describes the three days of our convoy. The coincidence of July 4, America’s Independence Day, was not lost on me. By end of 1999, East Timor was freed of Indonesia’s occupation and became the first sovereign state of the twenty-first century.

During the ’98-’99 political turmoil, Indonesia’s government nearly accidentally agreed to a referendum (supervised by the United Nations) to allow the East Timorese to vote on whether to end Indonesia’s occupation. UN workers called the referendum “that stinking agreement.” As negotiated, UN peace keepers and outside observers could not have weapons. Only Indonesian military, police, and militias could be armed. The vote was to be in September—a few months after we were attacked.

UN taught people how to vote—something many had never done. I held classes at my house explaining the ballot, avoiding suggestions about how people should vote.

In late June, amid increasing violence authored by Indonesia, Timorese groups organized to send food and medical help from Dili, the capital of the country, to people gathering in Sare, an area to the west. Dr. Dan Murphy from the US, a Timorese nurse, Gil, and I were the medical team with the convoy. I was unqualified. I met Dr. Murphy during a brief trip to the US in 1998. He had worked in Mozambique, also a Portuguese colony. He wanted to help in East Timor where few people knew about the travails there. By the time of our July convoy, Dr. Dan had been treating patients for half a year at a clinic attached to Motael Catholic Church in Dili.

Many people fled to Sare after being forced from their homes. In Dili, people were emboldened because the UN was in the country. True, the UN didn’t have weapons, but East Timor briefly held the world’s attention. We hoped the UN presence would deter attacks on our convoy. Maybe that would allow the Timorese to deliver food and help.

The July 4th aid convoy stopped on the road

Friday, July 2, 1999

Deliver they did. Early in the morning, I walked to the UN World Food Program (WFP) warehouse, which was filled with rice and supplies. The cavern held thousands of fat, white bags. I sat on the edge of the loading ramp next to Gil. He was all smiles. Another Timorese said, “We’re going to have trucks and trucks going there. My aunt lives in Sare. This is good, don’t you think, Max?”

I agreed, but I was apprehensive. I’d seen militias up close.

A Portuguese news crew—director Pedro and a cameraman—drove up in a “bemo” (a little van). They stepped out and filmed. More cars and bemos showed. Men jumped onto the warehouse loading dock.

The first truck arrived, a yellow Kijang (Indonesian Toyota). It was a big open box-on-wheels with high wooden sides. The driver backed toward the loading ramp, watching in his mirror as men with hands spread apart showed how close the truck was to the dock. Closer, closer, Bump. The scene took me back to high school summers “bucking hay” and jumping out to signal the same way. Those had been warm carefree days. Briefly, I felt at peace.

We loaded the truck with fifty-kilogram bags of rice labeled “United Nations World Food Program” with the names of donor countries: Thailand, Japan, USA, and so on. I imagined a Thai farmer wading in a rice paddy, not knowing that the plants he was setting would feed starving folks in this sister country.

Those loading formed cavities among the bags. They dropped supplies into the holes: cooking oil, utensils, salt, sugar, bottles of water, and occasional notes of encouragement.

People were excited. The first truck, brimming, moved onto the road and parked facing west. A second one backed up. The convoy formed as we waited for the UN to arrive.

More trucks backed up, filled up. Tension piled up as sacks piled up. Where was the UN escort? The night before, they asked Indonesians for a police escort, as per the stinking agreement. The police agreed but the next morning refused. This was typical. Indonesia did everything they could to sabotage the upcoming September vote, as we learned on the 4th of July. I admired the head of the UN mission, Ian Martin, for refusing to be intimidated. One story was that Martin told an Indonesian officer, in a polite British-accent, “You are not telling me the truth, sir. Would you please re-phrase that?”

As loading finished, trucks lined up with cars behind. We were becoming anxious. I sent word to Dr. Murphy that it was time to get on board.

We waited. Some men smoked; others kicked a soccer ball around without enthusiasm. Women talked in groups.

About 10 a.m., a blue UN Land Rover rolled past and parked in front of the trucks and vehicles. Patrick Burgess, an Aussie, and a second UN guy stepped out. The other guy was with the UN organization IOM (“International Organization for Migration”). I’ll call him IOM. I knew tall Burgess, who appeared young for his responsibility as the human rights coordinator. Their Timorese driver sat in the Rover and lit a cigarette. Patrick and IOM agreed that I would ride with them in the Rover. So would a woman from a Timorese organization, Yayasan HAK (“Association for Law, Human Rights, and Justice”). I carried bags of medical stuff. Burgess described an earlier conference at headquarters where the question of whether the UN should go without an Indonesian escort was discussed. Burgess and others prevailed with their idea of going without one (“Screw the escort!”).

In half an hour we were at the east end of the town Liquica, looking over shining white beaches to our right. Patrick said, “My mates and I used to come up here from Canberra to surf. Loved it. Now here I am again.”

West of Liquica we were soon in low gears on unpaved roads. A trip that would take an hour or so in Oregon would take nearly five, including time bogged down.

In the late afternoon, the convoy drove across a wet creek bed. One truck got stuck, tipping precariously. A German freelance journalist, Ingrid, riding with the Portuguese news crew, hopped out. She seemed optimistic. She told me, “I helped get trucks unstuck in Africa.”

I was nervous. I thought militias could descend on us like lions on weak prey.

Indonesian soldiers often cultivated young Timorese by giving them gifts and doing them favors. This strategy, refined in other Indonesian provinces, created loyal home-grown groups whose orchestrated violence could be disowned. Indonesia organized and gave identities to East Timor militias such as Besi Merah Putih (“Iron Red and White,” colors of the Indonesian flag). As the vote on independence was nearing, it was time for these compromised militia men to do dirty duty for Indonesian masters.

To intimidate people from voting, or into voting against independence, militias forced people from villages, burned homes, abused, raped, and killed. They drove people further and further from Dili. IOM told me the people fleeing were, in international law, “internally displaced people. IDPs. Refugees who are not refugees,” he said. The Timorese could vote only in the region where they had registered—if they had been able to register at all.

The July 4th aid convoy, stuck for hours in deep mud

Our truck rocked and remained stuck. We tossed rocks and branches under a pair of rear wheels deep in mud. We pushed, though it was futile and dangerous. The worse things seemed, the more energized Ingrid became. We yelled instructions to the driver. He ignored us. We discussed unloading but knew that would delay us dangerously. Then the truck lurched up and forward. We warned succeeding drivers to avoid the spot. Most did, though another tilted, then righted. Every vehicle navigated through deepening tracks.

We bounced along narrow dirt and rock roads, through abandoned villages of burned houses, past charred fields and rice paddies, through plundered gardens and orchards. After brushing through kilometers of grasses higher than the roof of the Land Rover, we emerged into a clearing. A man in the barren patch ran into surrounding grass. Conversation slacked. We quit speculating about when we might run into a roadblock. We had encountered neither militias nor Indonesian troops. “Quiet, too quiet.”

Unloading rice in Sare


As the convoy arrived, hundreds of people greeted us, some cheering and waving, a few crying. Most, though, watched passive, dead-eyed. The center of town was a dirt flat, bordered on two sides by concrete-block buildings. Along the sides, a few benches. Trucks and cars maneuvered into a field and parked facing outward. We decided that if there was an attack we could use headlights.

Dr. Dan wanted to start seeing patients. Immediately. Asking around, I found the bupati (“mayor”). He said I could use any room on the second floor of the larger building. Outside stairs led to a balcony. Looking down I saw Patrick Burgess like a tree surrounded by human bushes. As light faded, I shot a couple of pictures on the scene.

Patrick Burgess, surrounded by Timorese “IDPs” in Sare

Without incident, the convoy arrived unmolested. Why? Two days later, detained by Indonesians on that fateful Fourth, I had a clue: a cheap Radio Shack walkie-talkie.

Upstairs I found a line of rooms, each about three meters square, with open doorways along a balcony. Each had a ceiling light. Some even switched on. I walked through the room nearest the stairs, out the opposite door onto another balcony with stairs. The room was empty. I went down and an old woman told me to take whatever furniture I needed from other rooms. She offered to sweep.

I chose the room close to the stairs. A few rooms had furniture left after plundering. I found a small table and three chairs plus an extra light. Gil and I brought up supplies. This was now Dr. Dan’s clinic and I his unlicensed, unqualified pharmacist. Mine was an easy task. There were few medicines to dispense: chloroquine for malaria, pain pills, bandages, eye drops administered by Gil, and sometimes placebos. Clean water and a doctor’s attention were medicine. Dr. Dan once said to me, “I don’t know what works, Max. I think sometimes it’s just laying on of hands.”

A nearby room had a mosquito-net tent in the center. In another were backpacks and clothes. I met those from both rooms. A couple in one room were middle-aged Australians. They had arrived days earlier as “human shields.” Pretty damn gutsy.

The mosquito tent belonged to a Swiss writer, Victor, who hoped to find the resistance army, Falantil. He did. A militiaman who defected to Falantil was briefing members of HAK before returning to the mountains. The next day, he followed the defector into the mountains.

The stairway filled with men and boys. Generally, the East Timorese men were unconcerned about women’s rights. Generally the sun comes up in the east. In fairness, it was appropriate. These were men, mostly young, who resisted joining militias. Each came in and sat. Dr. Dan would ask, in Tetum (Timorese language) or in Portuguese, “What’s the problem?” The man would answer, and Dan sometimes turned and said, “Man beating.” The man had been beaten. Dan lifted the stethoscope from his neck, the one his father had used. He positioned it and listened. Fever and aching? Dan palpated under the left rib cage for an enlarged spleen, a symptom of malaria. He’d done the same in Mozambique. In Dili he taught me to find an enlarged spleen. He’d used the same stethoscope at his Iowa practice and as doctor for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers.

Our ad-hoc “clinic” was cramped while the Portuguese cameraman, with a big video camera on his shoulder, held his lens within inches of faces, of Dan’s hands or of stuff on the table. (The previous Christmas Eve, I walked the festive Dili streets with a photojournalist who quoted Robert Capa, a well-known war photographer. “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Capa got close enough to be killed by a land mine.)

Dan diagnosed and prescribed. I counted pills and Gil wrote onto pre-torn squares of paper, folded pills into simple square origamis and handed them to patients. Dan explained when and how to take the medicine. Each patient rose and left out the opposite door as the next sat down. And so on for hours, until late night.

A Portuguese journalist sitting with Dr. Dan Murphy and essay author Max White

Saturday, July 3

At dawn, people unloaded trucks and distributed rice in front of the building next door. The first trucks unloaded were rented and would head back to Dili immediately. Dr. Dan continued to see patients, by then mostly women and children. The majority of children were dehydrated, malnourished. On the ground floor under us, women boiled water. They filled liter bottles with cooled water mixed with small amounts of sugar and salt: poor people’s treatment for diarrhea.

Villagers from further away walked in. Men and women distributed food and counted souls. Desperate families fleeing with little food waited their turn—in contrast to televised scenes of people in similar desperation, in other countries, fighting for food. We estimated more than thirty-five thousand people arrived for relief.

An international election monitoring NGO published a summary. “‘They are sleeping outside or in crudely assembled shacks,’ said IFET-OP member Max White. According to our count, seven out of every ten persons there had malaria. We saw many indications of malnutrition and heard many stories of recent deaths. That they are contracting and succumbing to diseases is directly attributable to their displacement from their own homes and means of subsistence.”

A villager told me about a boy with a bad wound. We found the boy and father. The ten-year-old injured his lower legs fleeing into the mountains. Both legs were infected; flesh rotted away, bone visible on one shin. Dr. Dan decided the boy should be treated at the Indonesian hospital in Dili. Dan was loath to use the hospital, but thought it would have the right medicine. We asked the child’s father to be there Sunday morning.

Weeks before, I met a Catholic priest who joined the convoy. We had met at an orphanage and school in the mountains above Dili. We both admired a Timorese nun, Sister Lourdes, who founded an Order, cared for homeless children and trained her workers to serve in villages. While in the States, I raised money to support her work.

The priest and I hit it off. When I asked him his first name, he said, “Father.” I laughed. That’s how I refer to him.

That Saturday, “Father” used a room upstairs to hear confessions. Midday, he and I took a break from our patients and his penitents. Standing on the balcony, we watched ordered chaos outside. He told me that the UN knew we made it to Sare.

“How?” I asked.

“I have a satellite phone, and they called me.” In the States, I had a business servicing commercial satellite equipment, but had never seen one of these stratospherically expensive Iridium phones. The next day, the priest’s phone proved a godsend. So to speak.

The legs of an injured ten-year-old boy in Sare. One of the many “internally displaced peoples”
fleeing the violence in East Timor.

Sunday, July 4

In the morning, donning a white robe and armed with paraphernalia, Father did his thing. He held masses.

A Timorese friend from the convoy introduced me to his aunt. She seemed stoic as we left, waving nearly casually. The slightness of her gesture hinted at what she and these people experienced. Occasionally I dream about her little wave.

More people rode back than came with us. Some were catching rides to Dili or in between. Quite a few rode in boxes of the trucks. I failed to find the boy with the bad leg. Probably his father didn’t trust letting his son go.

The HAK woman and I again rode in the UN Rover. Two women climbed into the far back. A couple of cars would peel off before reaching Liquica. Everyone was tired. I half-slept for a while. Headed back, we moved faster. People were relaxed, thinking militia vultures would not be interested, now that we were not carrying supplies.

As we came back into Liquica, Patrick told the driver to stop. We were on a street between a store and police station. Our Timorese driver became agitated and tried to persuade Patrick to, “just keep going.” The UN instructed Burgess to check in with local police. That stinking agreement again. Our driver became more unsettled.

It was a quiet, hot Sunday afternoon. As Burgess walked toward two uniformed cops, people got out. Some headed to the store. I stood by the Rover and watched. People returned from the store and Burgess headed back as a van halted at the intersection in front. A dozen or more men wearing red and white bandanas leaped out, all with weapons—machetes, a couple with rifles, others waving primitive single-shot pistols. Seeing them, our Timorese from the convoy leaped out of trucks and cars. They ran. For a second I started to run, then stopped. Why was I running? I recalled a policeman once told me, “The best thing to do in a panic situation is not panic.”

A young man in a bandana ran toward me thrusting a scary improvised weapon—a handle holding six wicked barbed spears. I stood spread-armed and stared at the shorter guy, hoping to intimidate him, hoping he couldn’t read my fright. I wanted to appear as large as possible. He thrust, closer and closer until the barbs were near my chest. I stared at him. Just as I decided to grab his weapon, spear-holder screamed and ran. Saving face, I guessed. I exhaled and forced myself to walk toward the store. A second van careened up spilling more militia. The police watched, one smoking.

At the intersection, a UN car pulled up and two peacekeepers in blue and white uniforms stepped out. One, a tall New Zealander, slapped his right hip, maybe reaching for a pistol . . . but alas. That stinking agreement. One of our Timorese dodged behind the Kiwi. A militiaman chased him, then ran at the peacekeeper, hit him in the chest with his fist twice and tried to push him. The New Zealander stood passive, a stoic human post. Pretty damn gutsy. I was near and as bandana-man charged past, I impulsively stuck out my foot and tripped him. He fell onto his side, rolled over, sprang back up, and retrieved a machete. Ignoring me and the peacekeeper, he screamed and sprinted away.

In the maelstrom, I was shocked to see Dr. Dan standing next to Sister Lourdes, the nun from the orphanage and home above Dili. She and Dr. Dan were friends, but she had not been in the convoy. I knew Sister Lourdes had established centers in villages around East Timor. But to be there, coincidentally, at that moment? The two were talking as the attack started to unfold. Lourdes immediately turned and left.

I ran, yes ran, back to the UN Land Rover, past the bemo with Ingrid, with the cameraman filming and Pedro narrating. When would anyone see what they were filming? It turned out that the Portuguese also had a satellite phone and were broadcasting live.

The radio in the Land Rover squawked, “What’s happening there? What’s happening?” I lifted the mike and said, “We are under attack. We are in the middle of Liquica. We need help.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m a passenger in the car. A member of the convoy. Patrick is headed here.”

Women opened the rear door and plunged in screaming and crying. They tried to make themselves small as Patrick sprinted to the right front door. I retrieved an aged video camera from my bag. IOM jumped into the passenger seat to left of Patrick saying. “We should get out of here.” I got into the back seat. Another woman squeezed in. A Timorese guy I didn’t recognize pushed in beside me and slammed the door.

Patrick started the Rover and shouted into the radio, “What should we do? Where should we go?” People in the car pleaded. “GO GO GO PLEASE GO!” Patrick couldn’t hear the radio. He turned partly around and yelled, “Shut UP! SHUT UP!” I had the video camera running, though jostling made it hard to aim it. The radio told Patrick that a BRIMOB vehicle was headed there and Patrick should follow them. BRIMOB was a nasty Indonesian police force. A black van showed up, turned around in front of us, and Patrick followed.

As our vehicle started down the street, we were surrounded side and rear by militias yelling and smashing windows. Glass shattered; people screamed. We outdistanced the mob as I tried to film through the shattered rear window. “GO GO GO PLEASE GO!” A man ran after us with something in his hand. I aimed the camera as he threw a one-shot pistol, trying to get it into the UN vehicle. (Indonesians encouraged militias to plant a weapon in a UN vehicle. For weeks to come, Indonesians and the UN argued about my shaky monochrome video.)

The pistol fell short. The Timorese guy next to me shouted to stop. Patrick did; the guy jumped out, picked up the pistol and jumped back in. I shouted, “He has a gun.” IOM said, “It’s OK. He’s one of ours,” and took the pistol. Patrick accelerated. Other cars in the convoy followed, some with smashed windows, one limping along on a flat tire. The black van led us into a large yard surrounded by high chain link fence and an office building along one side.

We stopped. As cars followed us in, IOM stepped out with the pistol in his hand and met a BRIMOB officer walking up. Before the Indonesian said anything, IOM said, “This was thrown at us by attackers. I am, with witnesses, surrendering it as evidence. We will need a receipt.” Patrick nodded down in agreement.

“Oh, right,” I thought, “a receipt!” The Indonesian looked at the gun, glanced back up, started to say something. IOM thrust out the pistol. The Indonesian looked conflicted but took it. He turned around. Patrick and IOM followed him into the building.

Uniformed Indonesians closed the gate after the final vehicle. People milled around. Father and I—he still in robes—met and shook our heads.

Ingrid ran up. “Where’s the doctor? Where’s Dr. Dan? He’s not here!” Patrick and IOM came out of the building with a BRIMOB cop. I told Patrick that Dr. Dan wasn’t with us and neither were a few others. The Indonesian officer, in English, said he would look for them. I walked beside him toward the gate and said I would help identify Dan. The Indonesian whirled, placed his left palm on my chest and his right hand on a holstered pistol. He said, “We know who Dr. Murphy is.” He turned and walked to a marked jeep.

A long, tense afternoon drug on. Somehow Patrick got bottles of water for us. Our Timorese crew sat on steps in a corner of the yard, looking glum. Patrick came out to report that they were negotiating to get everyone released. The key word was “everyone.” It was clear that if we foreigners left without the Timorese, it would be bad news for them. Father told me, “If the Timorese stay, I stay.” I nodded and agreed to stick. I don’t think either of us was sanguine, but it crossed my mind that I wasn’t in priestly raiment. Patrick emerged. We explained our decision and Patrick said, “That’s four of us.”

I told Father about my encounter with the many-pointed spear. He said he had seen us. We agreed that foreigners were in less danger during the attack, proof of how tightly Indonesians controlled their militias. As people stood or milled about in the de facto prison yard, Dan and a few Timorese from the convoy walked through the gate. I sat down on the steps next to Gil. Gil whispered, “There’s a big problem.”

“What’s that?”

“There’s a radio in our car. If they find it, they’ll know we were talking to Falantil.”

“So where is it?”

“Under the front seat.” He looked pointedly at the blue bemo with a flat tire.

“I’ll see what I can do.” I walked to Father, standing nearby as he disconnected a call on that golden phone. He’d been talking to Bishop Belo in Dili. Father said he would try to retrieve the walkie-talkie. I sauntered to the rear of the Rover and lifted my bag and video camera through broken glass. Later, Father stood out of sight of office windows, looking at me. A guard outside the gate was facing away. I “wandered” to Father. Smiling, with barely perceptible motion, he dropped the walkie-talkie into my open bag. We feigned small talk for a while, then I sat next to Gil. “We have it.”

Those cheap Radio Shack walkie-talkies wielded power. It may have been why the caravan was left alone on the way to Sare. Militias knew Falantil was probably shadowing the convoy. Militias were as afraid of Falantil as they were of their Indonesian masters. Indonesian military had captured walkie-talkies. Falantil would sometimes use the radios to taunt them.

Late afternoon, our UN guys came out and said that people from the UN mission were headed our way to pick up everyone.  “Everyone?” we asked.

A string of UN vehicles pulled up outside the gates. I felt irrationally giddy, as though the cavalry had ridden up, albeit cavalry without swords. Indonesian cops had agreed that Timorese could leave first. Patrick insisted that we wait within sight while Timorese found rides and left. So it went.

On the ride back in a UN car, the Aussie driver told two of us he had to bring an Indonesian colonel in the car. “Protocol, you know.” They passed a militia checkpoint in Liquica. Our driver said the colonel ducked and shouted, “Damn, they shot at us.” We laughed, the first time I’d laughed in days.

Back at UN headquarters in Dili, we were met by bright lights, TV cameras and journalists. Dan sat in a car giving an interview, calm, as though describing a just-completed vacation. In a large ground floor room, head of the UN mission Ian Martin greeted us and gave a short talk, explaining that they had sent a helicopter that couldn’t land because of gunfire.

A day later, we learned of a serious casualty of the attack, truck driver Laurentino Soares, was shot and badly beaten. Dan said Soares would survive but would probably lose an eye.

We took bottled water from boxes. At that moment, bottled water was a sacrament.

Dr. Dan Murphy driving a bemo

Max White

Max is a retired high-tech professional, who worked in the field as a programmer, teacher, and author of technical manuals. For about twenty years he was the Indonesia and East Timor Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA and an advisor for other human rights organizations. He now lives in Portland, Oregon.

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