Journalist gives first-hand account of East Timor massacre, discusses U.S. government support for Indonesian oppressors

Brenda Tavakoli

Senior Staff Writer

He has faced threats of imprisonment and been ordered out of foreign countries. The CIA has tried to block publication of his articles. Tuesday, world-renowned investigative reporter Allan Nairn visited the University of Houston.

However, he was on-campus to discuss neither his work for The New York Times nor any of the numerous journalism awards he has won, but rather to discuss atrocities in East Timor that, he said, go alarmingly unreported in the United States, and some of which he has witnessed first-hand. Nairn described the Indonesian Army's actions in the small country it has occupied since Indonesia's December 1975 invasion of East Timor as "some of the most unspeakable crimes you could imagine."

Nairn first visited East Timor in 1990 and spoke to Bishop Carlos Jiminez Bello, who told him, "That kind of killing of the East Timorese killing is a way of life for the Indonesians."

Nairn said the mass murder of East Timor citizens, including children and elderly people, constituted "the most intense mass slaughter since the Nazis."

What makes this case worse, he said, is that the United States has supplied weapons and economic aid to the oppressive Indonesian regime. "The U.S. government is backing the killings with military supplies and ammunition," he said, noting numerous army massacres of the Timorese in which the murder weapons were U.S.-supplied M-16s.

"In 1989, Bishop Bello had a letter smuggled out that called on a UN delegation to come in," Nairn said. At that time, the Timorese were hoping the UN delegation would enforce resolutions calling for Indonesians to pull out right away.

However, he added, "at the very end of Oct. 1991, the delegation's visit was called off under pressure from the United States and Australia."

Soon after, soldiers rounded up a group of young demonstrators in a church and executed one on the church steps, an action Nairn said "sent a powerful message: 'You have no place to hide.'"

At a mass held days later that Nairn attended, the Timorese unfurled protest banners in a cemetery that condemned the church massacre and which criticized the army. Nairn called the event "unbelievable. (It was) a breakthrough ... after 16 years of occupation, people were piercing the curtain of fear. People knew they had achieved a historic breakthrough. If it had all ended there..."

It did not end there. Indonesian army troops arrived, sealing off the cemetery's only entrance. Nairn and Pacifica radio reporter Amy Goodman stood between the troops and the citizens, hoping to prevent harm to the crowd.

The troops "got a few steps past us, raised there rifles and opened fire. We saw people crumbling, bodies falling."

A group of soldiers then crowded around Nairn and Goodman and he was struck by a blow from a rifle butt that fractured his skull. "They took our cameras and tape recorders, because they didn't want any evidence of what was happening."

Nairn said the soldiers' realization that he and Goodman were Americans saved the journalists' lives. "They realized they might pay a political price for killing Americans."

Nairn said that while the U.S. State Department condemned the massacre, "in their next breath, they doubled military aid to Indonesia."

Nairn explained U.S. motivation for the support of such a brutally oppressive regime in an RTV class he addressed earlier in the day, pointing out that the Indonesian government that oppresses East Timor has represented "a lot of money in arms sales. Also, Indonesia has taken the U.S. lead in foreign relations. There are a lot of natural resources there, and they opened up those resources to U.S. corporations at an affordable price."

Corporate mentality also plays a role in the reason America's news agencies, which Nairn referred to as "the mainstream, corporate media" has shied away from covering these atrocities, he said.

"Unfortunately, they let Washington set their agenda when it comes to what stories get recurring coverage. If you study how the corporate press works, the things they cover are the things the president and secretary of state want to talk about. If they're smart, they will not talk about situations that make them look bad."

Nairn said the key to affecting change in areas such as East Timor is grass-roots activism, citing Nation magazine articles that produced enough complaints to Washington that the United States was pressured to discontinue its policy of arming the mass-murdering oppressors of East Timor. However, he added, that is not enough. "Now we must stop that terror that our country has inflicted on East Timor."

The UH chapter of Amnesty International will join the East Timor Action Network and Peace Action for a demonstration at the Indonesian consulate from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. today.

(Additional reporting by editor in chief Scott E. Williams)

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