Fear and Forgetting: The War Nerd in East Timor, Part One

By Gary Brecher , written on March 15, 2015

From The War Desk

DILI, EAST TIMOR — I just got back from a week on a remote military base in East Timor, and boy is my soul tired. Before my week at that base, I would’ve sworn I didn’t have soul in the first place, but something sure got beaten up out there in the bush.

I never wanted to go out there, to the provinces where it’s even poorer, muddier, grimmer than here in the so-called big city, Dili. They were frank about it: I’d be living on barracks without internet, phone, or transport (unless you count the buses, which you wouldn’t if you’d seen them).

But we had no choice. I couldn’t get any of the TESL jobs here in Dili. That was clear. It wasn’t clear why I was ineligible, but I did notice that many of the people who interviewed me seemed to know a lot—a lot more than I wanted them to—about these god-damned War Nerd articles of mine. I don’t know how I did it, but in some eerie way I’ve managed to achieve worldwide notoriety, the kind of notoriety that gets you fired on arrival in Kuwait and blacklisted in Dili, one of the most remote places on earth…and is yet utterly, laboratory-level uncontaminated by a single molecule of either fortune or fame. My notoriety ratings are higher than the humidity in Dili, and my fame/fortune quotient is lower than the humidity in Kuwait. It’s some kind of Satanic miracle—a gift, the kind of gift the gods sprinkle on the bald head of someone they think offers the chance of a good YouTube comedy video.

With no job possibilities in Dili, I had to take the barracks job, or sleep on the beach like the pulsa-sellers. Pulsa-sellers are what “crab-catchers” were in Naipaul’s Trinidad: The lowest of the low. “Pulsa” are the cellphone topup cards around here, and to be one of the losers who stand along the road yelling “Pulsa!” means you’ve hit bottom, below even the beach-cleaning squad in their orange jumpsuits with the humiliating UN slogan “PAX” on the back. Cleaning the beach with a slogan like “Kill ’em All!” on your back wouldn’t be so bad but cleaning the beach with “PAX” on your back – you’d wanna walk into the surf, make a nice cut in your ankle and hope a saltwater croc came along to put you out of your misery.

So I signed on, for a three-week stint out in Baucau. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad; Baucau was, after all, East Timor’s second city. Population 16,000, which doesn’t sound that big, but then Timor only has 1.1 million people.

Even for a country with a fairly small area, that’s a tiny population, especially in Southeast Asian terms. On my way to the dreaded army-base job, bouncing along in a white Toyota Hilux pickup (the only vehicle that matters, anywhere outside the US), I mentioned to the quiet, polite New Zealand couple who were driving me that the country seemed empty, the villages tiny.

Graeme, the NZ Army officer who’d recruited me, said quietly, “Aww yeh, well…the Indonesians, you know, they had policies…”

Vanessa, his wife, said from the back seat, “Forced sterilization an’ that…”

Graeme said, “Mmmmm….”—I know all the variations of the New Zealand “mmmm” sound, and there a thousand variations. This one meant, “It’s too horrible, mate, you don’t want to know.”

I took the hint, and it was quiet, except for the four-wheel drive kicking in when the rain got too heavy or the slopes got too steep. Goats, dogs, skinny children, and a lot of abandoned houses falling to ruin. Last time I saw that many ruined, empty villages was County Clare, and the resemblance is no accident.

Of all the ways to rid one’s empire of a troublesome population, by far the best—especially in the most recent few centuries—is famine. If you want to make a lot of noise and become unpopular, shoot or bomb people; but if you want to be rid of them forever, with no negative publicity, you want a famine. “Genocide” is one of those words that gets tossed around by a lot of grad-school punks who don’t even grasp the shame of using some words lightly. But in the case of East Timor, you can use “genocide” honestly and simply, because within the lifetime of most of you reading this, a very powerful imperial army tried its best to wipe out the population.

East Timor’s never been a lucky place. It had the bad luck to be a Portuguese colony until 1975, and being a Portuguese colony in the nineteenth and twentieth century was like being handcuffed to a corpse. The few Portuguese who survived the malaria and the heat spent their time fighting the Dutch who’d colonized the Western part of the island, and any survivors of those wars got busy fighting the local kings who came down from the hills now and then to see if the pesky Europeans could be expelled at last.

Malaria, starvation, and heat were the overwhelming facts of life for everyone. As late as 2002, ten percent of the population had malaria, and more than half were malnourished.

East Timor stumbled along under the Portuguese, an unpleasant and insular breed of colonist, until 1970, when Salazar, the senile ruler of a senile country, finally kicked it. In 1974, a junta of military officers in Lisbon decided to close down Portugal’s rickety, ludicrous empire, shuffling it off like a skeleton finally realizing it’s dead, and wriggling out of its burial suit. Stripping off the moldy empire took two years, and Timor was the least of the junta’s worries; they and their masters in America had bigger concerns, like what would happen to Angola and Mozambique, the big, strategically significant African colonies.

Timor didn’t matter much. And the officers in Lisbon, who were busy divesting an unprofitable corporation of loss-making associates, barely bothered to tell anyone in Dili that they’d been cut loose. The news came through like that bumper sticker: “Think fast, hippie!” When Timor’s tiny cadre of educated locals learned that Lisbon had given up, they started forming naïve, good-hearted parties and imagining they could make a new country. But bigger people had other ideas, the kind that would have made Sade puke. Indonesia wanted the whole island, not just the Dutch half it had absorbed in in 1949.

The Cold War was in progress and no one really liked the idea of letting the East Timorese form their own country. So, with American and Australian approval, East Timor was sacrificed to Indonesia, the CIA’s favorite client state, and the tender mercies of Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), the Indonesian Army. The TNI is one of the vilest gangs of venal murderers on this planet, but everybody who mattered was in favor of letting it rape and kill its way across East Timor. The Americans wanted the deep channel east of Timor safe from the “socialist” Timorese student groups, and the Australians went along with the CIA and TNI from a reflexive habit of obeying the nastiest Anglo overlords they could find, with their Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (may he rot in a hell inhabited solely by redbacks, funnelwebs, blue-ringed octopi and box jellyfish) announcing that “an independent East Timor would be an unviable state, and a potential threat to the area.”

Between the Americans’ blood-soaked Kissingerian parody of global chess—chess as it would be played by an ogre; and the Indonesian junta’s taste for bloodbaths, especially those involving kaffirs and socialists—East Timor was doomed.

Australia had some sort of vague older-brother interest in the place, but Australia, from what I’ve seen here, is what you might call “risk-averse” to a fault. I was sitting in the Dili Beach Hotel, where all the drunk Aussies sit to watch cricket and rot on their barstools, when I suggested to the group that I might get a ride back from Baucau to Dili for the weekend with one of the Australian Defence Force advisors on the base.

All the bitter old melanoma cases around me laughed so hard they coughed up their Bintang (the cheap Indonesian beer they drink with perverse pride in its total horribleness).

“A roid? With that lot? You might as well wait for Steve Irwin to do another series!”

Another old creep, who looked like Chopper Read’s dad only meaner, said, “The glorious A.D.F. is what you’d call ‘risk-averse,’ y’see.”

They all laughed and repeated “risk-averse.” It seemed to be a big word in all matters relating to Australian defence issues. I said, “Risk-averse, like…how? They can’t give civilians rides?”

They laughed again. “Roides? Roides got nothing to do with it, they can’t point the bloody truck toward Baucau without a convoy of at least four vehicles!”

Another added, “That’s right, the ADF can’t move in the direction of Baucau without a convoy of at least four, at LEAST four vehicles—“

“AND a medic!” Added another.

“And a priest and a trauma counselor!” someone chimed in.

The original old bastard, Chopper’s dad, said, “Nah, he’s having you on about the priest but the rest of it’s true; the ADC won’t go anywhere near Baucau without a medic and four vehicles. They lost a man—normal, ordinary traffic accident—and since then they think it’s the DMZ up there.”

They were all silent, and then took a simultaneous glug of Bintang, in mourning for Australian manhood.

With only this very “risk-averse” Australian force to worry about, and a wink in private from Kissinger and his meathead boss Gerald Ford, TNI had no worries as it prepared to gobble up East Timor. They were excited, smelling blood again. TNI had had a taste of killing on a large scale back in 1965, when a coalition of Islamist political parties, big landowners, and CIA operatives led one of the biggest massacres of the 20th century, wiping out the membership of the Indonesian Communist Party, thousands of apolitical Chinese shopkeepers and their families, and anyone else who was considered atheistic, socialist, or just plain weird. Six-hundred thousand people were hacked to death in a few months, and even the hardened officers of TNI were shocked—pleasantly shocked—at how easily it went on, how little there was in the way of complaints and quibbles from the world press.

That genocide, by the way, was one of the first, biggest, and most successful operations involving CIA/Islamist cooperation. The CIA and the jihadists have always gotten along much better than would ever be suspected by the naïve campus lefties who seriously imagine that Islamism is some kind of “voice of the Muslim people.” Au con-friggin’-traire; those Islamist reactionaries are what was left, after the Agency and the Sheikhs killed off all the Muslim commies and socialists who actually were trying to represent the people. Islamists and CIA apparatchiks share one big huge core value: They hate the idea of wealth redistribution. As for the rest, all that God stuff…that’s for suckers.

So TNI was ready and eager to implement Operasi Komodo (“Operation Big Lizard”) in East Timor. I can’t read the accounts of what followed for more than a few minutes at a time. Maybe it’s because I live here now, but I suspect it’s just knowing that no one cares, ever did, or ever will. If you do this war nerd stuff long enough, those are the ones that get to you—Timor, South Sudan, Bengal in the 1940s. So here are a few quick cuts, gleaned from John G. Taylor’s excellent book, Indonesia’s Forgotten War, on what happened when TNI sent its killers into East Timor in December 1975:

“…80 per cent of the male population of [Dili] had been killed by mid-January [1976)…”

At first the Indonesian soldiers picked out Chinese people, their favorite target in the pogroms back home:

“Five hundred [Chinese] were killed on the first day of the attack…About twenty people were brought in, made to face the sea and shot dead. They were Chinese…more came later….”

In the venal tradition of TNI, killing civilians was intimately linked to stealing their stuff:

“Most of the cars left in Dili were taken on ships by Indonesian soldiers. Most of the tractors in the Dili area were taken away. Churches and the seminary were also looted, and their books burnt.”

By the way, there’s a sectarian dimension to this that no progressive will want to hear about. As in South Sudan, a powerful Islamist state unleashed grotesque Sadean nightmares on a Christian minority. But I know you don’t want to know about it, so I’ll just move on.

Throughout the twenty-five long, nightmare years that Indonesia played with East Timor like a psycho plays with a captured child in a basement, all the Anglo powers lived up to their very worst caricatures:

Britain sold Indonesia more than 40 BAE Systems Hawks in the 1980s and 1990s, smiling with no more conscience than a stoat. The roll of major BAE shareholders probably displays something like a 90% crossover with the list of cabinet-level officials of the period. The Hawk, a very effective counter-insurgency aircraft caused at least 80,000 deaths—and, no doubt, many a congratulatory glass of high-end port at London’s Carleton Club. Then the British, with their usual empire-honed timing, started making humanitarian noises in 1991. The Americans acted like a meathead ex-jock stomping the family dog to death for fear that it might have commie fleas; and the Australians followed whatever Anglo big-brother offered the worst and bloodiest option.

The East Timorese were totally alone, with no money or guns or allies. But they fought on. And that annoyed TNI a great deal. The response was classic, the sort of imaginative sadism you get when occupations go bad:

“The Indonesian officers were angry. They had been told that [Timorese] would not offer resistance…They punished the captured female population by forcing them to do heavy work in the rice fields, [pulling plows] completely naked, in the role of buffaloes.”

The rape, torture and attendant abuse can be taken for granted, as can the murder of those “captured females who failed to entertain the officers of TNI.”

This wasn’t occasional abuse. This was policy, genocide. And it worked; it produced those empty villages I was seeing from the air-conditioned Toyota, on my way to the base:

“When the Indonesian troops entered Aileu in February 1976, it contained 5,000 people;…in September 1976, only 1000 remained…” [Taylor]

Indonesian policy focused on a dull, effective method of wiping out the Timorese: penning them up in “resettlement villages,” where “fields [were] reduced to kitchen gardens. They [had] to work the same ground all the time, and it [became] exhausted.”

This is why artificial famines are the perfect imperial pesticide. You’re not killing these people; you’re just penning them up, for their own protection, on a parcel of land which unfortunately, doesn’t happen to be able to sustain their lives. Taylor writes:

“The main problem in the camps [was] famine. The areas were people [were] allowed to go [were] very restricted, whether they [were] growing or harvesting crops. Most families [could] only have 100 to 200 square meters of ground, which is clearly insufficient to feed a family throughout the year.”

100 square meters is about the size of a smallish apartment in most European cities.

Artificial famines work especially well on islands, the more remote the better. And it’s hard to find anyplace as remote as Timor. So the policy was extremely effective. East Timor’s population in 1975 was roughly 700,000 people; seven years later, it had fallen to 425,000.

And Henry Kissinger is still alive. It’s amazing, really, that the man will be allowed to die in his bed. Bumping along the road to Baucau, I kept remembering what a typical middling American academic he was, that droning pretentious bass voice with its ridiculous Austro-Hungarian analogies. All these crumbling villages were Kissinger-villes, Whitlam-burgs, Suharto-desa.

I wondered, going by the trashed huts, if every recently-ended era looks as murderously stupid as the Cold War seems now. If so, it’s impressive that so few people in their fifties and sixties hang themselves. To have lived through that bloody idiocy, lived long enough to look back and see that it made no sense at all even in its own terms, is too much, when you’re in a place like this. The blundering coincidences killed too many people for what little they were worth. The socialist slogans borrowed off secondhand books by good-hearted Timorese students—which weren’t meant to say anything more than a chance for something better than being slaves to moribund Portugal—landed them on the CIA’s kill list and made them one of Kissinger’s straw dogs, made for sacrifice. The dull, murderous greed of a clique of lumber barons, Islamists, and entrepreneurs in uniform made these hills worth taking for TNI, though you can’t help feeling that there was a good deal of sheer pleasure in the torments they inflicted here, an element of fun. They’d done it with the Americans’ approval in 1965, and they kinda wanted to do it again.

And the rest of the world…what world? There’s no world, when you’re as poor and remote as this place.

So what do you do with a horror like this? I’ll talk about that in my next column, about what I found when I got to that army base up on the plateau in the grasslands near Baucau. But the first thing you do, when the people who wanted you dead finally leave, as TNI did in 1999—and for that, you have to give Bill Clinton some grudging credit—the first thing you do is have lots of kids. The Timorese, who were as close to going out forever as the humans in The Terminator, started popping out the babies the second the Indonesian army left.

As of 2014, according to the CIA (and nobody has had more to do with the Timorese birth and, especially, death rate than the Agency), East Timor has the second highest fertility rate of any non-African country. Only Afghanistan, which, as you may have heard, has experienced some rather sanguinary kerfuffles of its own of late, pops out more kids.

That’s one of the ways you deal with an Empire trying to wipe you out quietly: You have kids in their face. The other way is much stranger: You forget. You forget as hard as you can. You forget with a vengeance. I’ll talk about how that works in the next installment of my expedition to Baucau.