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Covering East Timor

Question: How did covering East Timor shape you as a journalist?


Amy Goodman: I went to East Timor in 1990 and 1991 with my colleague Allan Nairn in 1991. While we were there, in the midst of one of the worst genocides of the 20th century, Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. Indonesia invaded East Timor December 7th, 1975. Their military was armed, trained, financed by the United States. They invaded this small island nation, and from the day they invaded to, well, about a quarter of a century, they closed the country to the outside world and they commenced the slaughter. We went to 1990 and ‘91 when they were opening the country a crack because of international pressure.

On November 12th, 1991, we were in Dili, the capital of East Timor. There was a procession of East Timorese who were protesting, yet again, the killing of an East Timorese. In this case, it was the killing of a young man two weeks before inside a Catholic Church in Dili. And thousands of people went to mass in the morning, about a thousand people, then thousands joined them and they marched through the streets of Dili. They wound their way through this geography of pain where every other building was either a military barracks, a police station, hotel, officers’ home… whatever it was, it was somewhere where Timorese was hurt or disappeared, killed, raped, or tortured, and they wound their way through the streets of Dili, made their way to the cemetery where they were honoring this young man who had been killed, Sebastiao Gomez. We were following the crowd. The Indonesian military marched up at the cemetery, where all of the people were. The people couldn’t get away ‘cause there were walls on either side of the road for the cemeteries.

The soldiers marched up, there were 12 to 15 abreast, carrying their US M16s at the ready position. People were trapped. We walked to the front of the crowd, ‘cause although we knew they had committed many massacres in the past, they’ve never done it in front of Western journalists. We’d always hidden our equipment. We thought this time we’d put on our equipment to show we were journalists. Maybe we could avert this catastrophe, this killing, if they knew we were journalists. I put on my headphones, held up my microphone like a flag. Allan put the camera above his head. We walked to the front of the crowd.

The soldiers marched up, and without hesitation, without provocation, without any warning, they just swept around the corner, swept past us and opened fire on the crowd, and they gunned down hundreds of Timorese. They beat us to the ground. Allan threw himself on top of me to protect me from further injury, and they took their US M16s like baseball bats and they slammed them against his skull until they fractured it. We were lying on the ground. He was covered in blood. They were killing everyone around us, and we were able to get into a Red Cross jeep. As we drove away, dozens of Timorese jumped on top of the jeep, hanging on to the spare tire at the back, and we drove like that as a human mass to the hospital. When we got to the hospital, the doctors and nurses started to cry when they saw us, and I think it’s because… we were not in worse shape than the Timorese – so many were killed, in fact, over 250 Timorese were killed on that day, November 12th, 1991 – but I think because of how they see the people of the United States, how they saw Allan and me.

But not just us. All of us, as Americans. I think they cried because they see us in two ways: as the sword and the shield. And that day, that shield was bloodied and it just sent them in to further despair, and I think that is really the critical image of what we represent in the United States, that dichotomy, and, you know, a government that supplies weapons to human rights abusing regimes, like then the Indonesian military, arming and training and financing the Indonesian military. But that’s the government. And they see the people in a different way, not just Timor but people in Haiti, people in Iraq, Afghanistan, I believe all over the world. They see us as the shield. You know, we come from the most powerful country on earth. What we do matters, has a ripple effect all over the world.

Well, on that day, they saw the shield bloodied. And we’re able to go into hiding. We got out of the country that day. We came back to United States, held a news conference, and National Press Club reported that it was US M16s that they used. We let people know about the massacre. The Indonesian military had tried to deny this. They had for so many years, that yet another massacre had taken place. A grassroots movement in this country grew up over the next, well, more than a decade, to stop funding, stop arming human rights abusing regimes that went beyond Indonesia but was very significant for the people of Timor. The people of Timor in 1999 were able to vote for their freedom in a UN sponsored referendum, and then I got a chance to go back in 2002. I’d tried to return… We were banned from returning to Indonesia after that. In 1994, I went back to cover Clinton, then president. He was going to the APEC summit, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, and Allan Nairn and I went back to Indonesia, and as President Clinton was flying in, we attempted to go into East Timor.

Again, it was the third anniversary of the massacre that we had survived in ’91, and the Indonesian military caught us and arrested us and detained us, but then, because there were sort if a bit of an outcry, they were forced to release us. I went back in ‘99 to cover the referendum, but the Indonesian military caught me twice and deported me. But in 2002, I was able to get into Timor because I went through Australia. It was no longer occupied by the Indonesian military, and it was a remarkable scene, the newest nation in the world being born. A hundred thousand Timorese came out to this sandy plane called [Tasitolo], right side, outside of Dili, the capital. It was midnight. Koffi Annan, then UN Secretary General, gave his speech, Xanana Gusmao, the rebel leader of East Timor, the founding president of East Timor, ascended the stage and he unfurled the flag of the Democratic Republic of East Timor.

There was this fireworks display. The people looked up and you could see the light reflected in their tear-stained faces. This nation of survivors had prevailed. They had resisted and they had won, but in an unbelievably high price. In an unacceptably high price. A third of their population was wiped out, proportionately larger than what happened in Cambodia under Pol Pot. And they thanked people all over the world, especially in the most powerful countries, for pushing their governments to stop arming human rights abusing regimes like theirs. And I think it is really a lesson to all of us, whether we’re journalists, students, teachers, doctors, nurses, artists, employed, unemployed – whatever we are. We have a decision to make everyday, every hour of everyday, and that is whether to represent the sword or the shield.


Recorded on: August 11, 2008


Amy Goodman charts a nation from the 1991 massacre to its rebirth.

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