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The universal lesson of East Timor

By John Pilger - posted Monday, 15 May 2017


Filming undercover in East Timor in 1993 I followed a landscape of crosses: great black crosses etched against the sky, crosses on peaks, crosses marching down the hillsides, crosses beside the road. They littered the earth and crowded the eye.

The inscriptions on the crosses revealed the extinction of whole families, wiped out in the space of a year, a month, a day. Village after village stood as memorials.

Kraras is one such village. Known as the "village of the widows", the population of 287 people was murdered by Indonesian troops.

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Using a typewriter with a faded ribbon, a local priest had recorded the name, age, cause of death and date of the killing of every victim. In the last column, he identified the Indonesian battalion responsible for each murder. It was evidence of genocide.

I still have this document, which I find difficult to put down, as if the blood of East Timor is fresh on its pages.

On the list is the dos Anjos family.

In 1987, I interviewed Arthur Stevenson, known as Steve, a former Australian commando who had fought the Japanese in the Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1942. He told me the story of Celestino dos Anjos, whose ingenuity and bravery had saved his life, and the lives of other Australian soldiers fighting behind Japanese lines.

Steve described the day leaflets fluttered down from a Royal Australian Air Force plane; "We shall never forget you," the leaflets said. Soon afterwards, the Australians were ordered to abandon the island of Timor, leaving the people to their fate.

When I met Steve, he had just received a letter from Celestino's son, Virgillo, who was the same age as his own son. Virgillo wrote that his father had survived the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, but he went on: "In August 1983, Indonesian forces entered our village, Kraras. They looted, burned and massacred, with fighter aircraft overhead. On 27 September 1983, they made my father and my wife dig their own graves and they machine-gunned them. My wife was pregnant."

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The Kraras list is an extraordinary political document that shames Indonesia's Faustian partners in the West and teaches us how much of the world is run. The fighter aircraft that attacked Kraras came from the United States; the machine guns and surface-to-air missiles came from Britain; the silence and betrayal came from Australia.

The priest of Kraras wrote on the final page: "To the capitalist governors of the world, Timor's petroleum smells better than Timorese blood and tears. Who will take this truth to the world? ... It is evident that Indonesia would never have committed such a crime if it had not received favourable guarantees from [Western] governments."

As the Indonesian dictator General Suharto was about to invade East Timor (the Portuguese had abandoned their colony), he tipped off the ambassadors of Australia, the United States and Britain. In secret cables subsequently leaked, the Australian ambassador, Richard Woolcott, urged his government to "act in a way which would be designed to minimise the public impact in Australia and show private understanding to Indonesia." He alluded to the beckoning spoils of oil and gas in the Timor Sea that separated the island from northern Australia.

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On May 5, John Pilger was presented with the Order of Timor-Leste by East Timor's Ambassador to Australia, Abel Gutteras, in recognition of his reporting on East Timor under Indonesia's brutal occupation, especially his landmark documentary film, Death of a Nation: the Timor Conspiracy.



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About the Author

Australian-born John Pilger is a multi-award winning journalist and documentary film maker. On November 4, 2014, John Pilger received the Sydney Peace Prize, Australia’s international human rights award. A Secret Country, his best-selling history of Australia published 20 years ago, remains in print (Vintage Books).

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