UCLA historian Geoffrey Robinson is leading a mission to save evidence of a young nation's turbulent birth and working through his own memories of violence.
Robinson and three colleagues brought three East Timorese community leaders into their office to say, in effect, that the UN was about to leave about 1,500 refugees to die.
When Geoffrey Robinson last saw the archives that chronicle the creation of East Timor, they were stored in an unremarkable Dili warehouse: one large room of audio recordings, transcripts, and reports, protected by a key and padlock and a low-ranking archivist.
Set up in 2000, the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, better known by its Indonesian acronym CAVR, collected records on the period from 1974, when Portugal began to relinquish colonial control, through the 1999 election that made East Timor a sovereign nation, free after 24 years of occupation by Indonesia.
"It's important legally, it's important historically to outsiders, but it provides East Timor a basis to understand its own history," explains Robinson, a UCLA scholar of political violence and Indonesian and East Timorese history. In October, he will go back to Dili to oversee a year-long project to make a digital copy of the archive that will be housed in the British Library, beyond the reach of Indonesian military personnel and members of former East Timorese militias who are implicated in crimes.
Under its Endangered Archives Programme, the library will support the work of Robinson and a Dili-based team to back up the bulk of the archive's contents. Violence and instability that broke loose again in East Timor this May, when then-Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri dismissed almost half of the country's military, served as a further reminder for Robinson of the archive's vulnerability.
Between 1974 and 1999, CAVR reports, over 100,000 East Timorese were murdered or died from hunger or the collapse of health care as a result of the occupation. The London-based human rights group Amnesty International puts the number at 200,000. For a country that now has a population of one million, the toll was enormous.
For the 1999 UN-organized referendum, the Indonesian military, known by its Indonesian initials TNI, was charged with providing security and keeping militias from intimidating voters. But documents, written orders, telegrams, and radiograms in the CAVR archive show that military authorities and Indonesian police outfitted and directed pro-Indonesia East Timorese militias to commit violence and intimidate East Timor's independence seekers. Robinson hopes that such evidence will someday be used in an international tribunal to hold high-ranking officials accountable for the kinds of violence he saw as a member of the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) in Dili, 1999.
The violence in East Timor in 1999 forced many to flee the cities and move to refugee camps in rural areas. (Photo by Geoffrey Robinson)
Violence he saw and will never forget. Robinson recalls watching Indonesian soldiers stand by as militias charged at women and children. At a military morgue, he saw a family terrified to pick up the body of their young son, who had been shot by a soldier for protesting. He saw refugees and political leaders take to the hills for the safety of their families.
Robinson used these experiences and the CAVR archive to construct a report to the UN about the violence in the days before and after the vote. The report identifies 75 high-ranking Indonesian military officials who, according to testimony in the archive, committed crimes against humanity. Although the UN never published Robinson's 300-page report, CAVR included it as an appendix and cited it repeatedly in its final report submitted to the East Timorese government last year. The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network has made the report available online (PDF).
Robinson's experiences on the ground in 1999—some of which he recounted in a 2002 book article, "If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die"—form another kind of companion to the official reports. Whatever significance his tale holds, Robinson says, it is not a hero's story or the story of how a mild-mannered Canadian professor took risks for others in a country far away. ("I see those easy stories," he says, "and I despise them.") Rather, the tale has to do with the sometimes conflicting roles of historian, outsider, translator, rights worker, UN staffer, and human being and the effects that war has on roles and duties. And it's about the difference between recording for others and remembering.
In May 1999, Indonesia formally agreed with the UN to go ahead with an East Timorese referendum on independence. Robinson got a call from the UN Department of Political Affairs, which was looking for people qualified to assess the security and political situation for the vote. He volunteered himself.
"It never occurred to me not to go," he says. "It was a no-brainer." Robinson began working on East Timor in the early 1980s as a graduate student at Cornell University. He was part of "a small camp of idealists" committed to reform in the country. By 1989, when he joined Amnesty International to work on Southeast Asia and the Pacific, events in the small country were catching the world's attention.
During Robinson's tenure at Amnesty's London headquarters from 1989 to 1995, international human rights workers could not travel to East Timor, a zone of operations for the TNI. His first visit was possible only after the fall of the Indonesian dictator Suharto in 1998. However, Robinson communicated with Timorese activists regularly. A savvy group, they smuggled letters and faxes and satellite phones in and out of the country, he says. Some activists were being tortured and some were killed. Every day Robinson got messages about what was happening in the closed-off area.
In November 1991, students in Dili launched a protest for independence at the funeral of a classmate who had been killed by Indonesian soldiers. There, Indonesian troops opened fire again, killing at least 271 protestors and wounding 382 more. Another 250 protestors disappeared. Western journalists recorded the event, and an ITV documentary, In Cold Blood: The Massacre of East Timor, was released in 1992 in the U.K. In 1996, an East Timorese Catholic bishop, Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, and activist José Manuel Ramos Horta, leader of the resistance-movement-turned-political-party, Fretilin, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring an end to the prolonged conflict.
Blood for Independence
Within a month of their arrival in June 1999, Robinson and his colleagues on the UNAMET political affairs desk concluded that the situation was too violent to hold a fair referendum. Militias were running wild and the TNI was supporting them, he says. But UN players, especially America and Australia, and East Timorese resistance leaders worried that they would not get another chance to vote.
The UN pressured Indonesia to control the violence, and for several weeks the deaths and harassment declined. This made it clear to the political affairs desk that the TNI had the authority to turn the violence on and off. Robinson's recommendation that UN peacekeepers be called in ahead of the Aug. 30 vote was rejected. Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom did not want to alienate Indonesia by rejecting their claims that they were providing security.
It was a frustrating time, Robinson recalls. He was watching the violence with his own eyes: passing burned villages and hearing testimonies from civilians. He spoke to international delegations and journalists, but politics in New York's headquarters won out. The referendum would continue as scheduled, and the TNI would remain in charge of security.
In the week of escalating violence before the referendum, Robinson got a call late one evening from the father of a young protestor who had been shot in the back as he ran away from an Indonesian police officer. The boy's body was in a military hospital, and his father was looking for a UN escort.
It wasn't Robinson's job to make these kinds of trips, but, he told himself, "We can't not help." He and two unarmed police officers, an Australian and a New Zealander, took a UN-marked truck to meet the boy's family at about 8:00 p.m. that night. They got lost and ended up on a street where armed militias hung around "in gangs with their machetes, making threatening gestures." When the family and the escort made it to the morgue, "it wasn't a morgue," Robinson recounts. "It was a concrete room with a dead body on a slab." The family loaded the body into the back of their car, and as the UN truck drove behind, Robinson saw the boy's foot bouncing up and down.
It wasn't just the cruelty of the TNI, Robinson explains, that "really pissed me off." It was Indonesia's hypocritical insistence to the international community that it was working to quell violence.
"It shouldn't be necessary for a father to call me at the UN to get his son," Robinson says. "That summer I was so angry that I've had a hard time going back to do work in Indonesia."
It was no secret that Indonesia would not make a vote for independence easy. There were paid UN staff on the ground from 25 countries, and "virtually all of them came to a shared understanding of the political situation," Robinson says. "Even the army officers ended up feeling the Indonesian army is a disgrace to the profession."
At rallies and on the radio, the government spread the message that a vote for independence would mean reprisals. Robinson recalls one such slogan that was reiterated in speeches and on the T-shirts (right) of pro-Indonesian militias: "If special autonomy wins, the blood will trickle. If independence wins, the blood will flow" [like a river, Ind. mangalir].
On Aug. 30, the day of the vote, Robinson went to sleep at 4:00 a.m. and awoke at 6:30. As he learned that morning via radio communications from electoral staff at polling stations, "virtually everyone who was registered to vote was in line." Undeterred by militias, 98.6 percent of registered voters submitted ballots that day. At a Dili station Robinson visited at around 3:00 p.m., discouraged and apologetic workers explained that two of the 15,000 registered voters in their district had not yet voted. "It was actually really quiet," Robinson remembers. "There was a clear sense that they'd actually pulled this off."
But late in the day, signs of violence began crackling in. UN staff reported that armed militias were coming too close to polling stations and in a few cases destroying them. The Indonesian police who were supposed to be providing security were nowhere to be found.
At about 5:00 p.m. Robinson received word that one UN volunteer had been stabbed to death and another wounded by a TNI-backed militia while moving ballot boxes in Atsabe village, west of Dili. A delegation including Robinson went to the remote site by helicopter to investigate and to retrieve the body.
The delegation found the UN building surrounded by 30 to 40 armed militia members and Indonesian police. Claiming electoral fraud, the troops were refusing to allow about 10 UN staffers and East Timorese volunteers to leave with ballot boxes.
"It was an attack on the UN, it was an attack on the whole idea of a peaceful referendum," says Robinson, who, as the only Indonesian speaker in the delegation, had to negotiate the UN workers' release. While violence against other East Timorese continued, the militias began targeting local UN volunteers, dragging them out of their homes and assaulting them. Robinson reports that at least 14 UN local staff were killed in the weeks after the vote.
On Sept. 4, UN General-Secretary Kofi Annan announced that 78.5 percent of East Timorese voters had chosen independence from Indonesia. Robinson remembers a quiet excitement that morning and then a lull.
That evening and all night, he heard weapons firing. Buildings were torched and militias surrounded UN district offices. Indonesian police began to leave Dili. As district UN offices were evacuated, about 400 workers came to the compound in Dili.
The UN staff remained in the compound for safety through the night. Then the next night, and the night after that. One group of East Timorese refugees arrived in a panic and situated themselves between the wall surrounding the compound and a perimeter of well-armed Indonesian troops. UN rules stipulated that compounds were not to become refugee sites, a prohibition that would soon become immaterial.
"It was not like courage," Robinson says of imprudent risks he and others would take in the weeks after the vote. "I think we were a little crazy." Staff at the political affairs and humanitarian desks talked about what to do if the militia broke inside. No one in the compound was sleeping or eating well, and respiratory ailments were spreading. Robinson had laryngitis and was wearing the socks and trousers he'd arrived with.
(Photo courtesy of Geoffrey Robinson)
Within days, nearly 2,000 people filled the UN compound, with militia and TNI soldiers outside. East Timorese no longer felt safe in their homes.
"People's civility in that terrible situation was so moving," Robinson recalls. The refugees (left) slept under covered walkways and outside his office door without ever intruding on the UN staff's space. They created a barter system, trading rice and fruit for the chocolate in UN ration packs. Food and supplies, particularly the diesel fuel required to pump water, were low. The electricity grid was off and the phone lines did not work.
Robinson dwells on the refugees' civility and grace when he tries to talk about Sept. 8, the day when the UNAMET Head of Mission, Ian Martin, announced that the international UN staff would evacuate the same evening. UN rules dictate that staff security is paramount, and the situation clearly had become too dangerous. The refugees were to be left behind, and it was the job of the four remaining members of the political and humanitarian affairs desks to tell them so.
"The meaning of it took a while to sink in," says Robinson slowly, as if letting it sink in again. He looks down as he speaks, shutting out the sunny UCLA cafe where he sits.
Robinson and three colleagues, Patrick Burgess from Australia, Colin Stewart from Canada, and Elodie Cantier-Aristide from France, brought three East Timorese community leaders into their office to say, in effect, that the UN was about to leave about 1,500 refugees to die. Everyone understood that if the refugees stayed in the compound, they would be attacked as soon as the foreigners and journalists left. If they fled to the hills they would likely be found and killed by militia. Burgess tried to tell them; Stewart tried to tell them; Robinson attempted to explain in Indonesian. All three cried before finishing. Even as Robinson attempts to recount the story, it is difficult for him to say the words. "It was so unacceptable, what we were saying. How do you express the inexpressible?"
A small and sturdy nun, Sister Esmeralda was the first to speak calmly. Thanking all three, she said that the referendum would, at the very least, show the world once and for all that the East Timorese desired independence. The East Timorese, she said, are used to being abandoned at critical hours. She excused herself and the two men with her to prepare the rest of their group. "She meant prepare people to die," Robinson says.
Sister Esmeralda had asked the group, will you be able to live yourself if you evacuate and leave us here? Indeed, the potential "to be part of something so wrong" was not something Robinson or his colleagues could live with. They agreed on sending Burgess to speak with Martin. Burgess told the UNAMET chief that, even if he were to order that everyone evacuate, several would refuse.
As it became dark and smoke from the burning villages began rising, refugees got word of UNAMET's evacuation plans. By 10:00 p.m. the trucks and planes were awaiting evacuees. Some of the roughly 10 foreign journalists who had taken refuge in the compound began agitating, threatening to vilify UNAMET if it left refugees to die. There was anger and crying and planning about how to get refugees onto evacuation planes by force. Some younger men had already left the compound. One of Martin's advisors took a straw poll of the staff: a majority did not want to leave, and some refused outright.
Martin called Annan on a satellite phone and asked him for permission to stay. Robinson can't remember how he found out, but the staff was given 24 hours in the compound. This was the first signal that the UN would no longer pull out without the refugees.
Getting the Story Out
The next day, the UN officially reversed course and said it would evacuate the refugees. Non-essential UN staff left first. Because of his Indonesian language skills, Robinson stayed. Meanwhile, a growing number of international news outlets were relaying the stories of people from all over the world who were stuck in the compound.
Robinson is convinced that the media's sustained scrutiny forced key governments to raise the pressure on Indonesia. Although he did not see them from inside the compound, the television images were compelling. He could tell from the sound of his wife's voice on the satellite phone—Louisa Stannow is a former journalist and press liaison for Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International—that things on the outside looked bad.
When Robinson ventured outside the compound on the night of Sept. 10, he saw about 250 women and children inside a very porous security perimeter. Refugees were struggling to open the compound's doors as militia members crossed over the line, screaming and stealing parked UN cars and motorbikes as they approached. An Indonesian commander brushed off Robinson's complaints, saying that he had no orders to curb the militia. Robinson ran into the foray to bring Sister Esmeralda, who had lost her patience and charged at the men, back into the compound. While the Robinson and the refugees were unharmed, it was clear that the militias were becoming more brazen.
That day, both Annan and U.S. President Bill Clinton called for Indonesia to accept an international peacekeeping force in East Timor. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank then suspended funding to Indonesia. On Sept. 11, Britain and then the European Union announced that they would suspend arms exports to Indonesia, while the UN Security Council debated the situation. The next day, Indonesian President BJ Habibe announced that he would welcome international assistance to bring stability to East Timor. An Australian-led peacekeeping force arrived on Sept. 20.
Late on Sept. 14, while Robinson was compiling a list of refugees—he had taken down about 700 names—an announcement was made that in an hour everyone in the compound would be evacuated. Twelve C-130 Hercules military planes began moving people from Dili to Darwin, Australia. Robinson was on the last plane, which circled the burning city before leaving the country.
Robinson speaks at a conference last spring. (Photo by Angilee Shah)
Robinson and his colleagues spent two weeks in Darwin, sitting in cafes and watching as the humanitarian operation tended to refugees. Leaders were meeting, planning how to get back to East Timor and rebuild their country. Robinson spent that time organizing and copying UNAMET's archives. He had taken hard drives and whatever paper documents were still in the Dili office.
After all he'd seen, Robinson discovered that his life as a historian became much more challenging. "Don't assume that these kinds of choices are easy ones to make. In the heat of the moment, who knows?" he says. "Who knows what the right thing to do is?"
The media frenzy in Darwin underscored how difficult and skewed storytelling can be. "Suddenly you had this overwhelming coverage about foreigners who saved the day," he says. The East Timorese were reported by the numbers, rather than being quoted as individuals. "On balance, my suffering and anxiety is not the central issue at all."
A few weeks later, after participating in UN investigations from Los Angeles, Robinson late in October returned to East Timor to get an accurate account of the recent events. Working out of a tent camp in the lobby of a government house, he drafted a report that was the first to assign responsibility for the violence to high-ranking Indonesian authorities. A separate UN inquiry and another probe by an Indonesian human rights commission would back his conclusions.
Indonesia established a special court to punish those involved, but only 18 people were tried and no one was sentenced. The joint East Timor and Indonesia Truth and Friendship Commission, which includes a retired military member, has access to the CAVR archive. This constitutes a "total breach of the rules of confidentiality," Robinson says.
It is as a scholar of political violence and as a human rights advocate that Robinson has expressed his commitment to East Timor: "The one thing I'm never ever going to let go of is the need to see justice done."
But this historian assumes another tone when driven by memories: "When you're able to do something, have some effect—then you don't feel badly, then you don't have nightmares."