Image for The truth about John Howard’s East Timor ‘liberation’

As Indonesian troops fired on a compound of refugees in Dili, John Howard directed the AFP to withdraw. Had they followed orders, they would have left 3000 people to certain death.

It was, as I reported at the time, John Howard and Alexander Downer’s Srebrenica moment.

On the night of September 8, 1999, I was standing next to the head of the Australian Federal Police delegation sent to provide “security” and oversee the United Nations ballot on East Timorese independence. He was on one of the few satellite phones left in the UN compound. He was talking to the then Australian prime minister. Howard was saying the AFP must evacuate and leave the 3000 or so refugees taking shelter in the compound to their fate.

To those there, it was obvious what such an evacuation would mean. There was heavy gunfire coming over the compound on all sides. The former school compound was the last bastion in a town being destroyed and depopulated by the Indonesian military, police and their militia proxies – part of a long-planned campaign of revenge against the East Timorese for voting for independence from Indonesia. Had the AFP followed Howard’s directive and pulled out, there would have been a massacre.

The Indonesian troops and police wanted the foreigners gone. They were banging away with automatic weapons outside the gates to terrify and intimidate the remaining UN staff, AFP and journalists into leaving on the regular and conveniently arranged evacuation flights. They did not want witnesses.

On that night, Wednesday, September 8, 1999, the leader of the UN mission tasked with carrying out the ballot for or against independence from Indonesia, Ian Martin, held a press conference. The 20 or so journalists who had not evacuated turned up. Dirty, dishevelled, unwashed. We had been sleeping on the ground in the pressroom since we had been forced from our hotels by Indonesian troops who knocked open the doors of our rooms and demanded we leave. They gave us two options: the airport for evacuation or the compound. Now. Move. It was an order, not a request, carried out with the pointing of a barrel of a still-warm M16.

Some of us took the latter option, and went to the little UN compound. There a whole new drama was about to unfold. There were scenes of awful desperation, as refugees from the fighting were throwing children over razor wire fences. Their suffering and fear was real. Out there beyond the wire, chaos reigned. There were killings, looting and burnings going on day after day, carried out by the Indonesian military, the police and their proxies in the militia.

As this chaos unfolded, the UN declared at that late evening press conference that it would leave. Outside in the compound, word of the impending evacuation spread like wildfire. Timorese who had risked their lives working for the UN or campaigning for independence realised they were going to be abandoned by the international community with which they had sought shelter. It was a low moment for the UN, the AFP and the other unarmed national police and military that were supposed to be providing security for the besieged mission.

It was Alan Mills who was standing next to me as all this happened, the head of the Australian Federal Police mission. He was on one of the few satellite phones left in the compound. Mobile phones no longer worked. It was very hard to contact the outside world. Mills was talking to Howard. “Yes sir, yes sir,” I heard him say, a volley of gunfire overhead muffling the sound. “Yes sir. We will leave in the morning.”

According to Australian Federal Police officer Wayne Sievers, a meeting of all the AFP had been called at 6pm. Commissioner Mills addressed them. “He told us to pack our things, we were going to evacuate the next day,” Sievers told me. “He was challenged by one or two of our people.”

According to Sievers’ account, Kendall Clarke, an Australian policewoman from Melbourne, said: “How dare you! You know what will happen to all these people if you leave them here.” To which Mills replied: “Don’t be a drama queen. We’ve got to look after ourselves first.”

Sievers found himself thinking that, among the AFP contingent, confidence in Mills’ leadership was at an all-time low. “The Aussie police were so fucking angry at the thought of leaving all these people here.”

A petition was organised, to inform the leadership they were not going to leave. “Some of us were of the view that if we did stay and there was not a resolution, there was a better than even money chance Indonesian army intelligence would send the militia over the wall for us.”

Commissioner Mills was in regular phone contact with Howard throughout this. It was clear to those there that the Australian government was pushing the decision to leave the East Timorese to their fate.

Personal and political legacies

Both Howard and then foreign minister Alexander Downer have claimed the subsequent Australian-led peacekeeping force into East Timor as one of the greatest achievements of their time in office.

In Howard’s 2010 memoir, he wrote: “When asked to list the achievements of my prime ministership of which I am most proud, I always include the liberation of East Timor.” He told SBS: “It’s got problems, it’s got governance issues, but it’s free… I’m very proud of the role Australia played in bringing that about. It’s one of the more noble things Australia has done on the international front for many years.”

But a small group of journalists, AFP officers and some UN workers, many now dead, know the lie to claim. When the situation was at its most critical, the Australian government baulked and only after massive domestic and international pressure was forced to act and send in the peacekeepers many had been calling for as the previous year of massacres and killings unfolded before the eyes of the foreign media in East Timor.

So what happened to those Australian Federal Police tasked with an impossible mission, then told to abandon it? Wayne Sievers gives us a glimpse of how the mission that ended in the UN compound affected him personally. Sick with malaria and dengue fever, he signed the petition to stay to save the refugees. He was evacuated with me and most of the journalists on September 10, 1999.

He later wrote, in a submission for compensation for post-traumatic stress: “These feelings of hyper-vigilance have had a profound impact on my work on another level … People such as me often found ourselves operating alone and unsupported doing the best we could with what we had on hand.

“I have never again trusted public sector cultures and their claimed values to deliver people to leadership positions based on genuine merit. It is all about faking it and cultivating relationships, and I see it all the time in my current employment. Nothing has changed from my service in East Timor. I also developed an intense mistrust of politicians, given we were sent unarmed into East Timor to do something that was impossible. I believed then as now that Australia’s political leaders completely misjudged the situation on the ground, and then lied about the extent of their knowledge to avoid political embarrassment.” 


Another unnamed AFP source said: “My mission to East Timor was incredibly badly led by a number of key individuals. The senior Australian officers were appointed on the basis of political loyalty or nepotism, and not on their ability to lead staff in life-threatening situations. When we most needed leadership in the most dire of situations, these officers were conspicuous by their absence.”

Faced with a near rebellion by UN staffers, UN police and journalists, Ian Martin announced a temporary postponement of the evacuation in the early hours of September 9. I remember being woken by the UN spokesman, Brian Kelly, to attend the announcement in his office at 2am. “We can’t,” he said, “make the announcement without the wire services, can we?”

Martin announced the evacuation would be delayed 24 hours. Outside, almost as soon as I filed my report to the Associated Press, the shooting stopped. The order to back off had come through. Meanwhile, many of the refugees losing faith in the UN had decided to risk death by escaping the compound, through gunfire, up the hills to the precarious safety away from the Indonesian military and their militia proxies.

Wayne Sievers was among those who helped those who chose to flee, but it still haunts him. “In desperation, I and a number of other Australian police began to facilitate the escape of those refugees who wished to leave the compound. We did this by opening a gap in the hillside back fence, affording access to a track which led up to Dare in the mountains. At Dare they could shelter with the Catholic Church or with Falintil resistance movement. We did not know that the Indonesian military had placed soldiers with automatic weapons in several positions overlooking the track. They opened fire on anyone attempting to pass. I still carry with me the near certainty that some of those I helped to escape were murdered in cold blood. The guilt is crushing, even to this day, for me.”

Evacuation and return

In the end it was negotiated that the remaining 1450 East Timorese would be evacuated to Darwin, along with all but 12 of the UN staff who would then move to the Australian consulate. Journalists were told if they stayed they had to leave the compound. I left two days after the Howard phone call, but a few journalists stayed. Max Stahl and Robert Carroll followed the refugees up the hills. Three Dutch female journalists and Marie Colvin, later killed in Syria, tried to stay but left a few days later after the UN threatened to evict them. One American journalist, Allan Nairn, was arrested by the Indonesians, alone in the deserted compound. The Indonesian job was done, with capitulation from Australia: they could kill, loot and destroy without any witnesses from the outside world.

The Indonesians had 10 days to clean up the bodies. At Darwin airport on September 20, as I prepared to board a military flight with the first wave of Australian Army back to Dili, Howard talked to journalists on the tarmac, basking in the reflected glory of a deployment he had long denied was necessary. We arrived back in a city destroyed and deserted. Bodies were there one minute, then gone the next, collected by the remaining Indonesian troops.

For the Australian Federal Police who had been sent unarmed to prevent these unpreventable massacres, the effects of the experience cannot be shaken. “I remain consumed by guilt that I could have saved more people by acting smarter, or with more courage,” Sievers says, “or by simply making better operational choices when making life and death decisions in the heat of the moment.”

First published, The Saturday Paper, here

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