A Brutal Exit: Batallion 745

Evidence of an Indonesian Army unit's direct role in killings in East Timor

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After East Timor voted last August to reject Indonesian rule, the territory was thrown into a chaos of violence and destruction. Indonesia's military leaders deny responsibility for the upheaval, in which hundreds of people died.

But an examination of one Indonesian battalion's final two weeks in East Timor indicates that its soldiers were involved in 20 murders and disappearances leading up to the killing of Monitor contributor Sander Thoenes.

As Battalion 745 withdrew from East Timor - according to eyewitnesses, the victims' families, and a former 745 sergeant - its troops murdered specific supporters of independence and were ordered to shoot people who came within range of their departing convoy.

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Today the Monitor begins a four-part series documenting the brutal last days of Battalion 745.

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The soldiers of Battalion 745 greeted Sept. 21, their last full day in East Timor, by torching the barracks where they had spent the night.

As flames danced on the roofing timber of the cement buildings, the soldiers clambered into their trucks and rumbled away from the coastal town of Laga. In a few minutes, just a few miles down the road, the killing would begin.

The cool of daybreak was just giving way to the brittle heat of East Timor's dry season when Zelia Maria Barbosa Pinto heard the convoy: the deep grinding of truck gears, the buzzing whine of the motorcycle escorts, and sporadic gunfire.

Standing about 50 yards from the road in an expanse of rice paddies, Ms. Pinto was returning home after spending the night at a friend's house. She watched with growing apprehension as two men on a motorcycle were ordered to stop as they approached the 30-truck convoy.

Egas da Costa and his younger brother Abreu, two relatively well-educated local farmers, were on their way home. The previous day they had gone to a local community college to see for themselves the television coverage of the arrival of an Australian-led international force in East Timor.

The Da Costas were supporters of East Timorese independence and saw the coming of the Australians as a joyous event - the beginning of stability and freedom after months of turmoil and 24 years of Indonesian control.

Three weeks earlier, East Timorese voters had opted overwhelmingly for independence in a United Nations-sponsored referendum. But on the road in front of Egas and Abreu were some of the last vestiges of Indonesia's presence in the territory - a group of about 100 soldiers and officers, along with some of their families and a few refugees, heading for neighboring West Timor, which would remain a part of Indonesia.

Faced with scores of armed men, some wearing red-and-white Indonesian flags as patriotic headbands, Abreu slid off the back of the motorbike. It must have been obvious to him and his brother that they were encountering the wrong people at the worst possible time.

At about this time on that Tuesday morning, Sander Thoenes was leaving his home and climbing into a cab bound for Halim Airport in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. A reporter who worked for London's Financial Times, the Monitor, and publications in his native Holland, he was joining dozens of other journalists waiting for a charter flight to East Timor.

Thoenes wasn't exactly eager to return to the territory - he'd been there just three weeks earlier - but he felt he had to go. The arrival of the UN-authorized international force in the territory on Sept. 20 was dominating headlines around the globe.

Over the weekend, Thoenes and others had abandoned an earlier plan for a charter flight after Indonesian military officers would not provide security guarantees. But the presence of the Australian-led force now made the situation seem safer.

At the airport, Thoenes chatted with other journalists about the working conditions in the devastated city: little shelter, no food or water, questionable supplies of electricity. They all but cleaned out the airport's Dunkin' Donuts stand. They were not overly concerned about their safety.

In a confidential preliminary report obtained by the Monitor, a Dutch investigator and an Australian military policeman conclude that Battalion 745 killed Thoenes in the late afternoon of Sept. 21. If so, Thoenes was the last of as many as 13 people that the battalion appears to have murdered that day. The Da Costa brothers were about to become the first.

Ms. Pinto crept forward both for cover and to see what would happen as the convoy halted in front of the brothers. She circled behind a low hill topped by a craggy tree in the middle of the rice paddies. Now she was about 40 yards from the road.

A soldier shouted something that quickened her fear: "They're the ones we're looking for. They're GPK," an Indonesian acronym that translates roughly to "terrorist." Abreu backed away from the motorcycle. "We're going to die," he screamed to his brother, and ran for Pinto's hill.

As several soldiers opened fire, Pinto ducked down and slipped into an irrigation ditch filled with muddy water. Peering through vegetation that hid her head, she saw Abreu get hit in the right leg and fall, about half way across the paddies.

Egas also tried to flee, dropping the motorcycle and running, but he took only a couple of steps in the direction of his brother before one of the soldiers shot him in the stomach. He collapsed by the side of the road.

Suddenly Abreu was up, lurching toward the hill on his injured leg. A soldier fired, felling Abreu for the last time with a bullet to the head. By the road, Egas was still alive, "still breathing," says Pinto. Another soldier walked over and stabbed him with his bayonet.

Two soldiers set the brothers' motorcycle on fire and dragged the bodies behind Pinto's hill. She lay nearly submerged in the water, keeping as still as she could. She heard the soldiers discussing whether to dump the bodies in the irrigation ditch where she was hiding.

For some reason they left the corpses in the open. Sometime later - it seemed to Pinto that the convoy lingered for an hour at the site - she heard the trucks and motorcycles rev to life. She still didn't move. But suddenly the water and earth around her shuddered as something exploded in the rice paddies. Had the soldiers spotted her? Another munition was fired toward the hill as the convoy pulled away. This one plopped into the water near her - but didn't detonate.

Later, dizzy and disoriented from the blast and the time underwater, Pinto had to look at the bodies three times before recognizing Egas and Abreu. They were members of her extended family; she considered them brothers.

"I constantly dream about them," says Pinto, a small woman with a face that seems more used to frowning than smiling. Her dreams are about "saying goodbye."

The Da Costas were halted about 100 yards short of the turnoff to their mudwalled home in Buruma. Had they traveled just a few minutes earlier or the convoy a few minutes later, today Egas's wife, Cesarina, and his three-year-old son, Juvito, would not be wearing strips of black fabric around their necks as a sign of mourning.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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