LOS PALOS, EAST TIMOR — Battalion 745 was headquartered in Los Palos, a modest market town of single-story buildings that reflect the influence of East Timor's Portuguese colonizers. It is here and in the surrounding farming villages that the story of the unit's violent withdrawal from the territory properly begins.
In early September, Los Palos was a community torn between joy and fear.
Most people in the area had long supported the cause of East Timorese independence. For them, the outcome of an Aug. 30 UN-sponsored referendum - a 4-to-1 rejection of staying within Indonesia - deserved the celebration of a lifetime.
Juliao de Assis Belo, a farmer in the Motolori section of Los Palos, was elated. He had openly campaigned for East Timor's freedom. But he was scared, too. How would the local Indonesian military units, such as Battalion 745, and pro-Indonesia militia groups react to the results?
His fear was widely shared in East Timor, and it was justified.
After the voting results were announced on Sept. 4, the militias began a campaign of destruction and dislocation in Los Palos and throughout East Timor.
Hordes of people (ultimately a third of the territory's population of 850,000) were being forced to flee to neighboring West Timor, a part of Indonesia. Militia members were looting what they could carry, burning what they couldn't, and killing an undetermined number of people.
On Sept. 10, Belo heard that 745 soldiers were looking for him. He began sleeping in his rice paddies, fearful of a nocturnal knock on the door.
Soldiers' families and local people who opposed independence were also frightened. They sought safety within the Battalion 745 compound a few miles outside of Los Palos, worried about the chaos around them and their prospects in an independent East Timor.
Compared with other Indonesian units operating in East Timor, Battalion 745 had a high number of East Timorese soldiers, roughly a quarter of the unit's 600 men. It and another battalion were created to dispel the impression that troops from other parts of Indonesia were an occupying force in the territory, which Indonesia invaded in 1975.
But East Timorese recruitment was never very high, says Bob Lowry, an expert on the Indonesian military at the Australian Defense Studies Center in Canberra. "It just shows you how little [the Indonesians] trusted the East Timorese."
Led by Indonesian officers, Battalion 745 soldiers gained a reputation for fiercely suppressing the independence movement. "We called them the 'brave ones,' says the Rev. Jose San Juan, rector of a Roman Catholic agricultural school near Los Palos, "because they did not respect the law."
In early September, Sgt. 2nd Class Hermenegildo dos Santos - himself an East Timorese member of the battalion - was assigned to register refugees arriving at the compound, a sprawling expanse of boxy buildings and open fields.
Sergeant dos Santos was struck by the unprecedented level of cooperation between his fellow soldiers and members of Team Alpha, a local militia group. He was ordered to allow Alpha members to review the lists of people seeking refuge, to check for local pro-independence leaders.
Indonesian military officials created many such militias two decades ago to fight against East Timor's Falintil guerrilla army. In the year before the referendum, the military backed new militias, which used violence and intimidation to discourage East Timorese from favoring independence in the vote.
Like the 745, Team Alpha was considered ruthless. Indeed, many locals saw the two forces as indistinguishable. In the middle days of September around Los Palos, Team Alpha and Battalion 745 sometimes worked together to find Indonesia's political enemies. Sometimes the 745 worked alone.
On the night of Sept. 12, Belo and his friend Martinho Branco, a government worker who also favored independence, were so frightened of the 745 that they took their families with them into the rice paddies. But the next morning, four 745 soldiers showed up in Motolori. It didn't take long for them to find out the families were concealed in the fields. "You'd better come out," one shouted. "If we have to come to your hiding place we will kill all of you." They fired their weapons in the air to underscore the point.
The families reluctantly stood up and walked toward the waiting soldiers. Belo and Branco were immediately arrested. Without explanation the 745 soldiers also grabbed each man's eldest child, two teenage boys uninvolved in politics. Belo's wife, Filomena de Jesus Freitas, was devastated to see her son in the hands of the soldiers. "If you want to kill someone, take me, not him," she pleaded. They ignored her and marched the men and boys along a dirt road that divides two large rice fields.
Ms. Freitas and Branco's wife, Maria do Ceu, watched their husbands and sons walk out of sight. Gunshots were heard a few minutes later. The women prayed.
At mid-afternoon Freitas found the courage to go to the Battalion 745 compound to ask after the men and boys. She was told that they had not been arrested.
The next day the people in the neighborhood began to search. At dawn on Sept. 15, they found Belo, Branco, and Branco's son Marcelio in an area about five minutes' walk from where the families had hidden in the fields. The corpses were partially burned, but Freitas recognized her husband's face and trousers. Her son, Elder, was nearby, at the bottom of a well. "I never imagined my child - he was only 15 years old - would be killed by the Indonesian military," says Freitas.
A reed-thin woman with high cheekbones and frizzy hair, Freitas speaks matter-of-factly about the loss of her husband and son. But the tears come as she explains the two bicycles stored inside her small, cluttered home. The bikes are Belo's and Elder's. Her two daughters and remaining son are too small to ride them.
The families buried the charred bodies near where they were found, but investigators from the Australian-led international force in East Timor later obtained the widows' permission to exhume them. On Nov. 17 the senior Australian officer in the region, Lt. Col. Lance Ensor, witnessed the procedure with a visiting Brazilian doctor experienced in detecting signs of violence and torture. "There was clear evidence to satisfy him," Colonel Ensor says, "that violent wounds had been inflicted. Whether or not they were the cause of death was impossible to say at that stage."
The investigators later returned the remains to the families for burial in a cemetery. But Elder's body is still in the well, which today is surrounded by 8-foot high stalks of corn. A rusted corrugated metal sheet covers the opening, and someone has left a few coins as an offering.
The villagers say that when the sun is directly overhead they can still see Elder's body nearly 30 feet down. This situation horrifies Freitas. "I won't be calm until the body of my son is removed from the well. Here it is part of our culture to bury the dead properly."
Freitas lives in a two-room wood and bamboo shack with a corrugated metal roof. She and Branco's widow, Ms. do Ceu, sit in near darkness on well-worn wooden chairs around a low table. Do Ceu, a slight woman with downcast features, says almost nothing during a two-hour interview. But when Freitas cries, she weeps too, swabbing her cheeks with her dark gray T-shirt.
"We won the vote," Freitas says, "but they still killed our families."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society