LAUTEM, EAST TIMOR — Battalion 745 was shipping out.
By mid-September, many of its 600 troops had already left their compound on the plateau of Los Palos. They were gathering at Lautem, a small town by the azure waters of the Wetar Strait.
Civilians had fled the area, with good reason. Near the beachfront warehouse the soldiers were using as a staging area, someone had painted a warning: "If you are tired of living, we are ready to serve you."
On Sept. 20, after most of the battalion had boarded a troop ship, the remaining 100 soldiers were assigned convoy duty. They would drive the battalion's vehicles across the island into West Timor, Indonesian territory.
Before leaving, a lieutenant named Camilo briefed Sgt. 2nd Class Hermenegildo dos Santos and his fellow soldiers. "If you find anything on the way," the officer said, "just shoot it."
This order was no surprise to Sergeant dos Santos. He says it was issued within earshot of the battalion commander, Maj. Yacob Sarosa. The commander had already warned his troops, dos Santos adds, that they would have to "destroy everything" if pro-independence forces won East Timor's UN-sponsored referendum.
So when the results of the vote were announced on Sept. 4 - an overwhelming rejection of continued Indonesian rule - the soldiers' task was clear: Destroy everything. Shoot anything.
These orders were reflections of both pride and policy.
Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and spent the next 24 years trying to defeat pro-independence guerrillas and integrate the former Portuguese colony into the rest of Indonesia, a collection of former Dutch holdings. Estimates of the number of East Timorese who died from violence or starvation during this era range as high as 230,000.
The Indonesian military nearly always controlled government policy on East Timor, leaving it to Indonesian political leaders to deflect or ignore international criticism over its brutal methods.
But the generals were not prepared for the terms of former President B.J. Habibie's January 1999 offer of a referendum, which allowed the United Nations to run the vote and gave the East Timorese a stark choice between Indonesia and independence.
Because of political changes in Indonesia itself, the military was losing its ability to control what was done about East Timor. After the vote, with pro-Indonesia forces trashing the territory and international outrage building, the Indonesia's generals were forced to agree that an international force should be allowed into East Timor to restore order.
A military that had lost many of its own in trying to win East Timor was now forced to withdraw so that foreign troops could move in. Its soldiers and officers were not about to leave anything behind that could be useful to a people overjoyed to be rid of them.
Troops removed technology and destroyed buildings with rigorous precision. More than 50 years ago, while fighting for independence, Indonesia's freedom fighters occasionally used the same scorched-earth tactics.
Indonesia's military leaders have said that some individual soldiers, caught up in the emotions of the moment, may have engaged in violence. They have said it was "psychologically" difficult to rein in the pro-Indonesia militia groups they supported.
They deny that their exit strategy included systematic killing.
But dos Santos, the 745 sergeant, says the battalion's convoy was not filled with overwrought men bent on revenge. Just the opposite, he says, as do many witnesses along their route: The soldiers were happy.
They seemed delighted to try to destroy everything and shoot anything. "I don't know why they were happy, but maybe the Javanese wanted to go home," says the sergeant, referring to colleagues from the dominant Indonesian island of Java.
Dos Santos, a square-jawed man with deep-set eyes and trim mustache, says he did not have to fire because he was the ranking soldier in his vehicle. In any case, he did not want to obey his officers, because his loyalties were with East Timor, not Indonesia.
After joining the battalion in 1986, he says he soon began passing information about Indonesian military activities to East Timor's pro-independence fighters.
This subversive support is the reason he and his wife and two sons can live peacefully today in their bright-blue, metal-roofed house in Los Palos. Were it otherwise, his fellow East Timorese would surely kill him.
Late in the afternoon of Sept. 20, the convoy pulled out of Lautem, with dozens of motorcycles in the lead, followed by about 30 trucks and other vehicles, most belonging to the Indonesian military.
Major Sarosa rode in a jeep-like staff car and dos Santos brought up the rear in a yellow dump truck appropriated from a local merchant.
The convoy stopped periodically so soldiers could shoot at village buildings and farm animals, but it seems that no people were killed.
Villagers along the 40-mile route had time to take refuge in the hills; the engine noise and gunfire acted as an early-warning system. In the town of Laga, according to both the local priest and the town's hereditary chief, an officer from another Indonesian military unit prevailed on the 745 convoy not to shoot people or burn houses there.
They spent the night at a military barracks outside the town. The next day would not be so peaceful.
As soon as Sander Thoenes landed at the Dili airport on Sept. 21, he went directly to the Hotel Turismo, where Australian troops had established a media center.
Thoenes left his backpack upstairs in the room of a Financial Times colleague. He and his friend Diarmid O'Sullivan ran into two Dutch journalists they knew from Jakarta, where all four were based, and made a loose plan to tour parts of the city together.
In zones of conflict journalists often work in groups, in part because it feels safer. In this case, there was an added incentive: The Dutch journalists had already hired a small pickup truck, a vital resource in a town nearly devoid of transportation.
Thoenes said he would wait while Mr. O'Sullivan went to drop his things elsewhere. His friend remembers Thoenes standing in front of the hotel, "ready to work on the story, smiling, a bit flushed from the heat."
On Sept. 21, the battalion's day began with the burning of the barracks outside Laga and the murders of Abreu and Egas da Costa, the brothers who ran into the convoy while riding home on their motorcycle.
Dos Santos, from his perch at the rear of the convoy, was not in a position to witness much of the killing. But he did see its results: At the place where the brothers were shot and stabbed, he saw their burning motorcycle and one body.
Over the next 10 miles, as the convoy passed through the villages of Buruma and Caibada, he saw three more bodies by the side of the road. According to eyewitnesses and survivors, the convoy actually killed four people:
*Lucinda da Silva ran from 745 soldiers after they stopped to chase some young men near her home. Otilia Ximenes, who fled the gunfire with da Silva, says the widow died from a gunshot wound in the chest.
*Elisita da Silva grabbed her toddler Cesarina and fled when she heard the convoy stop near her thatched-roof farmhouse. As mother and child cowered behind a bush, a 745 soldier fired an automatic weapon at them, hitting Elisita in both legs and Cesarina in her right thigh. Jacinta da Silva, the little girl's haggard grandmother, says she witnessed the shooting and Elisita's subsequent death.
*Carlos da Costa Ribeiro, a one-time schoolteacher, stayed in his house when the convoy approached, even though most people in the area had fled. Caibada village chief Domingas Freitas, who recovered the body, says Ribeiro was shot in the head.
*Victor Belo, a prosperous carpenter, nearly escaped the convoy. His eldest daughter, Francisca Martins Belo, says her father was trying to return to his house to lock the door when soldiers in two vehicles straggling behind the convoy noticed him and shot him.
Then the convoy entered Baucau, East Timor's second-largest city. After negotiating with a local military officer, according to one bystander, the convoy skirted the older part of Baucau without incident, passing through the already destroyed new town, and proceeded west along the coastal highway toward the capital, Dili.
As Sander Thoenes stood in front of the Hotel Turismo, an opportunity presented itself. Another reporter returned, leaving his conveyance free: a motorcycle taxi driven by an East Timorese man who had been working with journalists. Thoenes "did what quite a lot of us would have done in the same circumstances," O'Sullivan says. "He just got on the bike and went to have a look around."
Thoenes and the driver headed east, toward the Dili suburb of Becora, an area of strong support for East Timorese independence. They didn't know that the soldiers of Battalion 745 were already there.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society