Welcome to Dili. 'Don't even tell your wives' what you did.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As Sander Thoenes pulled away from the Turismo Hotel on Sept. 21, perched on the back of a motorcycle taxi, he traveled through an eerie city.

The people were mostly gone, the buildings burned or demolished, the streets filled with rubble and garbage. The remains of a dog rotted in the late-afternoon heat. A few thousand refugees camped along the waterfront near the hotel.

Pro-Indonesia militia groups had terrorized the city following East Timor's rejection of Indonesian rule three weeks earlier. Dili's residents had fled to the hills or been shunted onto planes, trucks, and boats bound for West Timor, a part of Indonesia.

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An international peacekeeping force had begun arriving the day before. The Australian-led troops were cautiously securing a few key points around the city. The atmosphere was tense.

No one knew how the militias or Indonesian soldiers would react to the influx of foreign troops.

But Thoenes felt safe enough to take a quick look around the eastern Dili suburb of Becora. Coincidentally, British reporter Jon Swain had set out in the same direction, an hour or so ahead of Thoenes. But on the outskirts of Becora, Mr. Swain was already regretting his decision.

Swain was sitting in a decrepit blue taxi with a photographer, an interpreter, and the car's driver. They were grinding their way up one of the hills that ring the East Timorese capital. The car was burning oil and losing power.

As the taxi crept along in search of a place to turn around, the rifle-toting motorcycle escorts of the Battalion 745 convoy swept into view. They quickly surrounded the taxi and began hurling insults and tugging on the doors. One gunman, using his rifle butt, struck driver Sanjo Ramos in the head with such force that he lost an eye.

Battalion commander Major Yacob Sarosa pulled up in his staff car. "These people are East Timorese too," he shouted at Swain and Chip Hires, the photographer, referring to the members of the convoy. "They are very angry, very angry with [the] UN and you Westerners. You must understand."

The soldiers forced Swain's interpreter, Anacleto Bendito da Silva, to climb aboard one of their trucks.

Battalion 745 Sgt. 2nd Class Hermenegildo dos Santos, riding in one of the last vehicles of the convoy, remembers passing the taxi, two Westerners, and the bleeding Mr. Ramos. The sergeant's yellow truck rumbled on to the Becora bus station, a few hundred yards down the road.

Most of the convoy waited there while some of the motorcycle riders and officers menaced the journalists. Finally, one soldier shot the tires and radiator of the taxi and told Swain and Hires to "go, go!" They ran for their lives.

At 4:53 p.m., hiding in the undergrowth near the road, Swain used his cellular phone to call for help.

The convoy reassembled and began moving along the main Becora road. Like Dili, its buildings were mostly gutted.

Having heard the Australians were on the ground, Helio Goncalves de Oliveira had come down from the hills and was hiding near the bus station when he saw the escorts: armed, uniformed men brandishing flags of red and white - the Indonesian colors.

Any East Timorese would have known to lie low, and Mr. de Oliveira did so. "The soldiers on motorcycles weren't shooting, but those in the trucks were," he recalls.

A square-faced young man with bristly hair, he says the 745 soldiers killed his brother's friend Manuel Andreas by shooting him in the back as he ran down a side street away from the convoy. Residents say that soldiers from another unit later rolled the body into a drainage ditch.

Shortly after Swain began calling for help, Thoenes and his driver, Florindo da Conceicao Araujo, put themselves on a collision course with Battalion 745.

Tooling along the main road, Mr. Araujo suddenly saw six soldiers on three motorcycles coming straight at them. Some were holding guns and shouting, ordering him to stop.

Araujo yelled for Thoenes to hang on and spun the bike around.

But the soldiers quickly closed the distance and began firing. He later told reporters that he lost control of his motorcycle, sending him and his passenger skidding along the asphalt.

He scrambled to his feet, heard soldiers yelling "kill him," and took off on foot away from the road. He glanced back. Thoenes was lying on the pavement. There was nothing he could do, except run.

Alexandre Estevao, a Becora farmer, was eating a mango by the side of the road when he saw the soldiers shooting at Araujo and Thoenes. He quickly ducked behind a water tank.

Toward the rear of the convoy, Sgt. dos Santos's vehicle drew to halt near the Becora church. He had no idea why. Peering ahead in the gathering dusk, he saw a motorcycle lying on its side.

He also recalls that soldiers from a middle vehicle of the convoy had taken hold of a man, but dos Santos couldn't see him clearly. A Westerner? A Timorese? The distance was too great and the light too weak.

Mr. Estevao had a closer vantage point from behind the water tank. He saw 745 soldiers drag Thoenes's unconscious body off the road and into an area with a few abandoned shacks and shade trees.

Gregory Cavanagh, the Australian coroner who investigated the case, concludes that Thoenes was shot and killed in this spot. Afterward, assailants cut off his left ear and part of his face.

"I find that on all of the evidence available thus far," Mr. Cavanagh wrote in a report released in January, "it is probable that a member or members of the 745 Battalion ... shot the deceased. However, in the absence of full witness availability and without an examination and cross-examination of those witnesses from that Battalion, I am unable to completely discount the possibility that the assailant or assailants were not TNI but person(s) dressed in the uniform of the TNI...." The acronym refers to the Indonesian military.

A Dutch investigator and an Australian military policeman, in a confidential set of draft conclusions dated Nov. 10, 1999, were more unequivocal: "It can be concluded... [that] Sander Thoenes was killed by a military [sic] of TNI Battalion 745 with a shot in the back."

After halting in front of the church, dos Santos says, the convoy departed and reached the Indonesian military headquarters in Dili in a few minutes.

Col. Muhammad Noer Muis, the commander, briefed the 745 soldiers. "Welcome," he told them. "We have a lot of food here, so eat some. After the vehicles are refueled, you will continue. But you don't need to tell anyone about what you have done on your way here. Don't even tell your wives. From Dili to Kupang the way is safe, so you will not need to open fire."

At the headquarters, dos Santos saw a group of his fellow soldiers beating Mr. da Silva, Swain's interpreter. Dos Santos never saw da Silva again. Neither has the man's family.

Later that evening, the Battalion 745 convoy passed through an Australian checkpoint on the way out of Dili and spent the night near the West Timor border. Shortly before midnight, Swain and Hires were rescued by Australian troops.

The next day, Becora residents took foreign journalists to see the body of a white man they had discovered. It was Thoenes. Swain went back to Becora and found his wounded driver.

The Battalion 745 convoy made its way to Kupang, the capital of the Indonesian province that adjoins East Timor.

Dos Santos is the only member of the battalion known to have returned to East Timor. The rest have been assigned to other units of the Indonesian military.

Battalion 745 will be officially disbanded at the end of this month.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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