On the Road in East Timor with the Indonesian Army

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At 8.30 a.m. last Tuesday, I hopped aboard one of nine Indonesian army trucks that pulled out of Jakarta's military headquarters in Dili. The convoy was bound for Atambua, a town in West Timor on the border with East Timor, where it was to collect soldiers from Indonesia's 301 Battalion and bring them to the Dili seaport, to leave East Timor for good. My driver was a nervous marine in his early 20s who had been in Dili for just five days.

We took the steep, winding roads along the beautiful northwestern coast of Timor, falling in line with the exodus of people from Dili seeking refuge in West Timor. Burned and broken-down cars littered the roadsides. The entire town of Liquica, a pocket of pro-independence sentiment, was gutted, save for a few old Portuguese buildings. As we approached the border, we saw some men herding goats and sheep on a dry pasture, a rare sign of normal life. Then we arrived at the checkpoint at Batugade, where rows of blue and orange plastic tents now shelter tens of thousands of East Timorese refugees, their lives halted and future uncertain. My driver's relief was obvious when we entered West Timor. We're home in old Indonesia at last, he said.

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At Atambua, we were greeted by 300 anxious soldiers and their commander, Major Edi Supriadi. It was only 1:30 p.m., but Edi decided to stay put until the next morning. The drivers need a rest, he said, but it was clear that even he didn't want to take any chances traveling in the dark. His battalion had already been attacked several times by pro-independence Falantil fighters and forced to abandon posts east and south of Dili. Some of his men were clearly shaken. At one point, we were face-to-face, just two meters apart, one lieutenant said about an encounter with the Falantil. I had never been so scared in my life.

As evening neared, I quizzed Edi about Indonesia's pullout from East Timor. He seemed conflicted. If the people of Indonesia decide that we have to let East Timor go, we'll have to agree, because we follow orders from them, he said with a sigh. But we can't help feeling hurt. It's sad to think that we lost so many lives and sacrificed so many things for nothing. But I wish all the best for East Timor. He sighed again.

His men were much less diplomatic, accusing Jakarta of betrayal. One soldier said the Habibie administration had succumbed too quickly to outside pressure. We shouldn't be afraid of economic embargoes or whatever sanctions they threatened us with, he said. Indonesians should learn from their soldiers to be tough and not to surrender too easily.

At dawn on Wednesday, as we prepared for the journey back toward the airport, I spotted some soldiers loading six monkeys and a few caged songbirds onto a truck. The pets had served the battalion as sentinels. Those animals were with the soldiers up in the mountain--alert 24 hours a day to warn of a sudden ambush, Edi explained. The soldiers would never leave them behind.