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Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 230 - April 1992

The face of a drowning man
Annalies last saw her boyfriend Sebastião minutes before he was arrested. Now
she fears for his life - and her own. She writes this letter from her home in Jakarta.

The recent massacre of 200 people in a Dili graveyard was tragic. But the publicity it got was something of a victory for the people of East Timor, who have seen a third of their population killed by Indonesian troops since the invasion of their country in 1975.

The Indonesian Government had their backs against the wall. Their persecution of the people of East Timor was international news. And there were too many witnesses to this massacre for the Indonesians to pretend it had never happened.

Encouraged by this, Timorese students living here in Jakarta organized a demonstration. They wanted to show support for the victims of the massacre; to give a voice to their people's suffering to be heard here in the capital of Indonesia. Here their protests would also be heard by foreign journalists, embassies and the UN agencies. The students were full of hope. Indeed, 'hope' was the last feeling I heard my friend Sebastião express... before his arrest.

Sebastião had agreed to be the spokesperson for the Jakarta demonstration because he was articulate and his English was good. As a result he has now been singled out as the leader of the demonstration, the 'mastermind'. It's likely that he will be charged under the Anti-Subversion Law of 1963 which is punishable by death. My brain goes numb at the thought of this...

I observed the demonstration from a pedestrian bridge opposite the UN building. With their posters held high, the students condemned the Dili massacre and denounced the brutality of the Indonesian military. On the bridge beside me people ambled by or looked on with curiosity. Plain-clothes police with walkie-talkies were trying to clear the bridge. I summoned the courage to go down to where the demonstrators were gathered and started taking photographs. Suddenly half a dozen military cars appeared and disgorged soldiers wearing purple berets. I thought the protesters would run away but instead they held their posters higher still. After failing to get into the UN building they marched on down to the British, Australian and Japanese Embassies. I went ahead of the demonstration and, walking backwards, took photographs of the march.

I could see Sebastião right at the front, clad in black and with a black headband. Thrust into his face were a dozen or more microphones of Indonesian journalists. Every now and again I could see Sebastião's face re-surfacing from among the large silver mikes, the reporters, the protesters. I now see it as an image of a drowning man, hard and desperate and only periodically coming up for air. But at the time I felt joyful, hopeful, proud. So I leapt into the nearest taxi to get back to the class I was meant to be teaching.

It was only later that I realized something had gone wrong. Normally Sebastião rings every night to confirm that he's all right. He's done this for the past four years. That night he did not call. At first I thought he and his friends were celebrating and he'd call later. Then I heard the news - 70 students had been arrested minutes after I had left. One week later 49 were released. Sebastião was not among them.

Meanwhile Sebastião's house was ransacked, his videos and books seized. Frightened students contacted me worrying about where to stay the night. There was a wave of arrests of students all over Java as the police set out to break the clandestine movement.

For 10 days Sebastião and 20 other protesters still detained were held at the local police headquarters. They were denied all access to lawyers or humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross. Lawyers who turned up daily to try and see the prisoners were treated with mockery and cynicism by the armed forces. The man in charge of the case, Colonel Wagiman, every day kept the lawyers waiting several hours before telling them that he did not have time to permit visits. The reasons he gave were that he had to 'go and play golf with the visiting Police Commissioner from Singapore' and 'have lunch'.

I feel enraged by powerlessness, depressed and often close to tears. I worry terribly about what they are doing to Sebastião. He is in a single cell, away from all the others and has someone at his side day and night 'to break him down' and make him 'confess'.

I have tried contacting a couple of embassy officials but they do not want to know. All the officials of my country's embassy did was ring my boss at work to make some inquiries about me, which alarmed the hierarchy there.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian people are being kept in ignorance about the real events at Dili. Many swallow the official line of the Indonesian Commission into the massacre that the soldiers fired on the mourners 'in self-defence'. It's a farce - and I expect Western countries will use the Commission as an excuse to carry on trading with Indonesia. Australia and Britain have much to lose - Australia buys oil from Indonesia, Britain sells arms. Only Canada and Holland have been at all outspoken.

Finally, last night Sebastião was taken out of his cell to see a lawyer. He apparently looked very depressed but had no visible injuries. Asked how he was, he replied, in the presence of two police officers, that he was 'fine'.

I went out to buy some clothes for him. I put his own toothbrush in the parcel so that he will know it came from me. I feel I am in danger myself. I think our phone may be tapped and I cannot get rid of the idea that I am being followed. There are strange cars with mysterious antennae outside my house and office. Military-style vehicles drive up close to my taxi and men with walkie-talkies move around the café where I meet friends for coffee. I should be lying low, but it's not easy while I am trying to find out about Sebastião.

Annalies and Sebastião are pseudonyms. To give their real names would put them in greater danger.

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New Internationalist issue 230 magazine cover This article is from the April 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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