Media: Caught up in the barminess and confusion of East Timor

David Usborne, on manouevres with the press corps in Darwin, has witnessed scenes even Evelyn Waugh could not match
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I WAS not in the UN compound when Dili went mad two weeks ago, when Jonathan Head of the BBC got beaten up and when the only issue was getting out to Darwin. I have, however, been in the thick of what has been happening ever since - the desperate manoeuvring by us all to get back in there again. It has produced scenes of barminess and confusion that not even Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop can match.

Journalists, especially those working alone, tend to make alliances with each other. There is safety in numbers. Information gets traded on new developments. More importantly on a story like this, judgements on issues of safety are more easily made when the wisdom of many can be pooled.

Those experienced in war reporting have been clear for a long time that covering the East Timor crisis has carried more peril than any other conflict they can remember. In most wars, safety is maintained if you cross no lines. In East Timor, there were no lines and no sides.

That was the case, at least, until yesterday, when the multi-national force went in. But in the days before that things went haywire, both in Dili and Jakarta, where the Mandarin Hotel has been base camp for well over a hundred correspondents, producers and cameramen, and also in Darwin, which was also transformed into a media metropolis.

In Darwin, pools of reporters were to be taken in with the force, but there was doubt about who was to be included. When the Australian military excluded all non-Australian reporters from the first pool, the row stretched as far as the UK Secretary of Defence, George Robertson, who intervened on behalf of British journalists. The chaos in Darwin persisted until Monday when the rest of the British press corps presented itself for a pool going in with the Gurkhas. They were informed that there would be no Gurkha pool, after all. For ITN, which had already been beaten into Dili by the BBC by 24 hours, it spelled calamity. At the last minute, the message was reversed. The pool was to leave after all and Mark Austin was soon on his way. At the same time, in Jakarta, the ITN crew was making a fourth dash to the airport in three days to board its chartered plane to Dili.

The BBC spared nothing to get into Dili before the force. What delivered victory was having its own chartered plane on hand for several days and Head's excellent contacts.

For the rest of us at the Jakarta Mandarin, the mood all weekend was one of near hysteria. We were tantalised by promises of planes that would be leaving imminently for Dili. Our first great hope was a 68-seat Fokker chartered by the Agence France Press bureau here. I got the call early on Friday morning: get to the AFP office by 9am with $500 in cash and you will be on your way. And make sure the competition does not hear of it.

The Times's correspondent turned up in the AFP office just after me. He was a little late, he said, because he had tried to get out of the hotel from the second floor to avoid being seen by me. Moments later, John Gittings of The Guardian appeared.

Several other phantom flights were arranged, one by the Indonesian Information Military, which may yet depart. At one point my name - and a small fortune in dollars - was down for four different charters. Other colleagues feverishly purchased camping equipment, water and rations, just in case.

Final permission from the Indonesian military for the AFP plane to leave at dawn on Saturday came as I, the AFP bureau chief and other reporters were having poolside tea at the residence of the British ambassador, Robin Christopher. But by then all of us were having grave doubts. The plane would only drop us in Dili: we hadn't a clue what the militia might do to us. We only knew we had no way out. A meeting was held that evening and a vote was taken; we would not go.

Some journalists have taken extraordinary risks to get the story out. An Indonesian cameraman recently attempting to film refugee camps in West Timor for Associated Press Television News was intercepted by militia members. They destroyed his tapes, held a machete to his throat and fired a gun immediately behind his head - to make him jerk forward onto the blade. He survived, but his story did not.

Some correspondents were told: "We would really like you to be there, but, of course, if you're worried about security we quite understand." Others, including myself, were told: "Under circumstances are you to go until you are absolutely clear you will be safe from the militias." And that was never clear. I am still in the Mandarin. Frustrated, certainly. But safe.