Inside Story: A most sinister war: Norman Lewis on the bombings and massacres that have made East Timor as cruel a place as Pol Pot's Cambodia

CHANNEL 4 last month presented John Pilger's revelatory and disturbing film, Death of a Nation, on the war in East Timor. Its contents will have surprised and shocked many viewers - if not certain of our rulers who knew only too well what happened behind the scenes back in 1975, although few details of the tragedy of this Portuguese ex-colony seem to have filtered through to the public.

The film's story is largely of massacres which, in proportion to the population, exceed those perpetrated by Pol Pot in Cambodia. But the death of the small nation of East Timor has attracted little attention, and almost none at all until two years ago when 400 young people were killed at the Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili, the Timorese capital. But this was absolutely nothing compared to the waves of slaughter that followed the invasion by Indonesian troops 19 years ago.

What has naturally escaped publicity is the complicity of the United States and Australia in President Suharto's decision to invade. The American motive was mainly doing a favour to an ally in the Cold War; the Australians were after oil. One of the world's greatest untapped reserves lies under the sea in the channel between East Timor and Australia. This, although officially Portuguese property, was to be shared between Australia and the incoming Indonesians.

The whole operation was known in diplomatic circles as The Big Wink. Britain was involved, too, in a lesser way, for the Indonesians had let it be known that huge arms purchases were envisaged, in particular planes for use in counter-insurgency operations which the UK could supply.

In the years since, about one third of East Timor's former population of 650,000 are said to have perished. As I disovered when I went there in 1991, almost every square yard had been fought over. Every single coastal village had been blown off the face of the earth by naval bombardment. Crops had been doused by flame- throwers and sprayed with defoliants. The peasants starved. When Saddam Hussein went for the oil in Kuwait, the UN and the Western powers had him out in months, but the UN's 10 protests in a decade over Indonesia's illegal occupation fell on deaf ears, and the West looked the other way.

The British government remains congratulatory. Pilger's film shows a meeting between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Suharto. 'We are proud to be with you,' she says. We were supplying Indonesia with millions of pounds of aid and selling it billions of pounds of arms. Former junior defence minister Alan Clark brushes the diplomatic flim-flam aside and comes clean in typical style. Of course we were selling them Hawk Trainers for counter-insurgency use. Anyone knew they could be converted for legal purposes almost in a matter of minutes. Pilger asks Clark if, as a well-known animal lover and vegetarian, he can extend his concern to human beings? To which Clark IT WAS A kind of outraged curiosity that drove me three years ago to visit East Timor. I flew there with my daughter Claudia. At Bali we had to change planes and stay the night. The taxi driver spoke English. He had two policemen friends who had volunteered for service in Timor. They were billeted in villages where the whole population was assumed to be hostile. 'So what happened?' 'My friends decided they had to go.' 'What, they killed all of them?' 'Yes, all of them. Too many of our people were dying,' the taxi driver said. 'I think if we are policemen you or I will do the same.'

Dili, the Timorese capital, is one of the sinister places of the world. At the hotel, I gave offence by thanking the receptionist for the room key in Portuguese, and my daughter's room was searched while we were out. We went for an evening walk along the seafront, still littered with the rusting hulks of the landing craft that carried the assault troops ashore on the day of the 1975 invasion. It was here that the civilian population was assembled and made to count the suspects standing on the low sea wall as they were shot and toppled into the sea.

Subsequently, most of Dili's Chinese minority are said to have been shot, having always been unpopular in Indonesia on religious grounds and because of the business competition they offered. Six British and Australian journalists were murdered around the same time.

Our evening walk was to be cut short for we soon realised that we were being followed. A moment before a single light showed in the distance of the darkening and deserted shore road, and now, 15 yards behind, an obscure figure trailed us in soft-soled shoes. We turned back and at 6.45 with the fall of night we found ourselves confined to the Turismo Hotel's dim interiors, its silence, and its mosquitoes. Braving the veiled hostility of the receptionist I asked about the possibility of travel and was told that I could hire a taxi to take us to most destinations but we should have to return by it the same day. There were no hotels apart from one at Baucau some 80 miles away. All journeys required sanction by the police.

Our rescue from this depressing situation seemed almost miraculous. On the plane from Bali, Claudia had struck up a friendship with two Italian nuns engaged in running an orphanage in the mountains in the east of the island for children whose parents had been killed in the war. They stayed in our hotel, and next morning offered us a lift in the truck that was taking them back to the orphanage. 'We sign police papers for you,' Sister Paola said. 'Is OK.'

Within minutes we were on the coast road to Baucau, and thence across the mountains to Venilale and the orphanage. The landscape's emptiness was of an extraordinary kind. Black, seemingly fertile earth stretched away to the horizon, but nothing grew on it. There was no sign of a house, but once in a while we looked down on faint rectangular patterns in the earth like those that might have been left by the long-vanished settlement of a prehistoric tribe. There had been fishing villages along the shore but they had gone leaving nothing but blackened boat remains embedded in the shingle of the beach.

At the entrance to Baucau, the Flamboyant Hotel awaits not only the luckless traveller but prisoners taken there for interrogation in a special wing when other detention centres in the town are filled to capacity.

Venilale, 25 miles away in the mountains, stands apart from all this, remaining in its shattered condition defiantly Portuguese. Fine old trees shaded the many open spaces left by the bombs, and a couple of authentic Portuguese houses had survived with coloured tiles on their facades and wide verandahs with hammocks.

At the far end a building came in sight that looked like a Roman ruin but proved to be a Portuguese school built in the classic style in 1905. The bombs had carried about a third of it away, despite which it managed to retain a considerable dignity. The administrative building of the orphanage was a bleakly modern breeze block affair, and in this we were given a room and made welcome.

Matebian, known as Soul Mountain in the language of the Timorese, stood a few miles off. It was a magnificent, awe-inspiring and solitary peak, like Vesuvius although double its size. Its dense forests and clefts and gorges have been a place of refuge throughout history for the Timorese. In times of trouble villagers would leave their homes, travelling often great distances to reach the mountain and take shelter in its sandalwood forest in which they believed they were invisible to their pursuers.

A few miles to the south the second mountain, Bibeleu, appeared as a mist-washed isosceles triangle soaring up from juniper thickets, and it was here, as well as on Matebian that panic-stricken villagers began to hide when news of the massacres at Dili following the invasion began to trickle through.

The army's move into these mountainous areas was nevertheless delayed. Apart from the elite Green Berets and paratroopers the invasion force was poorly trained and lacking in combat experience. Soldiers largely recruited from the flatlands of Java, many of whom had never seen a mountain before, had to be guided like crocodiles of schoolchildren through the dense tropical forest. Resistance to the occupation was in the hands of the Falintil. This was composed of small, lightly armed and highly mobile groups on their home ground in these surroundings, although much hampered by hordes of terrified civilians that they had been obliged to take under their wing.

Nevertheless, talk of stalemate began to be heard - a situation that changed only after the Indonesians' successful approach to the British and American for the supply of counter-insurgency aircraft. This country's contribution, the British Aerospace Hawk Trainer, was described in a press release as 'ideally suited for use against ground forces in difficult terrain'.

INDONESIA'S troops could now stand back and wait for saturation-bombing of the mountains to do its work. Venilale and all the other small towns in their highland redoubt now found themselves in the front line of combat, and many soon ceased to exist.

In January of this year I received a letter from a Portuguese officer, now retired to Portugal, who had once been stationed in Ossu, south of Venilale. This man was puzzled by the news that this large town with its 'church, covered market, football pitch, schools for boys and girls, and Chinese shops' should appear to have vanished off the face of the earth. 'What were your nuns doing in Venilale when they had a big and beautiful building in Ossu? The only explanation must be that every important town has been destroyed, and only small places like Venilale have more or less survived]' What my correspondent had not understood was that all the villages had gone as well.

We explored several miles of a once well-used track but all we saw were two recently built shacks housing women and children near an area of mass graves. John Pilger was able to photograph a site of this kind where a number of large crosses had been cut in a rock-face. In the Venilale region such memorials were discouraged. Substantial crosses were removed as soon as they appeared, but in this case clusters of small ones about four inches in height had been overlooked. Placed round them were animist offerings for the children beneath, tiny plastic toys of the kind contained in cheap Christmas crackers, and tins containing a little honey.

With the beginning of the air offensive panic became general. News that the Indonesian ground troops had broken the Falintil defences drove the last of the villagers from their homes and into the mountains. With the arrival of the soldiers all abandoned houses went up in flames. Many who were too old or sick to be moved were burned to death. I was assured by members of the European religious community, who had been eye-witnesses of atrocities committed at this time, that the soldiers had found ways of making children kill their parents and parents their children.

At Matebian the first of a series of encirclements was put into practice. A large number of civilians including many children were forced to march ahead of the Indonesian troops as they closed in on the mountain, after 700-800 bombs a day were dropped on it, in raids round the clock.

About 500 people who had come out of hiding to assemble at the foot of the mountain in the belief that they were surrendering were executed by Indonesian troops. In the neighbouring village of Taipo, 300 villagers were killed, a number of the elderly people being, as before, burned alive. Children were reportedly executed in front of their parents, who were tied together and shot.

A woman described being caught with her two children in the air attack in Matebian. 'The plane saw us - all of us women with children running and trying to keep together - and a bomb landed in the middle of us. I had to climb over the bodies. Some were blown to pieces, and the bits were all mixed up. I saved one girl and lost the other. I had to find some part of her to take back to bury. A hand or a bone, or even a piece of her dress with blood on it. There was nothing I could be sure of, so I carried everything I could. At least some of it might be her.'

The successes at Matebian and Bibeleu inspired further operations on an expanded scale. Operasi Keamanan, known as the 'fence of legs', was an encirclement, not of single mountains but vast areas of the country. Up to 80,000 males between the ages of eight and 50 were snatched without warning from their homes, and formed into lines stretching across much of the island before the great marches began that were to go on for three months. Special army groups went ahead burning villages and crops. Behind them came the civilian lines, then the main body of the troops.

Christiano Costa, a conscript who later escaped to Portugal, was one of numerous refugees interviewed by John G Taylor, whose book Indonesia's Forgotten War is full of their harrowing accounts. Costa was present for the final mopping-

up. 'There were a great many bodies, men, women, children strewn everywhere, unburied along the river banks and on the mountain slopes. There were so many decomposing bodies the stench was unbearable.'

One of the nuns took us to see the orphans in the barracks built to house them; the youngest of the 200 was a boy of two, and the oldest a girl of 12. Two mothers were included in somewhat exceptional circumstances, one being Justina, wife of Xanana Gusmao, at that time - shortly before his capture - the Falintil commander. Most of the women who had taken refuge with their men in the forest eventually contracted tuberculosis and when Justina was found to be suffering from it Gusmao persuaded her to return with their child to occupied territory in the hope of being able to receive medical treatment.

Their sector was encircled by troops. Justina was shot, then hauled off to prison where, as a result of inevitable rape, she gave birth to a child by a jailer before eventual release. Now by some arrangement the orphanage had been able to reach with the military she was here with Gusmao's three- year-old, plus the jailer's offspring - still a baby in arms.

The second mother was Selina, a demure-looking girl, also with a baby, with a touch about her of the studied innocence of the performer in a nativity play. For all that, she was exceedingly brave.

Part of the military's policy was to devise some way of depriving the resistance fighters of the solace of their womenfolk while leaving them encumbered by children. A phase of intensive bombing might be interrupted by a pause in which it was hoped that women might attempt to surrender. The problem was to hold the children back and in this instance Selina found herself involved in an obscure deal by which 40 mothers would be allowed to come out, bringing with them one child apiece.

By accident or design the original plan fell apart and when Selina appeared she was not merely the only mother, but had brought with her 15 children, entrusted to her by friends who were determined to stay on. A Catholic priest had managed to be present at this confrontation. The Indonesian commander's first impulse, he said, was to shoot the lot - a course of action in this war almost to be expected. However for once, and probably due to the unexpected witness, there was no slaughter. Selina went to jail, was subject to routine rape, but finally, in an advanced state of tuberculosis, was released with her child into the care of the orphanage.

THERE WERE many problems in the orphanage. Almost all the children suffered from tuberculosis or malaria, or both and the cups and plates they used were painted in different colours to avoid cross-infections. The sister could not conceal her admiration for the four Timorese that looked after them, who slaved away all day and were up half the night dressing wounds and doing their best to replace the love of lost mothers and calm dreams.

There were 100 little boys in this small barrack-room. 'It all seems very quiet,' I said.

'It always is,' the sister said. 'The children show very little emotion. They neither laugh nor cry and there's not even any fuss when their wounds are dressed. What struck me as very strange at first was that they don't play with toys.'

Next day we left. At Dili later that year a mass killing took place, so meaningless even from the Indonesian standpoint that the world came finally to hear of the most brutal small war of the century. The capture of the Falintil leader Xanana Gusmao followed, but is unlikely to affect the issue.

It is 19 years since the Falintil took to the forest, and their numerical strength is believed to have changed little since then. They are still in action, but now that the mountains have been emptied of fugitives there are few targets for the planes except small well-dispersed guerrilla groups. Unless the Indonesians decide the game is not worth the candle, this could be a conflict without end.

Norman Lewis is 85 and has been travelling and writing since 1937. His books have described Europe, South America, India and South East Asia. Graham Greene called him 'one of the best writers not of any particular decade, but of our century'

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