Like most of his colleagues, he had a room at the Turismo, the hotel which has been commandeered as a media centre by the Australian Army. He dropped his luggage, including bags of pears and oranges friends had asked him to bring from Jakarta. Yesterday morning his mutilated body was found two miles away in the back yard of a deserted house.
He was not the first person, nor even the first foreign journalist to be murdered in East Timor. In a country where so many have suffered so bitterly, it would be wrong to exaggerate the significance of this one death, a white Dutchman among 200,000 or more dead East Timorese. It is chilling to realise that someone you knew yesterday is gone today but the horrifying thing about Mr Thoenes' murder is not that it was unusual but that it was so typical. One thing is worth reiterating: Sander Thoenes was killed by the Indonesian Army.
After dropping in at the hotel he hired a motorbike rider to give him a lift. To many foreign journalists in Dili, reporting is a linguistic struggle and local people are glimpsed imperfectly through the lens of interpreters. But Mr Thoenes spoke fluent Indonesian. The confidence this gives is a great advantage, but sometimes, perhaps, a danger.
But Mr Thoenes - from my acquaintance with him - was a calm, quiet man, not one of the trouble-seekers who have also found their way to Dili. He climbed on the motorbike and asked to be driven to Becora, in the east of the town, a stronghold of pro-independence supporters which has been burnt by the army and its militias since the vote for independence last month. The motorbike driver's name was Florindo da Conceiao Araujo, and last night he was under protection of the peace-keeping force. His is the only account of what happened next.
He said they were driving near the Becora church when three bikes rode towards them in the opposite direction. There were two men on each and they carried automatic rifles and wore the uniforms of the Indonesian Army. "They were about 200 metres away and they waved at us to stop," said Mr Araujo when he turned up at the Turismo yesterday. "But I didn't want to stop and I started to turn round. As soon as we turned they started shooting."
The soldiers soon outpaced Mr Araujo's bike. "Bullets were flying all around us," he said. "I told the journalist to hold on tight to me but then they shot the motorbike. I lost control and fell on the ground."
They were dragged by the bike for 50 metres down the road. "I looked over my shoulder and these guys were coming at us. I looked to the ground and saw the journalist lying down, unconscious. He was not moving. I started to run towards the hills. I heard them shouting: `Kill him! Kill him!' "
Mr Araujo escaped into the woods and made his way back to the Hotel Turismo. It was hours before anyone took notice - that night the Australian officers on duty had enough on their hands.
Shortly before Mr Thoenes arrived in Becora a ramshackle blue taxi had driven down the same road. In it were an East Timorese driver and interpreter and two other foreign journalists - Jon Swain of The Sunday Times and Chip Hires of the Gamma photographic agency. Halfway up the road the vehicle started belching fumes and the four decided to turn back but the car had no reverse gear and, as the driver was attempting to turn, the men on motorbikes arrived. They called the interpreter out of the car and started hitting him before whisking him away in another vehicle. The back window of the taxi was smashed with stones. Guns were being fired outside the car and the driver was beaten so badly with a rifle butt that his eye hung out of the socket. An Indonesian army officer arrived on the scene but did nothing to intervene.
After a lot of shooting the car was ordered to turn round and the driver, in shock, groggily took the wheel. A few yards down the road they were ordered out of the car again.
"One of the guys got off his motorbike and shot the front tyre of the car, shot the radiator," said Mr Swain. "We got out of the car very rapidly, because we thought we might be shot inside. I started edging away towards the side of the road. I said to Chip `We're going to have to leg it very fast - they're going to kill us'.
"One of the soldiers got off his bike and riddled the car with bullets. He suddenly said `Go! Go! Go!' and we just legged it," said Mr Swain. "He fired after us but not, I think, at us. It would have been quite difficult to miss, but we just melted into the bushes." It is not known what happened to the driver.
Early yesterday Australian armoured troop carriers picked up the two journalists from Becora. Huddled in the woods, they had called The Sunday Times on a mobile telephone. The newspaper contacted the Australian Army in East Timor and 100 men and several Blackhawk helicopters were sent out in search of them.
The two spent hours in the jungle, hiding in bushes and listening as feet tramped through the undergrowth near by. Every now and then there were rapid bursts of automatic gunfire. It was in one of these, one can assume, that Mr Thoenes fell.
His body was found early yesterday in the back yard of a house a few hundred yards from the road. Those who saw him said he was lying face down, with a trail of blood behind him. One of his ears appeared to have been cut off. His body will be taken to Australia for an autopsy. It is too early to know exactly how or when he died. But there is no doubt who was responsible.
Mr Thoenes did not step on a landmine or walk into the middle of a gun battle. He was riding defencelessly down the road when Indonesian soldiers fired at him. These were not terrorist irregulars but members of one of the biggest armies in Asia, a force armed with foreign weapons, with many officers trained in the West. They did it before in East Timor in 1975, when five British, Australian and New Zealand journalists were killed by invading Indonesian forces. The world under-estimated the evil of the Indonesian military then. Now, under the nose of the international community, the same thing has happened again.Reuse content