Mr Cook, we are up in arms

Why do women in Liverpool care so deeply about British arms exports to Indonesia? Paul Vallely meets a group which has vowed to pursue direct action until Labour's new ethical foreign policy bans the trade
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''He's a friend of mine," says Costa. The silence of the group of women in the room intensifies. On the TV screen in the corner of the room appears the gaunt figure of Alfredo. The camera lingers over his painful frame as he recounts how he was tortured: cigarette burns, fingernails pulled out, and a table leg rubbed up shins until the bones came through. Then he was shot four times. Miraculously he survived, but his body carries the cruel marks.

"It makes me ashamed to be British," says Eileen Laing afterwards. Costa is a refugee in his early twenties, from the tiny island of East Timor in the Indonesian archipelago. Eileen is a grandmother from the parish of St Michael's in Liverpool. Theirs is a curious alliance, but one so singular that last year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, Bishop Carlos Belo, who is in London this weekend to deliver the Millennium Lecture of the Catholic aid agency, Cafod, is to make a special journey to Liverpool to meet Eileen and her friends.

A group of them are in the room to watch the TV programme - a World in Action expose of British arms exports to Indonesia, the country that has illegally occupied East Timor for 23 years. East Timor is one of those causes which the New Right used to deride as an example of the marginal daftness of the chattering classes, the kind of thing Harold Pinter used to write to The Guardian about. But there is nothing of that about Eileen and her friends, respectable middle-aged ladies in sensible flowery frocks and light summer cardigans. Some of them are more than middle-aged. Mollie is in her eighties, but refuses to tell anyone exactly how old she is.

Still, she remembers when her home town was bombed, during the Second World War. At a service held in the bombed-out church of St Luke's - which stands as a memorial to the Nazi blitzing of Liverpool - she told the others what it was like to be attacked by aircraft. It was a sobering connection, for they were gathered to march on the city's law courts in a protest over the sale of 40 British Hawk attack aircraft, which the East Timorese say have been used to relentlessly bomb and strafe tens of thousands of villagers from their homes. British Aerospace, which makes the planes, vehemently denies this; it must be some other aircraft. But among Mollie's party is another East Timorese refugee, Lopes, who tells of the many occasions he has seen the Hawks in action with his own eyes. There is no doubt whom the women of Liverpool believe.

It is not just the Hawks. Britain is now the single most important supplier of arms to the regime in Indonesia, which is responsible for the worst genocide since the Nazi Holocaust. A third of the population of East Timor - 260,000 people - have been slaughtered by the Indonesian army's killing squads, or by the famine that creeps in their wake. The rest are terrorised by the occupying army, displaced from the land, their Tetum language and culture suppressed, their women raped and forced to undergo sterilisation as part of a systematic attempt to wipe out the Timorese and replace them with Indonesian migrants. The territorial waters around the island, you see, are rich in oil.

All this has been carried out with the aid of British arms, many of them made just up the road at the British Aerospace factory at Warton in Lancashire. It was there that, last year, four women sneaked into the grounds and, armed only with hammers, smashed up a Hawk jet destined for Indonesia. Other British firms have also sent armoured vehicles and water cannons - and Bramshill Police College has, on the aid budget, trained the security forces of President Suharto to use riot-control techniques to keep his regime in power.

Indonesia has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Arbitrary detention and torture are part of daily life, according to Amnesty International. Disappearances remain uninvestigated, and there has been no recrimination even for the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991, when troops fired on mourners at a political funeral and killed more than 250 people.

So New Labour's announcement that ethics are to form a plank in its foreign policy has turned all eyes on Indonesia, which constitutes the strongest case for a change in Britain's policy. Which is why the women of Liverpool are concerned at reports filtering out from the Foreign Office that export licences issued under the Tories last December were not to be revoked, permitting seven armoured water cannons, 17 armoured vehicles and 16 new Hawk jets to be exported to the regime.

There are East Timor support groups all over the UK, but it was the trial that involved Eileen and her fellow parishioners at St Michael's, near the Anfield district of the city. The four women who smashed up the Hawk jet could not be tried at Preston Crown Court. The Ribble valley which surrounds it is the heartland of the British arms industry. Some 77,000 jobs there are directly arms-related, to say nothing of the subsidiaries and service industries that depend upon them. To secure an unbiased jury, the hearing was transferred to Liverpool.

The trial brought a sea change. "Before then, it felt as if we were pushing uphill, but now it has a total momentum of its own," says Joanna Wilson, a former Sunday school teacher who was one of the four women who were dramatically acquitted at the end of the trial, after the jury accepted their contention that their action was a last recourse against what the UN has officially branded as genocide. "In the six weeks before the trial things really mushroomed. Peace groups, church groups, women's groups, youth groups, political groups and trade unionists came together. Ordinary people were talking in pubs about something happening across the other side of the world."

At St Michael's RC church the parish priest, Fr Arthur Fitzgerald, began to mention the subject in his homilies. Soon after, "a group of women in their fifties and sixties who," as Jo Wilson puts it " had never done any campaigny thing before in their lives" leafleted the cathedral when the new archbishop of Liverpool was being inaugurated. They held what the priest calls "silent, persistent, unaggressive protests" outside the court. Since then members of the Liverpool protest group have been involved in countless meetings, vigils and demonstrations, which have included moves to get Liverpool City Council to enter into a twinning arrangement with the capital of East Timor. They have disrupted the British Aerospace AGM, and anointed the Department of Trade and Industry with dust on Ash Wednesday. This week they have pressed MPs to put down an early day motion in the Commons. Some 60 of them routinely hold vigils of silent prayer outside the factory at Warton where eight of them, including the parish priest and four Timorese refugees, were arrested after climbing the fence to hold an Easter liturgy at the end of regular Lenten vigils outside the gates.

"Twelve months ago we didn't know where East Timor was," says one of the women, Rachel Mulrooney.

"We have changed. Look at that general," she adds, referring to the Indonesian front-man who had tried to defend the regime's actions on the TV programme. "He's living an illusion. We were living it too, we were encouraged to," she says of the arms industry which dominates the North-west. "It may seem naive, but I think basically people are decent - if they know about it they will insist on something being done. That's what happened to us."

Two Timorese refugees have come to live with the residential Catholic community which has been set up in Fr Fitz's sprawling Victorian presbytery. Both Ermenegildo Lopes and Moises da Costa escaped from the Indonesian army and made their way, via Portugal, to England. "Now that Costa and Lopes are with us, East Timor isn't thousands of miles away," says Eileen. "It's here, where they sing songs of their homeland and tell stories of their mothers and the families they have left behind. It's heart-breaking."

But not all hearts are broken. "It's money," says Mollie. "We know that from trying to leaflet at the factory gates. They just pour past, refusing our leaflets, as they speed off to their wives, their homes, their mortgages. They leave their conscience at the door. It's the money."

Indeed it is. Britain is the world's second-largest arms exporter (after the US) capturing a quarter of the world market last year, up from 16 per cent in 1994 and 19 per cent in 1995. In no other export sector is Britain anywhere near so successful, earning pounds 5bn a year, creating at least 120,000 jobs. And Indonesia, the fifth biggest country in the world, as an Asian tiger economy with oil represents a huge potential market for arms and other goods. It bought $201m of arms from Britain between 1988 and 1992, and we are due to sell more this year than ever before; total exports to Indonesia from the EU were $4.1bn in 1990, and by 1994 had risen to $5.7bn. It's a growing and significant market-place. No wonder the Asia desk at the Foreign Office is closely DTI-linked, and is particularly unresponsive to lobbying by human rights groups.

Though Indonesia's annexation of East Timor in 1976, two years after it received independence from Portugal, was as illegal as Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait or General Galtieri's takeover of the Falklands, the long-term Foreign Office attitude is "no change in policy until Suharto goes". The fears must be that New Labour will not change it, especially since Robin Cook must be unwilling to sour relations with Foreign Office mandarins so soon on what they regard as a peripheral issue. Behind the scenes it is said that Cook is thinking of a token future ban on water cannon, but is less malleable on the expensive, high-tech hardware, especially with new questions hanging over British Aerospace's Euro-fighter. And he is unlikely to revoke existing licences for fear of hefty compensation bills from British exporters. Labour did not promise an ethical foreign policy, cynical insiders point out, only "an ethical dimension" to it.

The Liverpool campaigners are undaunted. "There's a new mood after years of despair," says one of the men, Terry Egan. "You've got to move quickly, while the air of decency is still new. It's an opportunity we've never had before. Cook is signalling that he is susceptible to pressure. We have to exert that before he meets Jose Ramos-Horta [Timorese foreign minister-in-exile, and Bishop Belo's fellow Nobel laureate] on July 3." Rachel announces that she will lobby the Prime Minister's wife: "I'm going to write to Cherie; after all she launched the Cafod campaign against land-mines". They discuss plans for a march, on the anniversary of the trial, from Liverpool to Warton. There may be a campaign, too, to persuade the local football clubs, Liverpool and Everton, to boycott companies such as Nike and Adidas which manufacture in Indonesia.

Will all this bring success? "We were doing the Old Testament Prophets as part of the syllabus at school recently," says another of the group, Julie Currall, an RE teacher. "What you learn from them is that success doesn't matter. The work of a prophet is not about seeing results; it's about offering an alternative." And anyway, says Rachel, "it's like throwing in a pebble: the ripples spread out, and you may touch someone and never know it." So as long as people like Costa are being tortured, the women of Liverpool will just keep on going. Robin Cook should take note.