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Scenes from an occupation

Published: Jul 02, 2000

Review: A lone Australian filmmaker records East Timor's history-making year of 1999

Carmela Baranowska

In September 1999 I was among the last group of journalists to be evacuated from the UN compound in Dili. In the middle of East Timor's crisis we never knew what would happen next. As the Hercules aircraft took off from Dili airport we expected the worst - further genocide and international indifference. We were wrong - but East Timor's history in the last 24 years would hardly have led us to believe otherwise.

By this stage I had spent four months in East Timor, filming day to day for my 67-minute documentary Scenes from an occupation, which was broadcast as two parts on SBS TV 'Dateline' in 1999. There were 600 journalists in East Timor during the referendum, but I was the only filmmaker to document the last six months of Indonesia's occupation.

From the beginning in March 1999 I was adamant that interviewing Timorese 'after the fact' would be of little use. I planned to be in East Timor over a long period. I believed I could document reality 'as it happened'. I wanted to see and hear the Timorese speaking to one another, without the mediating influence of a Western expert whom the audience could recognise. If I missed an event there would be no re-enactment.

After the massacre at Liquica in April 1999 my filming concentrated on reactions at the headquarters of the Council for National Timorese Resistance (CNRT) in Dili, specifically from the survivors who went there to give their eyewitness accounts of what took place. At that time there was no UN presence, nor any international observers in East Timor. Amazingly, the Australian government was still arguing publicly that the militias were not supported by the Indonesian military. Kosovo dominated world headlines. East Timor was largely forgotten.

The massacres at Liquica and Dili in April 1999 have been overshadowed by what is usually referred to as 'the post-ballot violence'. As a filmmaker who documented both periods I would argue that the killings in April were a well-orchestrated dress rehearsal by the Indonesian military and their latest offspring - the militias.

By late August there had been a predictable transformation in Dili's militia. They now wore personalised 'Aitarak' sweatshirts, provided by the TNI. They had also been joined by Kopassus soldiers - locals and journalists who knew them sighted them repeatedly in Dili's suburb of Becora, also wearing the 'Aitarak' logo.

For the East Timorese the role of the Kopassus special forces in destabilising East Timor was hardly a new phenomenon. In taped addresses, sent out from house arrest in Jakarta and circulated throughout East Timor before the ballot, Xanana Gusmao reiterated their prominent historical role in orchestrating violence for their own advancement.

Initially Australians showed only muted indifference to such allegations. However as 1999 progressed this gradually turned into a ready acceptance by the mainstream media and eventually even by the government. By the end of the year Australia's commercial Channel 9 network was referring to Indonesia's 'brutal occupation' of East Timor. Back in January, the ABC had still been politely referring to the territory's 'integration' into Indonesia.

Any account of 1999 - whether documentary or written - can only ever be partial. But the mere presence of a video camera in 1999 helped render individuals and organisations as documented history, whereas the massacres at Mt Matebian in the late 1970s and Kraras in 1983 live on only as memory, song and oral history.

As East Timor moves towards independence the Timorese have already begun to document their own histories for their own purposes. During this period of accounting it will be the East Timorese person who will sit opposite the Indonesian military general and ask 'Why?'

Carmela Baranowska is a documentary filmmaker. 'Scenes from an occupation' is available for sale to individuals, schools, universities and community groups. Email for Australia/NZ, elsewhere, web site

Inside Indonesia 63: Jul - Sep 2000{jcomments on}

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