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East Timor Monday, 23 August, 1999, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
Eyewitness: The trials of East Timor
protesting students
Peaceful demonstrations often turn into bloody riots
By BBC Asia Correspondent Matt Frei

The soldier's body had been lying in the open coffin for three hours and the odour was pungent. But it was not what you would expect. The odour was pleasantly sour and very familiar.

The soldier's relatives did not seem to notice or care. They were too busy grieving. Their sobs echoed through the polished mess hall of the Indonesian army barracks, used as a temporary morgue.

East Timor
I looked into the coffin, trimmed with white lace, to find a corpse completely caked with a cloying brown substance that looked at first like mud. But this was coffee. Mario Da Costa had been mummified in East Timor's finest Arabica - the province's most prized export. It is the same coffee that makes your cup of cappuccino so expensive.

"Why the coffee?" I asked a soldier? "Coffee is one thing we have in abundance. It also stops the bleeding," he said and showed me a photograph.

A vengeful crowd

grieving family
Another funeral in East Timor are good at funerals
Mario Da Costa, was a 48-year-old father-of-three, sergeant in the Indonesian armed forces had been hacked to death by his neighbours. The pictures showed a naked body lacerated with deep long gashes - the signature of machetes at work.

Mario had not expected to die. He was sitting on the porch of his small house wearing a T-shirt and shorts. He was off duty but he had the misfortune to be spotted by a crowd thirsting for revenge.

A killing frenzy

Half an hour before the machetes ploughed into him two students were shot dead by pro-Indonesian loyalists and soldiers at a peaceful demonstration. Mario's death was retribution.

East Timor
In their killing frenzy the mob did not wish to weigh up the subtle nuances of his existence. Mario, who was born-and-bred East Timorese only worked for the army because it offered a steady wage. His is one of the countless tragedies witnessed by this idyllic island. It is Indonesia's version of Northern Ireland - only far bloodier.

Consider the statistics. Almost 250,000 people, one third of the province's population, were killed by warfare or famine as a result of Indonesia's invasion in 1975. In percentage terms that must be a world record.

More burials

Not surprisingly the East Timorese are good at funerals. In a place where death crosses the dividing line with such ease it is fitting that the civilian cemetery lies cheek by jowl with the army's cemetery.

So on that hot Friday morning it was the students' turn to be buried first at the famous Santa Cruz cemetery. Thousands of people crowded into this graveyard already congested with tombstones and crosses. Many of them had brought their machetes and spears.

Hardship and misery

Ten minutes after this funeral the army buried Mario, across the road with full military honours. Both funerals were a reminder, if reminders were needed, why East Timor is heading for independence.

The people here have experienced nothing but hardship and misery as a result of Indonesia's invasion.

Suharto and his generals saw East Timor as a matter of national honour and prestige. It was their shooting gallery with live ammunition and living targets. But the price of occupation was also measured in dead soldiers - more than 40,000 of them.

A pebble in our shoe

ex-president suharto
Former President Suharto saw East Timor as a matter of honour
Today Indonesia can no longer afford such quixotic and bloody adventures. The country is virtually coming apart at the seams.

Ali Alatas, Indonesia's veteran foreign minister once dismissed East Timor "as a pebble in our shoe". Well now it seems the pebble has been shaken out with a vengeance. After 24 years of brutal occupation Indonesia now wants to walk out and wash its hands.

The island is virtually cut off from the rest of the country. There are only three flights a week to Bali and all of them over-booked for the foreseeable future.

Few surgeons

There is one boat a week. It takes five days. What shocked me most is that a province of 850,000 people does not have a single surgeon. The last Indonesian doctor capable of performing operations fled in February. The military surgeon only operates on soldiers.

The wards of the general hospital only open a few hours each day. Stained with blood and buzzing with flies they feel like morgues. Every day at least 50 people die because there is no medical treatment.

Those who argue that tiny East Timor is not viable as an independent state should sample the province's health service. Things can ONLY get better.

Matt Frei: "Sunsets here announce the hours of terror"
See also:

05 Mar 99 | Asia-Pacific
Links to more East Timor stories are at the foot of the page.

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