Aboard the Timor peace ship

Issue 

By John Tomlinson

In the wake of the November 12 massacre in Dili, Portuguese students organised the "Missao paz em Timor". And so, on March 9, 120 people from 21 countries boarded the Lusitania Expresso in Darwin with the intention of laying a wreath at the Santa Cruz cemetery in memory of those who died on November 12. The aim of the trip was to make the world stop and think about the people of East Timor and the injustice which has been inflicted on them.

Indonesian military spokespersons had announced beforehand that we would be stopped from entering Indonesian waters, stopped from landing in Dili, refused permission to go to Santa Cruz, blown out of the water ... There were also Indonesian newspapers reporting that the ship had a mine on board which was to be used by the organisers of the peace mission to blow it up in order to pretend that the Indonesian navy had sunk us.

In the late afternoon, with the sun sinking below our bow and 600 people standing on the Darwin wharf singing the Timorese national anthem, the Lusitania Expresso sailed for Timor.

On board were Italians, French, Canadians, Indonesians, Dutch, Brazilians, Australians, British, Portuguese, Indians, Japanese, Swedes, Germans and students from several African countries. The flags of many countries and of the United Nations were hung from an upper rail as a symbol of our truly international character. There were students and workers, men and women, old and young, a Portuguese ex-president and Australian parliamentarians, ex-servicemen and pacifists, and we were united.

The trip proceeded without incident until 8.45 on our second night out, when we had a report that the admiral in charge of the Timor Sea had threatened to shoot us out of the water if we tried to enter Indonesian waters. This was disconcerting, since he'd previously maintained that he only intended to turn us back. We were about an hour away from the Indonesian 200-mile exclusive zone and we had a report from the bridge that they had picked up two ships on the radar, which had a 24-mile range for ships. I went up on deck but could see nothing.

As I returned to the deck at 10.50, a boat light appeared on our port bow about three miles off, coming directly towards us. It was a large vessel, which took up a position half a mile astern and shadowed us all night. During the night it was joined by two other warships.

By dawn we were in sight of the mountains of Timor reaching out in the early morning sun. It was an Australian-supplied warship, Number 353, which at 7.40 a.m., when we were within 12 to 15 miles of Timor, twice ordered the Lusitania Expresso to turn around and leave Indonesian waters. We had reports that there were up to 14 Indonesian warships in the area. We were constantly overflown by a military plane and by two naval and one army helicopter.

At 7.45 we turned round and began heading 10 miles back to sea, where we were given permission to wait one and a half hours while we cretary general of the United Nations to intervene to allow us to proceed. The day before, he had called on Indonesia not to act aggressively towards the peace mission, and Xanana Gusmao, leader of the East Timorese resistance, said his troops would not fire on the Indonesians while the peace mission was in Timor waters.

As we turned away from East Timor, a short ceremony in Tetum, English, French, German, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese was conducted on the stern and the wreaths we had hoped to lay at Santa Cruz cemetery were thrown into the water. Many of us cried, disappointed that we had not reached Dili.

Silence fell as people just stood and stared as Timor disappeared behind us. Indonesian warships carried out manoeuvres which brought them within a quarter of a mile of us.

At a series of meetings on board, we decided that Australia should organise a further peace mission to East Timor, to leave Darwin on March 9, 1993. This peace mission is designed either to go to Dili to celebrate East Timor's independence or — if Indonesia has not by then carried out a United Nations-supervised referendum — to again remind Indonesia of the world's desire for it to respect the human rights of the East Timorese.

The Portuguese organisers have agreed to continue to work on the international component of the second peace mission, but this still leaves Australia with the task of raising $1.5 million. This will require the support of the Catholic church, the trade union movement and all Australians of good will. A million and a half dollars may sound a lot of money but it is only 8 cents from every Australian.