By Kim Linden
MELBOURNE — Simon de Faux, a Victorian nurse sent to East Timor as a volunteer for the Catholic Church, was warned by the Australian government not to go public with his first-hand experiences of human rights abuses in East Timor. His story featured in some of the major dailies in May, but not others. He had since decided against giving any more interviews, but accepted Green Left Weekly's request because the paper campaigns publicly in support of East Timor's independence.
De Faux, 24, was initially going to Brazil as a volunteer health worker for the Salesian order, but at the last minute was sent to East Timor.
Once de Faux would have described himself as "a naive guy, who went to coffee shops at Bourke Street mall and lived in Prahran [one of Melbourne's more salubrious suburbs]". He said, "I only knew where East Timor was and that it is occupied by Indonesia. I didn't know much about what was really happening there ... I had a rosy life."
He left for East Timor on February 8. His view of the world was totally changed after two months of working there and "living in constant fear". At times he did not expect to make it back home.
Arriving in Dili, de Faux was met at the airport by a convoy of Indonesian officials: country police, secret police, military police and immigration officials. They made it clear that they didn't want a health care worker because, in their words, the health care system in East Timor was "adequate". The small amount of medical equipment and drugs de Faux took to East Timor were confiscated by the Indonesians — making it very clear, he said, that the Indonesians didn't want foreigners to help.
After staying in Dili with Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo, an active campaigner for East Timor's independence, he was sent to the island's south, to an area affected by the Indonesian government's transmigration program.
As de Faux explained, "The transmigration program involves shifting large numbers of Indonesians and people from Indonesian islands such as Sulawesi and Bali to East Timor. These people are given land and provided with housing and water. The East Timorese are forced off their land and rehoused in villages with no area for them to farm."
This program of dispossession has allowed the Indonesians to establish a strong hold over the southern part of East Timor.
While in the south, de Faux visited the church-run hospitals, which are very poorly serviced and have minimal supplies. In some cases single-use items, such as needles, were being used up to 50 times. But it is to these hospitals the East Timorese prefer to go for medical care.
The Indonesians have set up hospitals in the south, but de Faux said that the East Timorese were reluctant to go for fear of the treatment they would receive. De Faux had heard reports of East Timorese women being injected with the anti-fertility drug Depo Provera while in Indonesian-run hospitals. The East Timorese are very quick to discharge themselves if they have no choice but to go. De Faux also visited infant clinics that were never frequented by East Timorese.
De Faux was twice threatened at gunpoint by Indonesian soldiers. The first incident occurred when he tried to stop soldiers beating an 8-year-old boy. He was bashed with a rifle butt by a soldier in the shoulder, and the boy was taken away.
The second incident took place when de Faux was photographing a market. A soldier standing in the background took offence and held him at gunpoint. De Faux believes his life was saved only when a nun intervened.
Because of these run-ins, de Faux, with the help of Bishop Belo, went to the mountainous north of East Timor, where Fretilin resistance fighters have their stronghold. He was smuggled there on the back of a truck underneath pig carcasses. De Faux says the Indonesians would not have touched the carcasses because of the Islamic taboo on pork.
There de Faux started treating people, albeit illegally. There was such an extreme need for health care that, at times, up to 80 people would line up, many with tuberculosis and malaria. Leprosy was also quite widespread.
It was there that de Faux first saw evidence that Indonesians were torturing East Timorese. He met people with burns in their noses and on their penises, the result of being tied up and having electrical wires attached. He also heard of another common torture method in which people's heads would be immersed in a barrel of water.
De Faux also treated women with tears in their vaginas from being repeatedly raped. He said that nearly every family had lost at least one member at the hands of the Indonesians.
Those most targeted for torture are the educated East Timorese, particularly university students, because, De Faux said, these people are most likely to lead the resistance against the Indonesians. He recalled when he asked a student in Dili if it was OK to talk, the student replied, "I don't care; I'm dead anyway".
De Faux's nursing work had to be done under cover. If he had helped the East Timorese openly, they would either be killed or he would have been "booted out" by the Indonesians.
De Faux met the Canadian ambassador and tried to off-load his story and film. He was told to talk to the Australian government and met Australia's ambassador to Indonesia, Allan Taylor, on March 8, while in northern East Timor.
Taylor's secretary, Alistair Cox, told de Faux not to talk to the media about what he had experienced. "Cox and I argued for three hours, and then Taylor and Cox drove off in their four-wheel drives and I was left standing there surrounded by Indonesian military with rifles hanging off their shoulders.
"The Australian government, telling me not to go to the media, was a cop-out. [Gareth] Evans' line since is that they [the Australian government] told me not to tell my story for fear of my safety. This is bullshit. Australia is not doing anything about East Timor because it signed the Timor Gap Treaty with Indonesia."
Despite the advice, de Faux did go public. He smuggled the films he had taken out of East Timor by "shoving them up" his arse. He approached the Melbourne Age and his story made front cover news on May 16.
Evans responded on the May 17 7:30 Report by commenting that there was "a lot of openness creeping into the Indonesian system" but that this needed to be extended to East Timor. In other words he was forced to admit that there is a problem in East Timor.
However De Faux has doubts about the resolve of any government, least of all Australia's, to bring pressure to bear on Indonesia. "Boutros-Ghali of the United Nations says they will look into the problem. The US has the bargaining power in the UN but it forces other countries to back down from doing anything about East Timor."