The War Nerd: Escape from East Timor (Part Two)
[Continued from Escape from East Timor: Part One]
I saw it now, nosing through the gate like a shark sniffing around a tank. It made for us, but slowly, slowly. Time slows down, they say. So did the van. It cut across our bows and came very slowly to an almost-stop. The left side-window went down (it’s right-hand drive in Timor, so Mark’s ghoul scowl had to lean half-way across the front seat). My stomach did something funny. Knees also.
“Hi!” I said, in a high voice.
The plummy python voice commenced. “Hellooooo John…did you get my eeeemail?”
Well, I might not have been a vertebrate but I know people who are and I threw them at him.
“Hi yeah look um I talked about it with my editors and they’re absolutely against it... absolutely opposed. I mean you don’t wanna get in an Internet fight with Paul Carr and Mark Ames— I mean you really don’t—”
At this point I was leaning in the window. I noticed, for the first time, that Mark was not alone in the van. There was a very hard, aged Timorese face in the backseat, glaring at me. It was that glare that started to clear things up for me. It wasn’t a "you-have-offended-my-foreign-son-in-law glare"; it was from the war. You could see the war in that glare. Whatever was going on came from that face, not from Mark Juba. In fact, he didn’t seem to know what to do and broke off the conversation suddenly:
“No, I don’t want to get into an Internet war… Look, why don’t you just give me a handwritten retraction. It doesn’t have to be published. It doesn’t have to appear anywhere.”
That was just weird. I knew enough to refuse, but I really didn’t get it. What good would a private, hand-written retraction do? Who was he going to show it to?
“No, I don’t think I can do that. Why can’t I just talk to whoever in the Australian government is mad about it? I’d be happy to do that. Just tell me who it is.”
His reaction was odd. It was the first time I’d seen him flinch. He didn’t like that idea at all. Then he got angry and blustered, “Look, I have my family with me. This is neither the time nor the place...”
I almost apologized to the bastard. “I’m sorry you had to hunt me down, y’know, with your family in the van with you and everything.”
“Come to my office tomorrow morning.”
Sure yeah absolutely—never.
We went home, locked the door, wiped off the sweat and shrieked to Pando. Paul responded with this stellar suggestion:
From: Paul Carr To: Me
I’d tell him in no uncertain terms tomorrow that your editor is happy to call the Australian Consulate-General in San Francisco tomorrow and iron out whatever international incident has been triggered by the piece. I feel sure that he will be able to speak to whoever needs to be spoken to [and] make this problem go away. I have faith that Australia is as committed to press freedom as we are here in the United States...
Explain too that I’m increasingly concerned that he appears to be trying to demand that John write a retraction under duress. If this guy continues down this path, tell him we’re going to have to publish a note on the piece explaining what’s going on... So I was so emboldened after this spine-transplant that I started teasing Juba a little in my reply. I began with “Good news. After our unexpected encounter today, I talked to my editor Paul Carr, who has suggested a way out of this impasse…”
Juba’s response was instant and panicky:
I think it's best if no one does or says anything else, especially a third/fourth party talking to Australian diplomats. As long as there won't be any more written, I'll ensure the relevant people are made aware of that. Let's leave it at that.
Mark It was like one of those school stories where you stand up to the bully, or rather you get someone else to stand up to him for you. For the first time in weeks, we weren’t flinching at every sound or scanning the traffic for the dreaded LELI van. Suddenly we had the upperhand, and yet I wasn’t really sure why. We didn’t even care at that point. The relief was huge. Katherine was able to take a nap in the first time in weeks and I went out to run in the hotel pool, my favorite thing in the world.
The afternoon storm was starting and the cool rain was massaging my head. Around the eightieth lap I started to come up with a theory for what this was all about.
There never was any pressure from the Australian government. That was a lie, outright. (Gotta remember to consider outright lies! I'm an old hand at deception, but outright lies flummox me even in my old age.)
The Australian gov't, as I indicated in my article, is notoriously "risk-averse" and sensitive to public opinion. No way they’d risk a scandal by punishing an employee for something her spouse wrote.
And how likely was it that the Indonesian army elite was upset with a War Nerd article? I’m not that big. Those people are creeps, but they’re world-class creeps, they’re out of my league. They run logging empires, CI campaigns, protection rackets… bigger fish to torture.
No, I decided, Juba had been bluffing me with this Canberra/Wellington stuff. No government was involved. That's why he flinched when I asked to talk to my Australian-government accuser, and why he dropped his whole harassment campaign instantly when Paul threatened to talk to actual Australian government officials.
Which left me wondering, What was going on?
As the rain fell on my foreign-legion hat running in the warm pool under the feathery palms (god I miss that pool), I remembered some odd things Juba said to me in our few, brief conversations. His first objection to the article was that it was too hard on the Indonesian Army. This was just weird; no one defends TNI, not even Indonesians. It’s a commonplace in Timor that the Timorese get along fine with the Indonesians now because they blame TNI rather than the Indonesian people for the horrors inflicted on them. I remembered the odd soft spot Juba seemed to have for TNI. He’d said, “I mean really, you can't blame the Indonesians here.” You can’t? I kinda think you can! But he went on: “There's been war in Timor, always, and in many ways the Topasses were just as bad...."
The Topasses, sometimes called "the Black Portuguese," were were a local faction engaged in petty village strife. Comparing them to what TNI did in Timor from 1976 to 2000 is like comparing Tsarist pogroms with the Holocaust. TNI killed something like a quarter of the Timorese population using very efficient 20th c. military techniques.
And why did he keep emphasizing his wife's family in these exchanges? He kept going on about "my wife" and "my wife's mother" (the woman who'd been aiming that death-glare at me from the back seat) and how very, very upset they were with my article. "They were especially upset that you mentioned forced sterilization under the, ah, administration of the Indonesian...authorities..."
Other incidentals: He runs LELI, the only ESL school in Dili. Big town, everyone eager to learn English... no competition. LELI is his company. Illegal for foreigners to own property in Timor—unless you marry into it.
Everything here is family, and families took sides, as they always do in irregular war. Many Timorese families sided with TNI, and their hero now is Mauk Maruk, the very man whose attack on a police station near Baucau kept me from going back for a second week of teaching.
Mauk Maruk defected to TNI years into the war, moved to Indonesia, and now is a rebel voice for those who'd rather be back with Indonesia than part of an independent Timor that they feel is punishing them for picking the wrong side.
And as I was heading off to Baucau, Mark Juba brought up Mauk Maruk out of nowhere, with that telltale flinch and side glance of his that I'm just beginning to understand, saying, "After all, I mean the Timorese government pretends that Mauk Maruk is some kind ot threat [which he kinda turned out to be, shooting up the little town of Baguia two weeks later], but actually all he's saying is look, I want my people to get their share of the, the pie..."
All that came back to me in the pool.
In fact, after a moment of childish vanity—I’m like Hercule Poirot here! Solving mysteries and everything!—I realized, staring up at the palms on my ninety-fourth lap, that the risk of real violence was much higher with the scenario I was imagining than if it actually was the Australian or New Zealand governments I’d offended.
That settled it. Katherine had to quit. It’s way too easy to get someone killed in Timor, way too cheap. There are a lot of people who grew up with a gun in their hands and don’t know what else to do now. There always are after wars like this. If you’re plugged into the local network, it’s very easy to find someone like that. It wouldn’t even need to be something that looked like a murder. A lot of trucks driving around Dili with no brakes, and Katherine walked to work every day.
I went from vanity to horror, got out of the pool and told Katherine what I’d figured out. She wrote an email quitting her job. And Pando, God bless it, paid for our flights out.
We were very careful crossing the street for that last week. I still don’t know for certain what the hell was going on in Timor. My best guess is still just a guess. We flew out, and as the plane grabbed some air I said to Katherine, “There, that’s where Juba’s power ends, right there.”
We looked down, and there was that fringing reef. Three months in Timor and, what with being dead broke for the first half and terrorized for the second, we never did get to snorkel.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]