Today marks the 20th anniversary of East Timor voting to separate from Indonesia - a result which sparked a violent backlash which killed hundreds and left thousands displaced. Two decades later, Herald senior journalist Kurt Bayer speaks to three Kiwis who played critical roles on the bloody road to peace.
When the bandanna-clad pro-Jakarta militiamen started shooting at his house, Ray Seymour lit a fire. With bullets zinging all around, he ruefully burned his classified, top-secret report to ash before hiding in a stone bathtub.
Shivering in the darkness, as East Timor burned, Seymour, a Vietnam veteran, considered his options. He was alone. Unarmed. The phone lines were jammed and he had nowhere to run. To be captured as a spy was to sign his own death warrant. Shudder. He had to wait it out.
A chance for independence
Five days earlier. August 30, 1999. Voting day had gone remarkably smoothly. A staggering 438,968 people, amounting to 98.6 per cent of eligible voters, turned out to have their say.
Indonesian President BJ Habibie set events in motion back in January when he said East Timor would be given the opportunity to reject the offer of special autonomy and legally separate from Indonesia. The United Nations (UN) pounced on it and agreed to oversee a referendum later in the year.
When the day finally came, determined mothers walked miles barefoot with babies slung across their fronts. Threats of villages being razed to the ground were ignored. The people were taking the chance to finally sever ties with Indonesia after 24-years of often brutal rule.
At the UN headquarters on the outskirts of the capital Dili, the "City of Peace", deputy chief military liaison officer for United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), Colonel Neville Reilly, a New Zealander with nearly 30 years in the military, had anticipated violence. They'd only been there two months. And they'd been busy, with their main task ensuring the referendum ballot went ahead safely. Reilly was keeping constant tabs on his 50 international military liaison officers (MLOs) spread across the mountainous country, including four fellow Kiwis.
"Ballot day really felt like the calm before the storm," he'd recall 20 years later.
At Liquica, a small coastal city 32km west of Dili, famous for its neoclassical colonial Portuguese ruins, Royal New Zealand Air Force Squadron Leader Logan Cudby was equally pleasantly surprised at how things were going. Voting day had seen some intimidation from the Indonesia-backed militia groups but nothing like Cudby had feared – and witnessed earlier. On just his second day in the country, his convoy ferrying terrified refugees had been attacked by three truckloads of militiamen armed with clubs and sticks. Unarmed, he and his Australian Defence Force (ADF) counterpart who spoke Bahasa Indonesian, managed to escape unscathed, and without the loss of any lives. But it was a sign of things to come.
The campaign of terror and intimidation before East Timor's historic independence referendum had gone on for months. In April, as many as 200 locals were massacred at the Liquica Catholic parish church by frenzied militias, including the infamous, highly feared red-and-white Besi Merah Putih (BMP), whose members were often fuelled on cocktails of alcohol, animal blood and drugs. Cudby, who'd served as an MLO in Bosnia during the Siege of Sarajevo, now had the pleasure of being based at the church.
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"You could still see bloodstains. There was no doubt that it had happened," says Cudby, who later uncovered 20 bodies dumped in a well at the BMP-stronghold village of Maubara.
Violence ahead of the poll raised fears it could be delayed on security grounds. But rival armed factions agreed to surrender weapons and keep the peace ahead of the vote.
Reilly made sure he got around the countryside. He met with resistance fighters at secret camps and also with pro-Indonesia militia members where they handed over weapons. Often, a great ceremonial fuss was made before some token ancient guns were handed over, Reilly recalls.
By August 1999, the New Zealand Government decided to send a delegation of parliamentarians to observe the UN-sponsored ballot on East Timor's future. The party included Labour's Phil Goff, Matt Robson of Alliance, Ken Shirley with ACT and Mauri Pacific's Rana Waitai, led by National MP Roger Maxwell.
Seymour, who enlisted with the Army in 1963 as a 16-year-old, had been working at the New Zealand Embassy in Jakarta. He'd been keeping a close eye on developments in East Timor and was the perfect man to be appointed as the delegation's defence attache.
It was a cute title for what essentially amounted to him being escorted around East Timor as an "overt spy".
The UN didn't have any intelligence operations at that time and were worried how pro-Indonesia groups would react to the referendum results.
"So how were they going to get information? Well, through me," says Seymour, a legendary New Zealand Defence Force figure. The son of a World War II veteran awarded the Greek equivalent of the Victoria Cross for helping escort the King of Greece off the Mediterranean island of Crete in 1941 as Nazi paratroopers invaded, Seymour twice fought in Vietnam as a section commander, including on the first deployment in 1967. The next year he was blown up by a landmine which badly smashed his legs, arms and both eardrums. He'd finally retire from the Army after 50 years of service and which saw him occupy various senior posts including Director of Infantry and NZSAS, Chief of Operations and boss of the National Army Museum at Waiouru.
As the delegation spent a week touring a simmering East Timor, visiting various factions, including top militant Xanana Gusmao, who would become the first President of East Timor, and getting a gauge of the political situation, Seymour was furiously taking things in. The state of the roads. Where helicopters could land. Water quality. TV reception. Who spoke English. Useful contacts and telephone numbers.
By the time the politicians and the New Zealand ambassador to Indonesia, the late Michael Green, flew out of Dili, there were thousands of frightened locals at the airport, trying to flee. Tensions were rising with the referendum results due to be announced the following day.
Seymour was left behind. Feeling exposed and alone, he thundered a UN vehicle back to his personal base - a gated house in a relatively affluent suburb some 5km away. He locked up and sat down to start writing his much-anticipated intelligence report.
Outside, things were starting to heat up.
The violent reaction
Bang on 9am on September 4, 1999 ,the election results were announced. Indonesia had been soundly defeated, with 78.5 per cent of voters favouring independence.
Within hours, the backlash began. Remainers took up arms and started looting. Balaclava-bound men on motorbikes took off with TV sets, firing pistols into the air. Shootings, bashings, crazed wanton violence.
By late morning, from his UN compound – really just an old school - Reilly could see black smoke filling the horizon as the city started to burn into a state of anarchy. Reports were soon flooding in from around the country of attacks on locally employed UN staff, university students and other locals.
With responsibility for the security of the UN mission, Reilly scrambled helicopters and land convoys to evacuate the most-threatened people while urging Indonesian officials to fulfill their promises of security and safety for all UN staff, no matter how things went.
It was a frantic few hours. Life or death decisions. He checked on Cudby in Liquica, and also his other Kiwi MLOs, Jon Knight, Mark Ogilvie, and Philip Morrison.
Around mid-afternoon, Reilly remembered his old Army buddy Seymour, who was holed up in a house across town. Intel suggested rampant militiamen were headed his way. He phoned Seymour's landline, which could take incoming calls, but couldn't make any outgoing calls.
"I told him to get out of that house," Reilly recalls. They'd been young officers together and shared a high level of trust. Seymour could either make a run for the Dili police chief's place some 5km away or the Australian Embassy in the other direction.
Seymour, still furiously writing the intelligence report, weighed things up and decided to stay put.
"I said, 'Thank you very much Neville but from what I've heard and seen so far today, there's no way that I really want to venture out of my hide'."
Seymour could see a house on fire about 500m away, other plumes of smoke, and could hear small arms and automatic gunfire. But he told Reilly he was safe for now.
"As soon as I put the phone down, wang! My house was shot at," Seymour says. "At that moment, it was like the starter in a Grand Prix – he dropped the flag and there was a great roar. Things started to heat up and over the next hour or so the firing just got heavier and heavier. There was no doubt that whoever it was, was keen to get into my house."
Without any access to weapons, Seymour made observation posts at the front and rear of the property before crafting a bamboo ladder for an escape route over the back wall.
As the gunfire intensified, his attention turned to his intelligence report. To be caught with it, would almost certainly mean a death sentence. He quickly lit a fire and torched his valuable document before hiding in a mundi - an Indonesian brick bath. He smashed a chair and made a lid for his hideout. It was freezing cold but he felt safe. Seymour sat tight.
A lucky escape
It was similar scenes down in Liquica. Cudby had been watching dark billows of smoke fill the sky. They seemed to be getting nearer. A rear escape route was plotted and they got ready to make a quick exit.
At about 3pm, militia vehicles blocked his compound's entrance and came storming in armed with pipeguns, pistols, machetes, sticks and rocks. Their lives were at risk and there was no time to muck about.
"We left really quickly via our planned escape route. It was a bit hairy then," Cudby says in typical Kiwi understatement. But it was close shave. One MLO officer would later say, "We couldn't have stayed a minute longer".
The plan was to drive to an Indonesian police compound and get a helicopter out of danger.
But as they sped through the litter strewn and black-smoke filled dusty streets, with burned out houses, shops, hotels and government buildings, pistol-toting militiamen were waiting for them. At crossroads and from shop fronts, they fired at the fleeing UN vehicles. Bullets pinged into the Land Rover's metal and shattered windows.
"Each vehicle probably took 30-40 rounds," Cudby says. An American policeman took three shots in the belly but would survive. He was the only casualty of the dozen UN staff fleeing that day.
"We were very, very lucky."
Things died down overnight. But Reilly knew it would soon spark off again. And he hadn't heard from Seymour and was beginning to worry.
At daybreak on September 5, he rounded up a few trusty lieutenants, including Cudby, and made a mad dash for Seymour's house.
Marauding gunmen were back roaming the streets and the streaking sight of the UN Land Rover was "a red rag to a bull", Reilly says. Shots were fired at them but they kept racing along.
For Seymour, it had been a long, sleepless and nervy night huddled in his bathtub refuge. Late at night, the intense shooting had died down but he hadn't dared to move.
By next morning, he heard someone calling in English: "Ray! Ray!"
Seymour emerged and saw Reilly outside the locked gate, urging him to make a run for it.
The old comrades were glad to see each other. Seymour piled into the waiting vehicle and they took off.
"I was over the moon. They were my saviours," Seymour says.
He was dumped at Dili airport and caught the last flight out of East Timor, in a scene reminiscent of the frantic US evacuation of Saigon in 1975.
By the time Seymour finally got back to his Jakarta apartment it was 3am the following day and his phone was ringing. His superiors wanted their overdue intel report. He told them: "I burnt the bastard!"
But they still wanted it. His information was critical and could save lives. So after a few hours of sleep, Seymour shuffled down to his office and rewrote the report from memory before feeding it into a secure fax network.
The final report, dated September 8, 1999, is a remarkable document full of intelligence gems: "The road deteriorates 50km out of Lospalos with a particularly rough 10km stretch ... 4WD vehicles are essential ... availability of fuel and other mechanical services in Viqueque ... Presence of security forces in the region ... Viqueque militia is known as Troops for Integration and Struggle – 59/75 Junior ... militia recruits are very young, 16 years, uneducated boys ..."
The report, although a few days late, made his bosses very happy.
On May 20, 2002, East Timor became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan formally handed power to a government led by former guerrilla leader, Gusmao.
This week, Minister Phil Twyford is in Timor-Leste, as the country is now known, to attend the 20th anniversary of the country's independence referendum, on behalf of Foreign Minister Winston Peters.
"New Zealand has a warm relationship with Timor-Leste and has played an important role in the new nation since the 1999 referendum for independence," Twyford said.
New Zealand has helped build Timor-Leste over the past 20 years, with 5000 troops supporting the country's transition to independence between 1999-2002. Five Kiwi soldiers died over that period, including Private Leonard Manning, the nation's first combat casualty since the Vietnam War.
Both Reilly and Cudby were decorated for their actions in East Timor, with Reilly awarded the New Zealand Gallantry Star, second only to the Victoria Cross, for displaying "exceptional courage and presence in the face of great physical threat from the rampant militia forces" and rescuing Seymour at "considerable personal risk, displaying a total disdain for the chaos and danger around him".
Like many humble Kiwi servicemen and women before, and after him, including fellow Gallantry Star winner ex-SAS hero Steve Askin, who died in the 2017 Port Hills fires, Reilly gets uncomfortable talking about the medal.
But, along with Cudby and Seymour, he is proud of New Zealand's achievements in East Timor two decades ago. They all talk about the incredible teamwork and bravery of the Kiwis who helped the Timorese break out alone.
"When I think about what a small bunch of New Zealanders did, it was just outstanding, says Reilly, who would go on to command the first NZDF troops in Afghanistan in 2003, and later became New Zealand's resident ambassador in Kabul.
"I've seen New Zealanders overseas, in different environments, and we really are – I think it's our multicultural background – extremely comfortable in different environments. We have an ability to get on with people but also an ability to do things, to make a difference. Some people go into an area and just be bystanders. Others can go in and see what can be done to make things better. I think that's what we bring as New Zealanders."