The troops marched slowly, their U.S.-made M-16s raised. It was Nov. 12, 1991, a day that would forever be seared into my memory, and into history. I was reporting in East Timor, a small island nation 300 miles north of Australia, brutally occupied by Indonesia since 1975. A third of the population -- 200,000 Timorese -- had been killed in one of the worst genocides of the 20th century.
Thousands marched that morning toward the Santa Cruz cemetery to remember Sebastião Gomes, yet another young Timorese killed by Indonesian soldiers. I was doing a documentary for Pacifica Radio. My colleague Allan Nairn was writing for The New Yorker magazine. In a land where there was no freedom of speech, press or assembly, we asked people: "Why are you risking your lives by marching?"
"I'm doing it for my mother," one replied. "I'm doing it for my father," said another. "I'm doing it for freedom."
At the cemetery, we saw hundreds of Indonesian troops coming up the road, 12 to 15 abreast. The Indonesian military had committed many massacres in the past, but never in front of Western journalists. We walked to the front of the crowd, hoping that our presence could stop the attack. Children whispered behind us. I put on my headphones, took out my tape recorder and held up my microphone like a flag. We wanted to alert the troops that this time they were being watched by the world.
The Timorese couldn't escape. They were trapped by the cemetery walls that lined both sides of the road. Without any warning, provocation or hesitation, the soldiers swept past us and opened fire.
People were ripped apart. The troops just kept shooting, killing anyone still standing. A group of soldiers surrounded me. They started to shake my microphone in my face. Then they slammed me to the ground with their rifle butts and kicked me with their boots. I gasped for breath. Allan threw himself on top of me to protect me from further injury.
The soldiers wielded their M-16s like baseball bats, slamming them against his head until they fractured his skull. He lay in the road in spasm, covered in blood, unable to move. Suddenly, about a dozen soldiers lined up like a firing squad. They put the guns to our heads and screamed, "Politik! Politik!" They were accusing us of being involved in politics, a crime clearly punishable by death. They demanded, "Australia? Australia?" The Indonesians executed six Australian journalists during the 1975 invasion.
We shouted, "No, we're from America!" I threw my passport at them. When I regained my breath, I said again: "We're from America! America!" Finally, the soldiers lowered their guns from our heads. We think it was because we were from the same country their weapons were from. They would have to pay a price for killing us that they never had to pay for killing Timorese.
At least 271 Timorese died that day, in what became known as the Santa Cruz massacre. Indonesian troops went on killing for days. It was not even one of the larger massacres in East Timor, and it wouldn't be the last. It was simply the first to be witnessed by outsiders.
I write about the massacre this week not just to remember the 15th anniversary of that event and those who died that day. President Bush is headed to Indonesia on Monday. This will give the president and Congress an opportunity to show they are serious about holding terrorists accountable. If they were to cut all military aid to Indonesia until those responsible for the massacre and for the policy of genocide are held accountable, they would be showing the world that the United States stands on the side of justice. The U.S. Congress must hear the East Timor Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation's call for an international human-rights tribunal and for reparations from the countries and corporations that supported the brutal occupation.
The definition of terrorism is the same in all languages, whether carried out by individuals or states, by al-Qaida or, in our name, by U.S.-supported governments abusing human rights. Sad to say, the Bush administration and Congress have so far ignored the call for justice. What we witnessed and survived 15 years ago was terrorism, pure and simple -- the killing of innocent civilians.