From East Timor to Iraq: An Interview with John Martinkus

John Martinkus arriving at Amman airport in Jordan on Oct. 18, 2004, after having been kidnapped and released by Iraqi insurgents. (Photo: Khalil Mazraawi / AFP-Getty Images)

John Martinkus is a respected author and journalist credited as being one of the few reporters to raise awareness of the plights of the people of East Timor, West Papua, and Aceh in their respective independence struggles. His books Dirty Little War (Random House Australia 2001), Indonesia’s Secret War in Aceh (Random House Australia 2004), and Paradise Betrayed (Black Inc. Books 2002) cover, in often harrowing detail, all facets of these often ignored conflicts.

In Travels in American Iraq (Black Inc. Books 2004), he turns his attention to Iraq, giving a striking and intimate portrayal of his experiences in the strife-torn country while examining all aspects of the ongoing battle for power.

Martinkus also made international headlines in October 2004 when kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents.

Speaking with contributing editor Rich Bowden in this revealing and candid interview, Martinkus talks frankly of his kidnapping and his reaction to subsequent criticism from members of the Australian government. Along with a first-hand account of the terrible Ashoura bombings in Karbala, he compares and criticizes the counter-insurgency methods of Indonesia and the United States and discusses the effects of the upcoming elections in Iraq.

As one of the few foreign journalists to have reported from inside Aceh prior to the tsunami disaster, can you describe the now-devastated areas?

From what I understand, and from talking to people who’ve just got back from there, a lot of the areas that were hit badly were the very much Indonesian dominated areas along the coastal strip around [the capital] Banda Aceh and Meulaboh.

This was where the Indonesian military were the most powerful because that’s where they held the major highways that run along the coast and had most of their bases as well. Banda Aceh, Meulaboh, and the highways between them were always under Indonesian control and that’s where most of the population and infrastructure is. That’s why the tsunami was so devastating in many ways.

The hinterland is where GAM [Free Aceh Movement] has traditionally been stronger. They live in the mountains and fight for their land and it’s very hard for the Indonesians to go in there and flush them out.

Would there have been much loss of life experienced by the Indonesian military?

We haven’t really been able to get a figure on that. Two friends of mine who have just returned from Aceh were telling me how people are talking of anywhere from two to five thousand Indonesian troops killed.

In the case of Meulaboh, they had their base close to the coast so they could be supplied by sea as the road back to the capital Banda Aceh was often cut because of rebel activity.

Also, the main police headquarters in Banda Aceh was totally devastated and it is normally home to around 3,500 Indonesian police including paramilitary and regional police. Under [former Indonesian President] Wahid there was a so-called troop withdrawal of some of the T.N.I. [Indonesian military] units, but all they really did was replace them with Brimob [Indonesian riot police] who by many accounts have a worse human rights record than the T.N.I.

That’s a fairly common T.N.I. tactic isn’t it, to make it look as if they were withdrawing troops? Was that done for the benefit of the press?

Yes it was, very much so. In 1998-99, there were a lot of calls in Aceh and from Indonesian human rights groups et cetera for war crimes trials for the Indonesian military and also a human rights tribunal to be set up. The main organization that was behind this was called Kontras and one of their first major projects was to exhume mass graves in Aceh from the Suharto era. What happened as a result of this was that Kopassus [Indonesian special forces] and some Indonesian military units were ordered out of Aceh in a staged withdrawal.

Were any military or riot police convicted on human rights abuses?

No, it never got anywhere. When I first went [to Aceh] in 2000, you had a situation very similar to that which occurred in East Timor prior to independence. Organizations such as Kontras and Komnas Ham, the Indonesian National Commission of Human Rights, were basically aid organizations working on human rights issues. They had offices and volunteers working for them and would collect statistics and publish material and were trying to document what had happened in the past.

What has happened since 2003 is that martial law has more or less put an end to the operations of those organizations though they have still continued to try and work. As stated in my book [Indonesia’s Secret War in Aceh], what happened next was that people were arrested and they would start to disappear.

There was the case of Jaffar Siddiq Hamzah, who had come back from New York where he had been working on Aceh issues, who was killed in Medan.

Another was Musliadi who was supposed to be one of the delegates representing Acehnese civil society — as opposed to GAM or the pro-Indonesian Acehnese — in peace talks in Geneva. He was killed about a day before he was supposed to leave.

That was a really high profile death and I remember it shocked me at the time because I’d worked very closely with him as one of the representatives of the non-politicized but purely human rights focused community groups. It also shocked many people who were involved in the peace process because they thought they had some kind of protection. What the Indonesian military did was to intimidate the process out of existence, used the process itself to identify those leaders who stepped forward and then later either kill them or arrest them under martial law. These were extremely cynical maneuvers by the Indonesian government.

Since the declaration of martial law in May 2003, do you think there has been an increase in human rights abuses?

Undoubtedly. Human Rights Watch put out a big report at the end of 2003 with detailed lists and well-documented cases of abuse in terms of the torture of people, arbitrary killings by the military of unarmed civilians, rape. In that period of between June 2003 and the end of the year, there was quite a lot of activity.

Both Amnesty and the U.S. State Department also released detailed reports of allegations of military abuse in Aceh during that period. The Indonesian military themselves admit to killing over 2,000 people they call separatists but there’s absolutely no way of confirming who those people actually were and most human rights groups who have worked in Aceh say there’s a chance that most of those who have been killed were simply civilians.

When I spoke to human rights lawyers who were able to actually work in the province, [they say] in nine times out of ten, these were people that simply were unfortunate enough to be in the area.

They weren’t members of GAM at all, merely villagers?

Yes, in many areas where GAM are active, the villagers have been quite sympathetic because the GAM fighters are local people so the military doesn’t really differentiate between unarmed civilians and combatants and that’s why you see these incidents happening all the time.

In your book Indonesia’s Secret War in Aceh(Random House Australia 2004), you cover the history of the Acehnese conflict. Can you discuss this and the reasons behind the Acehnese desire for independence?

The motivations for independence for Aceh go right back to the Dutch colonial times when Aceh was the only province that actually resisted the Dutch — right up until last century. Even up until the Second World War, there were areas of Aceh that didn’t accede to Dutch control.

After World War II and Indonesian independence, the Acehnese agreed to become part of Indonesia but that quickly soured because Aceh was supposed to remain a separate province.

Then [first Indonesian President] Sukarno amalgamated Aceh with North Sumatra. This angered the people of Aceh because it was not what they’d agreed to; they speak a different language [from the Sumatrans] and see themselves as culturally very different, they follow a more strict form of Islam than the rest of Indonesia.

There was an Islamic rebellion [throughout Indonesia] in the 50’s, which ensured another generation of people were radicalized by the Indonesian military crackdown, and then in the 70’s when oil and gas was discovered in the fields off Lhokseumahwe — and started to be exploited by ExxonMobil. This was more or less used as a pretext by [GAM leader] Hasan Di Tiro in 1976 to begin the rebellion again and it has been going on ever since compounded by the Indonesian military’s response since 1989.

From 1989-98 Aceh was closed to the outside world and during that time organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch put the figure at as many as 10,000 dead and from 1998 until now we know from Indonesian military figures there’s been between 4,000-6,000 deaths. Acehnese would say 10,000.

The average death toll is 5-15 people a week and, because this has been going on so long, it’s got its own momentum now the military have such a long history of abusing the people. This has in turn brutalized the people, made them fight against Indonesian rule so it’s almost become generational. There is nationalism, there is the exploitation of resources, and there’s also just the self-perpetuating momentum that this level of killing has created among the people there.

Was Aceh the first place in Indonesia to embrace Islam?

It was the first place where Islam took hold and the reason for that is that, long before the Dutch arrived, there were trading links between Aceh and the Middle East which is why in Aceh a lot of Arabic words are used. They use Arabic writing; the Aceh script is quite similar to Arabic.

That part of Indonesia identified itself with Islam and the Middle East and when first the Portuguese and then the Dutch tried to take over, they found a very organized, hierarchical society with a royal family, a written language, and trade links with other parts of the world. It was a country of its own accord.

They originally joined Indonesia [in 1945] as an equal partner but then felt they were being subjugated to the Javanese and central authority like the rest of Indonesia.

You refer to the Indonesian authorities attempt since 9/11 to portray their conflict against GAM as part of the wider war on terrorism. How successful do you believe this tactic has been?

Immediately after 9/11 they changed their language, they started referring to GAM as terrorists. There were all these reports coming through from very obvious military or diplomatic sources trying to sort of build some kind of link between Al Qaeda and GAM. But I don’t think any of it really stuck; any reporters there in the area found it quite laughable.

In your book, you discuss how the Columbia District Court (U.S.) dismissed a case brought before it in 2003 against ExxonMobil by the International Labor Rights Fund who alleged the company had contributed to the abuses of 11 Acehnese villagers by funding the security services that operated near the plant. Can you explain why the case was dismissed?

Well basically, what happened was the defense for ExxonMobil asked for the U.S. State Department to be consulted because they believed the case was jeopardizing U.S. national security and the State Department sent a memorandum to the judge stating that the case did jeopardize national security regarding the war on terror and the U.S. relationship with Indonesia. The case was effectively thrown out of court on the basis of the State Department advice.

How important is the ExxonMobil plant to the Acehnese conflict?

I think it’s immensely important because it is the second largest foreign currency earner for the Indonesian central government and the second largest single taxpayer. The other one of course is the Freeport gold mine in Papua, which is the richest gold mine in the world.

The oil and gas operation in Aceh is worth millions and millions to Jakarta and it’s also worth a lot of money to the Indonesian military. It’s very hard to get the figures on how much they’re actually paid to protest the whole operation there…the units that are protecting ExxonMobil are amongst the best equipped in the entire Indonesian military.

If there was no oil and gas plant, do you believe Aceh would have independence by now? Is it that important?

Yes, I think so, if there wasn’t so much money at stake for Jakarta, I don’t think they’d have as much of a problem letting it go, they certainly wouldn’t fight as hard for it as they do. When you talk to the Indonesian military about the loss of East Timor [they say] the stake in the oil there was nothing compared to the money they are making out of Aceh. Bear in mind, because of the corrupt nature of Indonesian politics, the military gets a large slice of that directly, they’re very reluctant to let it go.

From their perspective, they’re drawing the line in the sand saying definitely not, we will not lose this part of Indonesia. When you look at the way they have dealt with the aftereffects of the tsunami they’re more concerned with keeping the foreigners out than they are to getting the benefits of aid to the people who it’s supposed to be going to, who are the victims of the natural disaster.

Australia has recently pledged a billion dollars in relief aid, opting to funnel this through the Indonesian government. Given the bureaucracy’s poor record on corruption are you confident all of this aid will reach the needy Acehnese?

The World Bank has done surveys on business in Asia and they declare that Indonesia is the most corrupt country in Asia and Aceh is the most corrupt province of Indonesia. I think the decision by the Australian government to funnel $1 billion dollars through the Indonesian government lends itself to a lot of that money being misused.

It’s such a strong diplomatic gesture of support for the Indonesians and really seems to signal that we, in a way, approve of what the Indonesian military is doing there. When martial law was declared [Australian Foreign Minister] Alexander Downer made very clear that the Howard government was out to make absolutely no effort to raise any concerns about civilian casualties in Aceh or even to try and revive the peace process.

They more or less fully endorse the Indonesian line and when you look at the way the peace process fell apart, the half-truths, the distortions that the Indonesian foreign affairs were putting out about what had actually happened … it sends a very clear message to GAM or the Acehnese that they won’t get any support at all from Australia.

Australia, much more so than the U.S., has been very quick to label GAM as a terrorist organization, quick to reiterate Indonesian claims that GAM are involved in criminal activity.

Has the situation changed in Aceh since Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s election as president?

Well no, it hasn’t really — until the tsunami. They changed the martial law status to civil emergency status but it made no difference to the situation on the ground whatsoever. The reports coming out of Aceh basically describe continued military operations against GAM. It was rumored that Yudhoyono had made approaches to the GAM leadership internationally with the prospect of somehow reviving the peace process but it hasn’t gone anywhere, it hasn’t progressed.

The situation is more or less a stalemate. The Indonesian military are still conducting operations because they couldn’t get the leadership of GAM in Aceh so under Yudhoyono there is no change apparent yet.

Maybe because of the attention on Aceh [since the tsunami] and the international presence, that will be a possibility [for negotiations] but he has got to be very careful because there are large elements of the army who don’t want a peaceful solution. If Yudhoyono presses ahead and actually does want to make a serious attempt at some kind of negotiated peaceful solution in Aceh you could see the military working against that with destabilization operations such as provocative attacks or bombings … there’s a long history of that happening in Aceh.

Yudhoyono has had a strong-arm reputation himself in Aceh. Is that correct?

Yes, as Megawati’s Security Minister he was in charge of implanting martial law and all that went with that. If you look at Yudhoyono’s record in Aceh you’ll see that he’s presided over the biggest crackdown in the history of the conflict really, so that’s not a good record.

In 2004, you also covered the Iraqi insurgency in your book Travels in American Iraq (Black Inc. 2004). Do you see any similarities in the two conflicts?

Yeah I do, and I noted that in the book. It was almost a sense of déjà vu when I was in Falluja earlier last year. It was in February 2004 so it was before the big battle in April and before it became the real focus for the resistance there. The behavior of the American troops in the area who had occupied it and in the way they treated the local population, it was interesting seeing the same dynamics at work.

As the Americans attempted to put down what were the beginnings of a much wider insurgency, they actually made it a lot worse because of the tactics they employed. This was because of the mass detentions of people suspected of involvement and their treatment during interrogations and the lack of understanding [by the soldiers] of the people that were being arrested and their families and relatives.

That kind of mutual suspicion, and hatred feeding on itself was very similar to what I saw in Aceh. I just saw it going down the same direction as it had gone in Aceh.

Bear in mind back in February there were a lot of people in that area who had welcomed the Americans and who had supported them being there but you could see the ground shifting, you could see the people turning against the Americans because of the way the American forces in that area were conducting themselves.

At what point would the occupying forces say that their presence is counter-productive?

It’s interesting because I’ve been there three times last year. I was there February/March, then June/July and again in September/October and each time I go back, initially the American troops and administration officials you deal with really do believe they were doing the right thing, really do believe that they were pushing towards a democratic Iraq and that it was a good thing that Saddam Hussein had been overthrown.

And a lot of Iraqis agreed. They were very glad that Saddam was deposed — it was rare to find someone who actually supported Saddam or wanted that regime back. However as the year progressed, and the scale of the fighting grew, you would see this very gradual change among even moderate Iraqis in response to the way the Americans have tried to conduct the counter-insurgency.

The really big crunch was in April when the marines tried to go into Falluja because [there] was such a disregard for civilian casualties by the American military; a lot of previously moderate Iraqis were quite disgusted.

Bear in mind the Abu Ghraib revelations came out shortly after that and this confirmed what a lot of Iraqis had been talking about. Rumors about this kind of treatment were circulating wildly when I was there and all [of these] compounded [the situation]. People who had previously been either ambivalent or even supported the American presence were now rejecting it and if they were not actively fighting then at least sympathizing with those who were.

The reality of how little control the coalition has really strikes you when you go there now. For example there are only two hotels in all of Baghdad that are safe to stay in and they are only safe because they are ringed by troops and have security guards and 18 foot blast walls to stop car bombs. Even then, the Palestine and Sheraton hotels regularly get hit by rockets.

This is the only part of Baghdad where foreigners can stay and it’s got to the point now where even traveling from those hotels to the Green Zone across the river where all the administration is an extremely dangerous exercise.

You can’t carry out reconstruction work when you can’t leave your fortified compound.

It’s very difficult [to see a solution] unless one of two things happen; the Americans withdraw or they get more troops in to regain control of the situation. Their proposed solution, to train the Iraqi army and police and hand security back to them, just isn’t happening and it’s not effective enough.

The media seems to have trouble coming up with a satisfactory description of the Iraqi insurgents. Can you tell us exactly who they are and what motivates them?

That’s very difficult and the reason why no one can really tell is that — certainly no foreign reporters — have really tried to find out exactly who they are. The reasons for that are that it is incredibly dangerous.

But there is no unified central clan. It’s almost like a localized thing — different groups, different areas — fighting independently and amongst that you’ve also got certain groups that have got funding from say, Saudi Arabia and other groups who may be getting funding from Baath sympathizers in Syria. The U.S. administration does play up the foreign influence, obviously because they’re trying to link it back to the war on terror [and] Al Qaeda. But the Iraqi resistance group that took me hostage for example, were Iraqis who were not fighting for money but were simply fighting to free their country of the Americans.

Their major motivation, from what I could tell, seemed to be a hatred of the occupying forces bred from the treatment the community had received from those forces. On top of that, they also saw the exploitation of the natural resources [in Iraq] such as the oil as the prime motivation for the occupation and that was a great affront to them. They said that Iraq is a wealthy country and has lots of oil; they were very nationalistic and saw the whole pretext for the occupation as part of a grab for resources.

Also, it as though there’s an evolving religious aspect as well regarding fighting the infidels, fighting for Islam. So, you’ve got all these different groups with varying degrees of religious motivation. In Falluja for example, back in June/July there were about 30 different resistance groups. Some were associated with tribal leaders, some of them were from other parts of the country, and some were foreigners.

Can you describe for us your kidnapping in Iraq and also your reaction to criticism by [Australian] Foreign Minister Downer?

The kidnapping itself was very intense because I did not know what was going to happen and I was trying to convince those guys to release me. One of the two hotel compounds where the journalists stay is situated just across from the Australian embassy and I was in a vehicle coming out of that compound and pulled out into the road outside the front of the embassy and was basically carjacked.

The foreign minister waited until I was out of Baghdad [following my release] and on a flight to Amman [Jordan] before making a statement that I had been in an area where I had been advised not to go. The first I heard of that statement was when an [Australian] ABC reporter relayed it back to me at Amman airport waiting for a connection to come back to Australia.

I was outraged; I had actually informed Foreign Affairs both through my management and through someone else in Baghdad, what had actually taken place. I felt I had an obligation to do so because it was obvious that that area was no longer safe if that happened to me. I informed all the other journalists in Baghdad immediately as well. And for the Foreign Minister to try to put the blame for my misfortune back on myself, of course it angered me personally but I sensed there was another agenda going on which was a playing down of the seriousness of the situation because of the vulnerability of the embassy or whatever.

When they kidnapped me, they said they wanted to interrogate me and later told me they believed I was either a C.I.A. or Mossad agent and had started following me when I left the Green Zone. They didn’t know who I was and were trying to capture a foreigner for political purposes and I had to convince them that I wasn’t associated with the coalition, that I was a reporter.

Basically their ideology, their mentality, and their tactics are to kill or kidnap anyone associated with the coalition and government whether they be Iraqis working for the Americans or people like the Nepalese cleaners who they killed, and say truck drivers. They are trying to stop the coalition operating in Iraq.

Did your kidnappers know you were Australian?

Yes, I told them. I was totally straight with them and basically, that was where the Internet came in. I told them to go and check. I said look me up, I’m a journalist, I don’t work for the intelligence services and I’ve got nothing to do with the coalition. I gave them my card and showed them my ID. Then they went away and came back about an hour later and it was obvious from the questions they began asking then that they had checked me out.

They began asking questions about other topics I’d covered like Aceh and East Timor — and they also were aware of another book I had written on Iraq earlier in the year because they had checked it out. So with all these things I was basically confirming my identity to them and it was on the basis that I was who I said I was that they released me. They — thankfully — didn’t then see any point in holding me.

Did they give out any information as to which group they belonged to?

No, they didn’t willingly. However, when they made a video — they made me make a video stating that I was an Australian journalist who had been kidnapped — the banner they put me in front of was Tawhid Wa’al—Jihad banner, which is one of the supposedly Zarqawi linked groups that also, much to my horror, was the same banner that had accompanied the Ken Bigley videos which was all happening at the same time.

Journalists in Baghdad are very aware of those kinds of details because we have to report them and you remember them and that really scared me because until then I hadn’t any indication of who they were. Also the way they addressed each other showed that there was a different command structure in place between being blindfolded to being interrogated by the leader. There were two different leaders.

They were Iraqis not foreigners. They said there were foreigners fighting with them in places such as Falluja but that they were subordinate to Iraqis in their organization. They vehemently denied that Zarqawi even existed; they said he was a fabrication to create a pretext for continued American operations in Falluja.

When they said that I must admit I was quite relieved. It’s hard to describe what went through my head in these times but I was trying to figure out who these people were and how I could say the right thing to facilitate my release. Then to come into the political point scoring [by the Australian government] following my release was a very unpleasant experience.

Another unpleasant experience you had was back in March 2004 when you were literally meters away from the Ashoura bombings in Karbala when a number of explosions during a religious festival killed 271 pilgrims. Can you tell us how this experience affected you?

That was something I would never want to see again. It was truly horrible. To see what actually happens to people, to see how they die in those kinds of incidents, which as you know, happens almost daily now in Baghdad — car bombings of people waiting in queues, that sort of thing. But to witness at really close range and to witness the immediate aftermath of it, really puts you into shock.

At the time, I remember writing a report straight away and it wasn’t until about two hours later when I’d finished it and filed the report and sat down that I actually realized that I was quite upset.

This was why it angered me when I was being criticized by certain members of the press [who accused me of] supporting terror. When you actually see the consequences of what happens close up as a result of having seen that, I can have, I suppose, more of an understanding of how bad acts of these kinds of things are. It’s not something I talk about lightly.

And you were assaulted in the street shortly after the explosion?

Yes, with the confusion, the suspicion and the chaos caused by the explosion, [Westerners] became a focus for their anger. Their frustration and grief at having seen someone just blown up — they blame you because they blame the international community for coming to Iraq and causing this chaos.

Unfortunately I was there in the immediate aftermath of the bombing and this guy was furious and the only way I could prevent him from beating me to the ground was to give him my camera which is what he was demanding.

Finally, what do you see as being the reaction of the coalition countries and the minority Sunni and Kurds to a likely Shiite-dominated government?

In terms of the situation with the insurgents on the ground, all of those fighting have already rejected the entire notion of the election. They’ve been working very hard to make sure the election is not carried out and will simply reject the result. They will fight just as vehemently against any government produced by the election as they are fighting against the American-appointed government of Allawi at the moment.

I think internationally it remains to be seen whether the result has any validity at all because there are large parts of the country — such as the Sunni Triangle — where Allawi himself has announced it is impossible to carry out elections because the government can’t even go into those areas because every time they do they are attacked. It will really damage the legitimacy of the result.

How will the foreign governments react? I think you can judge that in the way foreign governments react to the situation right now. Certain governments such as [Australia] pretty much follow the American position but I don’t think that the government produced by these elections will have any more legitimacy than the one appointed by the Americans now.