East Timor news photojournalism Time Magazine

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UN Peacekeepers in East Timor UN Peacekeepers in East Timor

News photojournalism in East Timor for Time Magazine New York

A Return To Unrest

It had been six years since I was last in East Timor covering the tumultuous events that led to the diminutive nations lunge for independence. The violence and destruction suffered by the East Timorese at the hands of Indonesian militias was nothing short of atrocious and once agian the resilient population's resolve would be tested.

In May of 2006 I found myself back in the capital, Dili, to once again cover brewing unrest. This time the difference was East Timorese fighting against themselves. It seemed that in the ensuing years since independence a form of racial tension, between the easterners and the westerners had started to develop. This tension was bought to international awareness when a large number of the East Timorese defence force quit alleging bias and a lack of opportunity for promotion which they felt was based on racial favor.

The tension erupted in March of 2006 when a peaceful protest march held by the former soldiers and supporters turned into a blood bath of shooting as heavily armed police and soldiers were ordered to end the gathering. As a result of this incident two of the defence force commanders, fled to the mountains in disgust at being given orders to shoot their own people. The two commanders were followed by a collection of supporters and defectors from the miliatary and police forces.

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Turmoil in Dili

Arriving in Dili with TIME magazine writer Rory Callinan we were exposed to a city in turmoil. Gangs of angry youths were stalking the streets while on the outskirts of the city, soldiers and police officers pitted their lethal efforts against the now retaliating protestors or "petitioners", as they were called, and their supporters. While the majority of the media stayed in Dili and focused on the street gangs we knew the real story was in the mountains surrounding the capital with the two "rebel" commanders that had left the army in disgust with their men after the events in March. We decided to make the perilous journey into the mountains amidst heavy gunfire between the remaining East Timorese army and the heavily armed rebel soldiers and their police supporters. Taking to steep mountain pathways with fleeing villagers we dodged curtains of gun fire flying over us. I managed to make a few photographs on the way up the mountain of the fleeing locals but we had to climb fast to get out of the torrents of gunfire around us. On some occasions we layed on the ground among terrified locals with bullets shredding the trees and bushes above us.


East Timorese take cover on the ground as heavy gunfire peppers the mountain side near Dili.

I was immensely relieved when we finally made it to a rebel position at a telecommunications tower on a mountain top overlooking Dili. We were warmly greeted by a nervous platoon of rebel soldiers, police and civilians (about 30 people in total) who were taking orders via radio from the rebel commander Alfred Reinado who was controlling another section of the mountains with a unit of soldiers and police. I managed to send a batch of photos via satellite to the Time magazine editor before  afternoon thunder storms swept in.

 John Wilson Photographer working for Time Magazine

John Wilson Photographer filing images via satellite to TIME magazine from mountain top in East Timor.

As evening and a tropical storm approached the heavy gunfire and grenade explosions that filled the air earlier stopped and we all huddled under the eaves of the small service building waiting for the tropical downpour to finish. As night fell the soldiers that weren’t on watch ,the remaining civilians and myself and Rory piled into one of the small service buildings to try and get some sleep. It was one of the most uncomfortable nights I’ve experienced. The soaking rains from the afternoon had left all my clothes damp as I attempted to keep my camera equipment from the moisture and as night fell the temperatures plummeted leaving me frighteningly cold and shivering from the night time chill. About 2am the small building we were in erupted into an eerie and dark crowd of panic as word came up the mountain that the soldiers below were making a push towards our position. In total darkness everyone went for the small doorways as quickly as they could and there was much bustling as we all tripped over each other in a frantic effort to get out into the bushes for cover. Hiding in the bush, about an hour passed with much nervous discussion and movement being heard through the damp darkness when one of the rebels approached to tell us everything was under control. We were greatly relieved with this news but stayed awake until morning with everyone else on the mountain top.

The next morning we managed to get a vehicle and find a staging area for the rebel soldiers who had now formed into a cohesive force of their own being led by two commanders Major Gustao Salsinha and Major Alfredo Reinado. The staging area at Dare was in the grounds of a church and I managed to make some great photos that morning of the rebels preparation and casualties being rushed in for treatment. We were the first journalists to make it to the rebel soldiers and we were given intimate insight into their efforts. But our major success was yet to come. We decided that we needed to find the commanders controlling this battle and later that day after much negotiating we were granted an interview with Major Reinado at his hide out. I felt an incredible sense of achievement when I eventually photographed both rebel commanders Major Gustao Salsinha and Major Alfredo Reinado who gave us a version of events that was extremely disturbing. As the story evolved Major Reinado would play a key role in a story which would involve the eventual resignation of the Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. As the months went on and the fighting ceased the rebels remained at large defiant of peace brokering being attempted by the international community. The final chapter to this story was played out on February 11 2008 when Major Reinado was shot dead along with one of his men in an apparent coordinated attempt to assassinate the President  Jose Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

Portrait of East Timor Commander

An East Timorese Commander discusses strategy during fighting in and around the capital Dili

East Timor Peace keepers

International peacekeepers patrol streets 

Rebel soldiers in East Timor around camp fire

Rebel soldiers warm by their camp fire in the mountains of East Timor

Rebel Commander Major Reinado with some of his men

Rebel Commander Alfredo Reinado with some of hi men

East Timor street photography

 Empty Streets - In an attempt to curb gang violence night time curfews were imposed on the streets of the capital Dili.

My Gear For The Job

My kit for this assignment consisted of two Nikon D200 bodies, Nikon 80-200mm zoom, Nikon 400mm f5.6, Nikon 300mm f2.8, Nikon 12-24mm zoom, Nikon 55mm, Nikon 85mm f1.8,two Nikon flash units and extn lead, manfrotto 718 Digi tripod, satellite terminal, Sony Vaio laptop, chargers and leads for cameras and computer gear, polarizing filter, sensor cleaning kit, moisture absorption bags, domke camera bag and storm case to carry it all. The Nikon 400mm f5.6 I used on this assignment is a favorite lens of mine. It’s an ais model manual focus and so incredibly compact and light weight for its magnification. Time and again this lens has proved itself when I’ve been on assignment and have had to pack light. The D200’s, now outdated, worked well on many assignments when space and particularly weight was at a premium. They also came into their own during assignments when I had to stay low key but keep shooting. Without the extra battery pack the cameras don’t look as imposing as their flagship brothers and thus draw much less attention I’ve found.

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