Step Vaessen: It's Personal

    There are important stories, there are challenging stories and then there are stories that change your life forever. For Dutch journalist Step Vaessen the Indonesian retreat from occupied East Timor in 1999 was one such story.

    Following a referendum for independence, Indonesian troops were ordered to retreat - after 16-years of occupation - from East Timor. They murdered, burned and raped their way out of the country, facing little resistance from the local guerillas. Vaessen’s close friend and colleague, the FT journalist Sander Thoenes, was one of the people brutally killed by the much feared Battalion 745.

    Fourteen years later Step went back to East Timor, following her own and Sander’s tracks and facing the people responsible for his death. The result is the powerful and personal film: Trail of Murder: Indonesia’s Bloody Retreat, which will be shown at the London Investigative Film Festival on the 9 February.

    Step Vaessen spoke to the CIJ about the film.

    CIJ: the murder of Sander Thoenes in 1999 is a personal story for you. What made you come back to it now?

    Step Vaessen: Professionally I had dealt with Sander’s death by doing a story in 2002 reconstructing his murder and confronting the killers but personally things only became clearer much later.

    The impact of Sander’s murder for example on my life and Andre’s (my husband) [Step’s husband, then a cameraman covering the conflict in East Timor with Step and Sander, committed suicide following a series of depressions caused by Sander’s murder] and what it meant to me personally to still live in the country that did not bring his killers to justice.

    The main thing about this film is that I made it as me, as Step, and not as a journalist, which meant that I faced everything I found on the way head on and did not hide behind a professional mask.

    CIJ: How did you feel, interviewing the military commanders as well as the former president of Indonesia, when they refused to accept responsibility for what happened to Sander as well as all those civilians in East Timor?

    SV: I felt very strong when interviewing former general Wiranto [who was in charge of organising the retreat of the Indonesian army from East Timor] and former president Habibie. The main reason was because I could finally ask the questions as a person and did not need to stick to journalist protocol. What I did was first start asking them the professional questions but when they kept avoiding the real answers I told them why I was doing this film and that Sander Thoenes was my friend.

    I even told Habibie what had happened to my husband. I would never have done this if I was doing the story as a journalist. This caused a very personal reaction from both Habibie and Wiranto in a different way. This was important to me: Wiranto showing clearly that he did not feel troubled at all and Habibie trying to avoid legal responsibility but still showing me somehow that he felt bad.

    CIJ: Did making the documentary provide you with a sense of closure or did it disturb the old wounds?

    SV: That’s a difficult question. I was of course hoping to get some closure. But during the process of making the film it became very painful at times. Only then I realised that I was putting a very personal story into the hands of others. Now months later I feel I have closed this book.

    CIJ: Did those events of 1999 ever make you question your choice of a career?

    SV: No I never questioned after 1999 if I would still want to be a journalist. To be honest I think I was born a journalist.

    This is who I am and what I like to do most. After Sander was murdered I was even more convinced that it was the job of people like me to make sure the killers would face justice. Unfortunately we failed. [While covering the story, Step and her colleagues, were deported from East Timor by the Indonesian troops just as the military retreat started, they later returned with Australian peacekeepers, buying a one way ‘ticket to hell’ - on a plane that was heading to East Timor.]

    CIJ: Would you buy a 'ticket to hell' now?

    SV: I would still buy a ticket to hell if I think this hell needs to be reported from. After 1999 I had my fair share of conflict coverage in Indonesia and the region.

    My personal situation has changed though now I am a single mother with a 13-year-old son. Of course I think more about safety aspects than I would have done before simply because my son has only one parent. But still it does not deter me from traveling around to find the best stories for Al Jazeera wherever they are.

    CIJ: Do you feel that your film made an impact? What was the reaction to it like?

    SV: The impact of the film was an amazing experience for me. I got responses from all over the world, through emails, Facebook, Twitter, sms.

    I was really overwhelmed by the very warm reactions which made the drama of making the film a lot easier to deal with.

    Step Vaessen lives in Indonesia with her teenage son. Prior to working for AL Jazeera she was a correspondent for National Television (the Netherlands). She also worked for the Dutch current affairs programme Nova and had written for national and regional newspapers as well as working for Radio Netherlands.

    She has written a book called Jihad with Sambal (in Dutch) and has produced several short films including Indonesia’s Killing Fields about the act of killing and the murders of 1965.

    Step Vaessen’s film Trail of Murder: Indonesia’s Bloody Retreat will be shown as part of the London Investigative Film Festival on Sunday 9 February at City University London.

    She will be answering the audience’s questions during a Q&A session after the screening.