A surf trip ends up in the middle of a war on the small island nation of Timor.
It was July of 2000, and we were doing a boat trip off the coast of Timor (about 800 miles east of Bali). It was right at the height of the Timor war-East Timor was breaking away from West Timor, trying to get independence from Indonesia. It had been going on for twenty years, but this was right at the height of the battle. There were thousands of refugees in West Timor because there were bloody battles going on in East Timor-it was a full civil war.
West Timor was still Indonesian territory, and that’s where this boat charter that we went on was docked. The place you leave the island to get on the boat is this shady little port, with an outdoor palapa-style bar and a small beach. I was with the Severson brothers and a couple other guys. We got pretty good waves on the trip, and when we came back into the port, we got off the boat and went to the bar that’s on the beach. The whole place felt just kind of weird, you know? Like, there’re these Middle Eastern dudes just sitting’ on the shoreline at this bar, and we’re asking who they were, because they didn’t look like Indonesians. So anyway, they said they were trying to immigrate into Australia. They didn’t have any money, so they tied these barges together and were about to try to float all the way to Australia.
There were a couple of aid workers sitting at the bar. They started telling stories about a camp just a few blocks away with thousands and thousands of East Timor refugees, and apparently this place is pretty bloody itself. Our captain was trying to calm us, saying, “Come on, guys, this is an adventure!” We had some drinks and dinner and went back to the boat to sleep because we were leaving the next day.
The next morning we got up pretty early, and the captain had to run to the bank. He said he’d be back in a half hour, he took the Zodiac (little motorboat) in to the beach. About ten minutes after that, we heard machine guns going off, bullets just blazing everywhere. Then we heard screams, thousands of people yelling and screaming, and all of a sudden we saw a wave of people rush down to the beach where we had been the night before. At that point, there were thousands of people on the beach in complete chaos. Our boat was two- or three-hundred yards off the beach, so we could hear and see everything. Everybody on our boat kind of looked to me because I was the one who set this trip up. The captain had shown me where his gun was one night, so I grabbed the captain’s gun and held it at my side. This little canoe came out, and I’m sitting there holding a gun with everybody behind me. There was this sixteen-year-old kid on the trip, and he was really scared. He was crying, you know. So I was pretty much holding him telling him, “Dude, it’s gonna be okay.” The people in the canoes were really nice. They got onto our boat and explained, in Indonesian, that a fight had broken out between the Indonesian army and the East Timor refugee camp. They’re like, “Yeah, you guys should really get out of here. It’s really not safe here.”
Our captain was still gone, so we just waited and waited. We kind of figured if something really gnarly was going to happen to us, we could try to take the boat and drive it to Sumba or something. We looked at the map and decided that it couldn’t be that hard. It’s not too far from where we were. We didn’t know what had happened to the captain, and we thought he got shot or something. As we were planning our escape, we heard more boats coming toward us. I thought it was soldiers coming out, but it was our captain. He came back from a totally different part of the land than he went to, but he didn’t come back on the Zodiac-he came back in a big canoe. He came back with an Australian guy, and I gotta get you his name, ’cause he’s really important, he helped save our lives. He’s a “Brah Boy” from Marabruba in Australia-a super cool guy. These canoes had engiines on the back and were filled with blankets-our captain and the Aussie guy were hiding under the blankets while they drove the canoes. The captain’s like, “All right, guys, there’s some heavy shit going on.”
You could tell the captain was trying to keep cool so we didn’t start panicking. He was like, “We gotta get you guys outta here.”
They loaded us up on these two canoes, had us all lay down, then they put blankets over us. They drove us about five miles down the beach where they had these cars waiting for us with the windows all taped up with newspaper. We jumped into the cars, and it was like a freaking crazy 90-mile-an-hour drive through this town to get to the airport. We were met by armored Indonesian police guards who stayed with us until our plane landed.
As we waited, some other people came into the airport and told us that the bar we had been hanging out at had just been torched, the rioters beat up the guy who owned it, and it was a full mob war zone in there.
We all finally got on the plane, and there was a huge collective sigh of relief. We all kind of sat there staring at each other. The kid was still really scared. He finally told us it was the first time he had ever been out of America and away from his parents. He was just like, “Oh, my god! I can’t believe that just happened.”
It was a great adventure, and after it was all over, I remember actually being stoked to have seen it. I’ve talked to some people who’ve recently gone down there, and they’ve said it’s all good and mellow in Timor now. The waves are really good down there, too. I’d go back there anytime.