A haven gone, but Old John keeps the faith
March 13, 2010
Joao "Old John" Pereira. Photo: Steve Tickner
Joao Pereira's memories lie in piles of rubble.
''It's sad … I miss my friends,'' says Mr Pereira, 73, a waiter who still turns up every day for work at East Timor's famous Turismo Hotel. He comes even though the wreckers arrived in January and he hasn't been paid for months.
Like other hotels in the world's conflict zones - the Commodore in West Beirut, the Continental in Saigon, the Europa in Belfast and the Palestine in Baghdad, to name a few - the Turismo was for decades a retreat from cruelty for journalists, diplomats, generals, government flacks, spooks and spivs.
For 40 years, Mr Pereira, known as Old John, served chilled rose wine and Portuguese steak to many of the characters in East Timor's tortured history. He brought breakfast for Australian journalist Roger East before Indonesian soldiers killed him with a machine-gun on Dili's wharf in 1975. Thirty-five years later he served the stars and crew of Balibo, the movie depicting the murder, including actor Anthony La Paglia, who played East.
In 1989, John was serving boiled eggs in the hotel's dining room when Melbourne woman Shirley Shackleton confronted general Benny Murdani, the man who led Indonesia's December 1975 invasion of East Timor and whom she blamed for the murder of her journalist husband Greg at Balibo three months earlier (Murdani denied any knowledge).
The Turismo's guests held few secrets: Indonesian intelligence agents, who were known as ''Intel'', apparently had keys to the rooms, which were routinely searched when guests ventured out.
Journalists' notebooks were read. Calls on the crackling telephone line at the front office were listened to. Taxi drivers were wary of picking up guests at the hotel because afterwards they would be interrogated by Intel about where the guests went and whom they spoke to.
Carlos, one of the most pervasive of the Intel men, would inevitably arrive in a vehicle when no other transport was available, offering his services for an outrageous sum.
A Portuguese army officer built the Turismo in the mid-1960s, when East Timor was a neglected Portuguese colony.
Later it was bought by Alex Samara, an Indonesian businessman who was said to have helped plan Indonesia's 1975 invasion.
Mr Samara fled the hotel in 1999 amid violence following the United Nations-run referendum that led to East Timor's independence. He never returned and has since died.
The government last year declared the hotel a state asset.
Timorese-born Australian business partners Mario Ingles and Manuel Ferreira, who had run the hotel since 2000, were given the go-ahead to renovate and extend the hotel at a cost of $A22 million.
But the government then announced it would put the hotel's lease out to tender.
''We didn't tender because we had already being given the go-ahead with our proposal,'' Mr Ferreira said.
''We have taken the matter to court. We can't say much at the moment but will have plenty to say when the case is settled.''
Late last year, the government awarded the tender to another business group in Dili, which called in the wreckers ahead of a proposal to rebuild. Mr Ingles and Mr Ferreira were escorted from the premises by police in January after they had refused orders to vacate the hotel.
This week, I walked through the hotel's concrete shell and rubble with John, recalling many memorable times.
John was with me on the day in 1999,when Australia's then ambassador in Jakarta rushed to the hotel to tell the guests that pro-Indonesian militia were on their way to attack them.
Mr McCarthy had brought with him an Indonesian army truck to take guests to the United Nations compound, a few kilometres away.
As I was struggling to climb aboard, John's hand reached out and he helped pull me aboard. We ducked for cover as bullets whizzed around us as the truck passed groups of rampaging militia who were running towards the hotel, which they then looted and tried to set alight.
I lost contact with John in the chaos of that time. But he told me this week that his old boss Alex Samara had sent Intel to find him and take him back to the hotel, where he has been almost every day since. ''Thanks for coming back,'' John said, tearfully.
source: THE AGE