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Last updated: September 23, 1999 5:55 pm

Determination behind a charming smile

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Sander Thoenes , who was brutally killed on Tuesday in Dili, the capital of East Timor, on an assignment for the Financial Times, was a foreign correspondent of outstanding potential, driven by a joyful natural curiosity and a determination to get to the bottom of the story.

He had been reporting from Indonesia, a country which had always fascinated him, for the past two years, after starting his journalistic career in Moscow. Aged 30, he had already been a cub reporter on the Moscow Times, a stringer for US News and World Report in Russia, and FT correspondent in Central Asia, before he arrived in Jakarta. He spoke fluent Russian and Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, as well as being virtually bilingual in English and Dutch.

He came to Indonesia as the rupiah was collapsing in September 1997, undermining the 30-year-rule of President Suharto. His boundless enthusiasm and tireless cultivation of Indonesian contacts meant that within weeks he was coming to terms with the extraordinary complexity of the country.

When Sander first came to the FT for a job interview, he was asked whether he liked reporting in Russia. “I enjoy every minute of it,” he declared, “and every day I am amazed that they pay me for it, too.” It was an enthusiasm he never lost.

His first job for the FT was as a researcher in the Moscow bureau in 1992, shortly after graduating in Russian and post-Soviet studies from Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Within two months he had moved on to a job at the Moscow Times, the daily English-language newspaper.

That was when he also started reporting for Vrij Nederland, the Dutch political magazine, in which his descriptions of cycle tours of Moscow brought the Russian reality alive for his readers.

In Moscow, Sander impressed his colleagues and contacts alike with his energy and profound knowledge of the Russian language and people. Unlike many other foreign correspondents, Sander learned to see Russia largely through Russian eyes, building up a wide circle of friends away from the workplace.

He was determined to get back to the FT, however, and his break came in February 1996, with the chance of the correspondent’s job in Kazakhstan, covering the whole of central Asia. There he plunged into the intricacies of oil industry politics, and in just a year made sure the newspaper was paying attention to a forgotten part of the world.

Then he suddenly announced that he was going home to the Netherlands to learn Bahasa, at his own expense, to prove that he was the right man for Indonesia. That determination, always exercised with a charming smile, he showed in all his work.

It was in covering the turbulent fall of President Suharto that Sander’s innate reporting skills showed through at their best. Working from his house in a quiet residential neighbourhood of central Jakarta he assembled a loyal and devoted staff who helped win him the first-hand contacts that foreign correspondents covet but do not always enjoy.

He was a popular figure among colleagues, respected not only for his integrity, but also his congenial manner. He rejoiced in a great sense of natural justice which refused to accept humbug from any of his sources. He showed it as much in his probing questions of World Bank officials as in his sense of outrage at behaviour of some members of the Suharto regime and the military.

For the Financial Times, Sander opened up Indonesia just as it was becoming a truly important international story. He immersed himself with gusto in the affairs of this inward-looking and complex country which has never been easy to report.

His verve and energy will be much missed. Among colleagues in Jakarta and around the world there is a sense of devastation and disbelief that he is gone, and at the wanton brutality of his passing.

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