The Australian

September 11, 1999

Freedom vote let loose a reign of terror


THE onset of the latest wave of terror that led to the evacuations from East Timor during the week can be pinned down to an exact moment -- 60 seconds after the results of the ballot became known, last Saturday morning.

Sixty seconds of ecstasy was all the East Timorese allowed themselves before they ran to find their families, propelled by a terror from within.

In voting to free themselves from Indonesia, the people of East Timor knew they had voted for death.

Despite the UN presence and promises of a free ballot, people right across East Timor had been forced to sign lists in which they identified themselves as pro-autonomy. If they signed, they would be taken away and "looked after" in the aftermath of the ballot announcement. If they refused, they would stay and die.

The UN Mission to East Timor (UNAMET) had been running daily television broadcasts in the lead-up to the vote. The broadcasts carried two strong messages, repeated tirelessly: first, that all votes would be secret; second, UNAMET would not abandon the people. But in villages and towns across East Timor, people knew the unarmed people in blue caps would not save them.

The stories emerging from Timor in the past week are consistent. Immediately after the vote results became known on Saturday, the military, police and militia -- all one and the same -- began burning distant villages, then started on the outskirts of towns. This had the desired effect of forcing people on to the waiting trucks that would take them to Dili, then on to West Timor, on a road reportedly lined with the staked heads of "traitors".

"They, the police and the army, made young boys from our village burn their own houses down," said two sisters from a village to the east of the territory.

Then began the razing of government buildings, the most telling sign so far that Indonesia indeed plans to honour its commitment to leave East Timor. It is just that its people will be dead and its infrastructure gone.

On Saturday, right after the result was announced, an Australian UNAMET staffer in a rural village went and asked why police were doing nothing to stop the burning. "Because no one has made a report about it," said the policeman. "Well, I am making a report right now," said the woman, shaking with rage.

On Saturday afternoon, two nuns went around their village to try to find the UN staff who had befriended them over the past few weeks. The town was burning and empty -- UNAMET had left, telling no one they were retreating to their compounds in Dili and Baukau.

"The biggest burden was watching the people trying to decide what to do," said one of the nuns. "This one man, whose family had been killed in 1975, he came to the door and just said, 'Where is UNAMET?'."

The organisers of the cleansing of East Timor were not at all organised. Only the strategy was clear. The militias, given the dirty work by police and military, were said by one doctor to be big-eyed and "fuelled by the two pills the military gives them". Vicious arguments were breaking out among them about who to kill, who to save and what to burn.

When rural people started arriving into the chaos of Dili on Saturday afternoon, their first welcome was a message, painted in big red letters, all over town: "Merdeka berarte mati" -- Freedom means death. They were taken to holding pens in police compounds. It was the best place to be -- grenades were being thrown into buildings across town.

On Sunday, suburban Dili was emptying and the UNAMET compound was filling to bursting point. Some non-UNAMET Westerners tried to chance the run to West Timor on a road that would take them past Liquica, home to East Timor's worst militia. There, they found drunk militiamen blocking the way. "These men had already killed," said one priest, "and their whole psyche had changed." The road was shut and there was no choice but to turn back to Dili.

Catherine Georgeson, an Australian midwife working at the Catholic Motael Clinic, delivered a baby on Sunday afternoon as gunfire rang outside. Then she took sanctuary with the Carmelite nuns. "The nuns gave me a nice white dress, a habit," she said. "It was starting to get scary on Sunday afternoon and they thought it would be more secure. I thought I looked ridiculous in it, but they were happy to see me in it. It meant I wasn't anything that made them vulnerable."

On Sunday evening some East Timorese came to Pamela Sexton, an American teacher and volunteer observer, asking if she knew first-aid. "This man was beyond any first aid," she said. "His arms were sliced to the bone in many places. His stomach was sliced open, he was covered in blood. We took him to the hospital."

Ms Sexton took a call from a local human rights organisation, which was at that moment under direct gunfire. "Suddenly I heard the gate and it was the police, wanting us all to leave." They slept that night at the police station, where the embassies were making contact, urging all foreigners to leave.

On Sunday night "we had about 3000-4000 refugees come into the UNAMET compound, and that put a great strain on our resources," said Australian federal policeman Steve Polden. "They came straight over the walls. There were people firing at them and they came straight over the walls."

The next morning midwife Catherine Georgeson took a call from the Australian consul in Dili warning her to be at the airport by 8am. "The consulate arrived, the military attache arrived and we've never driven so fast in Dili," she said. "They weren't going to stop for nothing."

Across town, some were still holding on tight. International observer Anne Blume heard Bishop Belo's house had been attacked and 25 killed. Then the Red Cross compound was also being fired upon. "Then we got news of the attack on the UNAMET compound and we decided there was no way we could stay. By this time, we'd got a call from the Australians saying, 'There was one more plane -- you have to go now'."

By late Monday night, the RAAF's Hercules had delivered 365 UNAMET staff and civilians to Darwin on six flights. People were told they could bring no more than 20kg -- whatever they could throw together fast. They left behind cars, computers, houses, clothes. All that weighed them down was stories of defeat and the anarchy they left behind. "I feel like I've let them down," said Darwin man Mike Nicholls. It was a typical comment.

On Tuesday morning, the focus of the evacuation -- still being called a "redeployment" by UNAMET -- shifted to Baukau, in the east, where the UNAMET compound was under fire. British soldier Major John Petrie told of lying on the ground for two hours while the offices took "at least 20 strikes".

This is where Bishop Belo had come to rest after his house was attacked. Now he chose evacuation, and later told of turning back to see women and children clutching pictures of the Virgin Mary and chasing his car. Their last hope was leaving them behind, scared for his life. They had always imagined their bishop wore a halo -- they saw his Nobel Prize as a shield that would protect them from the forces of evil.

On Tuesday, there were three flights and 150 evacuees.

On Wednesday night, the planes returned from Dili empty, apart from Australian consul James Batley and his staff, who had shut down their office. On Thursday, no one came.

Yesterday morning, the promise made to East Timorese UNAMET staff -- that they would be given haven in Australia -- was finally being honoured as the Hercules ferry service went into action again, leaving only a skeleton UNAMET staff in Dili.

Dr Andrew McNaughton, an Australian observer, said the Indonesians were cold and cruel. "They hate the Timorese people, and they particularly hate them now they've had international support. The more international support they get, the more they hate them."

Inga, from the International Federation for East Timor Observer Project, was a mess as she explained how she was forced to leave the people of Suai. "They knew they were going to die -- everyone knew when we were leaving," she said. "But still, everyone came to shake our hands and kiss us, to thank us."

The people were right. It has now been confirmed that the priests of Suai, and at least 100 people, were butchered in the church.

** End of text from cdp:reg.easttimor **