The Guardian [UK]

Monday September 6, 1999

'Twenty villagers were shot while they were sleeping'

John Aglionby in Dili

Sheltering with hundreds of frightened people in a police station in the East Timor town of Maliana, Briton Mark Harris listened to tales of terror from the surrounding area.

"A priest reported that 20 people had been killed in Manapa [a nearby village]. They were shot while they were sleeping." Other people taking refuge in the police station, said Mr Harris, told similarly horrific tales.

Mr Harris, 28, from Birmingham, was one of the first eyewitnesses to describe the militia rampages going on in towns and villages the territory's capital, Dili.

He was in the Maliana police station on Friday waiting to be evacuated as pro-Jakarta militiamen tore to pieces the town of about 8,000, which lies 90 miles south-west of Dili.

"There was absolutely no law whatsoever," the postgraduate student at London's School of Oriental and African Studies said yesterday as he recovered in Atambua, the nearest town over the border in West Timor, which has always been part of Indonesia.

Mr Harris, who is writing his MA thesis on East Timor's 13 pro-Jakarta militias, had gone to watch the territory vote last Monday on independence from Indonesia.

Sensing the outcome - an overwhelming vote for freedom, announced formally yesterday - the militiamen unleased a new wave of terror.

At 5pm on Thursday afternoon, according to Mr Harris, they began shooting people, burning houses and driving from their homes anybody thought to support independence.

"The police were completely powerless to stop the violence because it was the army that was organising it all," he said.

They began with the office of the main pro-independence political organisation, the National Council of East Timorese Resistance, shooting into it and then setting it ablaze.

Then the militiamen and their army overseers moved to the United Nations compound close by, shooting into the air and at the 10ft outer walls. They did not attack it, however.

"By 7am the next day [Friday] Maliana was on fire," said Mr Harris, who was in the town to observe the referendum under the auspices of the International Federation of East Timor, a monitoring group made up mainly of independence activists.

Burned out cars littered the streets, he said. "Houses were smoking everywhere and no one could be seen" - except for the hundreds who had fled to the police station in fear for their lives. Among them were 55 unarmed UN personnel.

"All the UN guys were there [in the police station] ready to go" - to leave the area, said Mr Harris.

Shortly after the UN group left the station in a police convoy for Dili, Mr Harris left the town, also with a police escort.

By the time he left he reckoned that about 200 houses had been burned. "I felt an incredible sense of helplessness to see the refugees in the police station and no one doing anything to help them. We were the last foreigners to leave and now no one knows what's going on."

UN officials in Dili said yesterday that they had heard Maliana "had been all but burned to the ground". The death toll was conservatively put in the dozens.