/** reg.easttimor: 3120.0 **/

** Topic: Peacekeepers: Calm, Efficient and Two Weeks Too Late **
** Written 2:11 AM Sep 21, 1999 by Joyo@aol.com in cdp:reg.easttimor **
Subject: Peacekeepers: Calm, Efficient and Two Weeks Too Late

The Guardian [UK] Tuesday September 21, 1999

Enter the peacekeepers: calm, efficient and two weeks too late

Refugees have cut leaves from palm trees for shelter. They have some rice but the little children are worst off

Maggie O'Kane in Dili Maggie O'Kane in Dili

A swirl of hot dust blasts across the runway as the engines of an RAF Hercules shut down on Dili's sticky tarmac. The only sign of the marauding militias and their masters in the Indonesian army are three soldiers sitting solemnly under a coconut tree.

Transport planes from New Zealand and Australia are touching down in front of them on the barren airstrip. The airport, like the rest of this city, has been trashed. The terminal is littered with rubbish, charred clothes and abandoned books. But in the VIP lounge white plastic lilies still sit on top of a shining glass table.

The peacekeepers have arrived. They are utterly professional, restrained, efficient and two weeks too late.

By the looted airport Australian soldiers are saying: "We are a highly trained army and the Indonesians understand what we are capable of - and we understand what they are capable of." But the work of the Indonesian army and the militias is already complete. They don't want any trouble. Why bother? East Timor has been sacked, looted and emptied.

In the humid afternoon, the only way to travel in Dili is on a child's bicycle. The cars were stolen long ago.

The houses of the wealthy, with their wide white verandas along the airport road, have been torched with the same zeal with which the militias and army flattened the corrugated roofs of the poor. The schools, the hospital, the telephone exchange, the university: all have been destroyed. There's no water, electricity or telephone lines. "You wanted a free East Timor - then here it is," the militias seem to be saying.

The Red Cross says 800,000 of the country's 850,000 people have fled. They are in the mountains or have been carted to transit camps across the border in West Timor. The only people left here now are those too frightened to move. They are women with children, and they have become beach people.

In Dili they are everywhere. They live in the open, under sheets on scorched grass. Along the seashore the stench of excrement mingles with the smell of hundreds of bubbling pots of rice. Some camp in the grounds of the burned-out bishop's mansion. Inside, a statue of the Virgin Mary has the mark of a machete through her face.

Small compounds have been created out of cupboards and wardrobes hauled from houses. On the beach a child's teddybear has been placed carefully on top of a chest of drawers.

But these people are smiling. "Now we can laugh a little," says Father Jovito Rego, a diocesan priest. "Until this morning these people were still scared. Now they know peace is coming - we've been waiting for them to come for a long time.

"We needed them for our elections but now it is too late."

Much has been salvaged, including the future of the United Nations. Its reputation could have perished here on this beautiful island on the edge of the Indian Ocean, were it not for the bravery of its international staff. They rebelled against orders from New York to evacuate and leave the people who had worked for them to face certain slaughter by the militiamen.

Up to now that has been the UN's way. Big promises - no punch. Srebenica, where 7,000 people died in a UN "safe haven". Kosovo, where the first people to die were those who worked with the international monitors.

A week ago the same pattern was set to be repeated here, until the UN staff in Dili decided they owed something to the people for whom they had organised an independence referendum with the promise: "The UN will stay." These words were plastered on posters all over the territory.

Their defiance focused the world's attention on East Timor and, today, the world has come.

Down at the port, two Australian soldiers are patrolling through a compound littered with weary women and children. But the mood is upbeat. Out of nowhere a nun in a station wagon stops to chat. "I'm out looting," says Sister Marlene. "Vegetables."

There's not much left to loot. Even the municipal tractors, earthcrushers and JCBs are lined up at the port to be shipped out on an Indonesian army boat. High up on decks the last of the Indonesian soldiers look down without expression on the people they are leaving behind.

Yet there are still places of sanctuary and peace. Ten days ago Sister Marlene talked to her mother superior on a satellite telephone. She told her she could not leave the refugees behind. "We will pray for you," came the reply.

Now Sister Marlene is safe in a whitewashed convent near the beach, where the nuns still have tea and somehow scavenge enough food for the 130 refugees sheltering there.

Robert Carrol, a freelance journalist who has returned from the mountains, having stayed behind last week to witness the worst of the militias' rampage, says: "The refugees are still up there. They have cut the leaves from the palm trees and are using them for shelter. They have some rice but the little kids are the worst off. You see them with runny noses and conjunctivitis."

Despite reports of mass killings, only one body is evident here: discarded in a drain that runs into the sea. The left foot is missing. Some people reported murdered by the militias have turned up alive.

Sister Margarida Paulo Soares, however, didn't survive an attack on her convent. "She was about 80 and she had an incredibly energy. She spent most of her time playing with young children in the garden of the bishop's house," says a sister who served with her.

>From around the territory there are reports of killings of priests in the towns where the militias were strongest. In Liquica, the murders of three priests have been confirmed.

"The coming of the foreigners is the grace of the Lord," says 82-year-old Sister Margarita. "It was horrible, really horrible."

But tonight, the sisters are calm. They are cooking on an open fire under a mango tree heavy with fruit.

The only clash between peacekeepers and the militias came in the early hours of the landing when two militiamen were gently but firmly disarmed.

Now Polda police compound, packed with militiamen six days ago, is deserted except for children riding bicycles. Everything - buildings, windows, trees - is coated in a thin film of ash. At a Dili hotel, the caretaker John, who lived through the Indonesian invasion of 1975, starts to shake when he sees the first of the armed Australian soldiers.

"They are on your side," a journalist tells him, and he smiles before turning away to begin burning rubbish.

There is a big cleanup ahead; the rooms are smeared with excrement from the militias' last visit. The trashing of East Timor is so complete that in the Tourismo hotel, where journalists are staying, even the mattresses have been looted.

And three miles out of Dili, where the city road meets the mountains, 30,000 people are still starving, too frightened to come down into the city.

"They will come down soon now," says Claudio de Silva, carrying a sack of rice on his back towards the hills. He will walk three hours to take it to his people. He carries a homemade pistol fashioned from lead piping and, as he walks towards the hills in his blue flipflops, he says, "It is safe now," and smiles.

Tonight the peackeeping force is still only at the airport and the docks. But people are waiting to greet them when the dawn comes.

By the bishop's house a crowd of 50 are gathered around a statue of Christ. They are kneeling and as the light fades they begin to sing Ave Maria. Out in the bay the British and Australian battleships are moored.

It's close to midnight and the only sound in this city is the sea along the shore. More troops will arrive tonight. A slim victory has been snatched from shame.

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