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Winter 1999
Timor Witness
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For the U.N. workers trapped inside their walled compound in the city of Dili, the worst part was not the fires raging around them or the bullets whizzing overhead -- it was telling the terrified refugees that the U.N. was leaving

By Geoffrey Robinson

For 10 days in September, gangs of armed militia thugs and their Indonesian army patrons laid siege to the United Nations compound in Dili, East Timor. Huddled inside the walls, we slept on bits of cardboard, ate appalling French army rations, listened to the constant clatter of automatic weapons outside the walls and filled our lungs with the acrid black smoke that billowed from the city burning around us. We had no idea what the militia might do. We worried that at any time they might come over the wall and kill those of us inside -- 500 U.N. staffers and more than 1,500 locals who had sought refuge with us. And even if they didn't attack us, there was no way of knowing how long this ordeal might last. Until the very end, we had no certainty that we would get out; for all we knew we were there until we ran out of food or were killed.

Despite the drama, life in the compound took on a surprising air of normalcy. Families set up little kitchens and a household on any flat space they could find, whether it was dirt or tile or grass. You couldn't walk far without stepping over somebody. People went about their daily business of cooking and cleaning and caring for their babies. It would have been, I think, nearly impossible for us to go through what we did without them there. To see the children playing and mothers nursing -- it reminded us of what we were doing there, it was reassuring and was, I think, what kept us sane.

Why were we there? Why, more specifically, was I, a UCLA professor of history, 9,000 miles from the safe haven of academia in a place where it was a very real possibility that I might not survive? I went to East Timor -- a small half-island in the Malay Archipelago occupied by Indonesia since 1975 -- in June as part of the U.N. Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) to oversee the referendum on independence, an event preceded by years of military occupation and human-rights violations in which an estimated 200,000 people died. It was clear when we arrived that the conditions did not exist for a free and fair ballot. Of particular concern was the presence of armed pro-Indonesian militias, backed by the Indonesian armed forces (in many cases, Indonesian soldiers were themselves militia members), that roamed with impunity throughout the territory, engaging in acts of violence and terror against ordinary people. An additional problem was that the Indonesian police were powerless to control the Indonesian armed forces, the TNI, and proved unwilling to restrain the militias.

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