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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
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.
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.
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.