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Timor Witness

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Winter 1999
Timor Witness
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Faced with this situation, the question naturally arose: Should we proceed with the ballot? Despite our advice that we should not proceed, U.N. authorities, concerned a delay might lead to a decline in international support for the mission, or that the process might be derailed altogether, decided to go ahead with the vote.

Based on these considerations, the process of voter registration proceeded with only minor delay. And as the registration process got under-way in July, we witnessed something remarkable: East Timorese defied the militias and the TNI. They walked or rode for miles, stood in long lines in the hot sun and braved militia threats and outright assault for the chance to register. After 22 days, the number who registered was almost 450,000 -- about 100,000 more than the most optimistic estimates of U.N. electoral officials. No one who was there to witness it will forget Aug. 30, the day of the vote. East Timorese -- many dressed in their Sunday best, and some having left home in the middle of the night to reach the polling station by dawn -- once again defied the militias for the chance to vote on their future. When the figures were tallied at the end of the day, an extraordinary 98.6 percent of registered voters had cast their ballots. And when the results were announced a few days later, an overwhelming majority -- 78.5 percent -- had opted for independence.

As we counted the ballots in the great hall of the regional museum in Dili, there was a feeling of disbelief and euphoria that this vote, which so many thought would never happen, had taken place. But there was also a palpable tension; we worried that the counting was unlikely to go without some reaction from Indonesia and its thuggish supporters. At any moment, someone could have walked through the door and thrown a petrol bomb, burning up all the ballots and us along with them.

Whatever elation we felt over the success of the ballot was short-lived. Within hours of the end of voting, the militias began a rampage of violence against those it perceived as enemies. Among the first victims was a local UNAMET staff member, a school teacher, stabbed to death by militiamen just after the polls closed as he helped to load the ballot boxes into U.N. vehicles for transport to the counting center. The news came to us in a garbled radio message from one of our outlying posts; one of our own people had been murdered.

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