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Timor Witness

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Winter 1999
Timor Witness
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Early the next morning, I went with a small U.N. group to investigate the killing and retrieve the body. From our helicopter, the scene was one of extraordinary beauty, a small village tucked in the mountains with treetops just visible above the morning mist. Yet we knew what terrible violence had been done there. As we approached we could hear the crying and screaming of the man's family. And we saw something more chilling. The building where the man's body had been brought was surrounded by about 50 members of the militia, armed with machetes, handguns and rifles, wearing their characteristic red and white bandanas. These were the very people who had killed him. Mingling among them were members of the Indonesian military and police, doing nothing, having a smoke with them. And the militia were making demands; they were not going to let the body go, they were not going to allow the local East Timorese UNAMET staff to leave the village and they were not going to let the ballot boxes be taken from the building until we made certain concessions. Specifically, they demanded that we nullify all the votes from the district because in their view the election had been unfair.

Hours by road from Dili, with no phone communication, no radio link, we were completely cut off, with a group of agitated men who were prepared to kill. We had no choice but to negotiate with them, and so I found myself in conversation with the militia leader -- a terrible man who showed no remorse over the killing. Talking reasonably with him was the last thing I wanted to be doing. I had to try very hard to avoid saying what I really thought, which was that he was a disgusting, immoral roach who didn't deserve to have anyone talk to him about anything. But in the end, the talk paid off. After a full day of tense negotiations, we were finally able to leave with the local staff, the body and the ballot box.

The situation grew even more volatile after the results of the election were announced on the morning of Sept. 4. Within hours, the militias and the TNI began an unprecedented campaign of violence, burning and looting in all the major towns in the territory, including Dili, where the U.N. had its headquarters. Hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes, UNAMET evacuated all of its regional offices, and the militias, who had overwhelmingly lost the vote, effectively controlled the territory. In Dili, UNAMET personnel who ventured out on Sept. 4 and 5 came under direct armed attack by the militia; movement outside the compound was stopped, and we inside the U.N. compound were effectively under siege.

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