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Timor Witness

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Winter 1999
Timor Witness
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We could only stand by helplessly as shops and houses throughout the city were torched and citizens left to their fates. The situation was becoming more and more critical and the military wasn't doing anything to protect us. It looked like we were running out of fuel, which meant we wouldn't be able to pump water. Phone lines were cut. There was no electricity. A group of U.N. personnel tried to get to a warehouse at the port to retrieve supplies but was stopped by 15 or 20 militia who surrounded their vehicles, shouting and waving their guns menacingly. One militiaman walked up to a member of the group, pointed his gun at his face and told him how easily he could kill him. He held the gun there and began to squeeze the trigger. At the last moment he raised the gun and shot it into the air. As this scene unfolded, the TNI stood by and did nothing.

The U.N. personnel returned to the compound almost empty-handed, but with a clear message for the rest of us: We were in great danger, not only from the militia, but also from the Indonesian army forces that were ostensibly protecting us. That was a message we received many times in the final days of our time in Dili. At one point a group of militia approached an area next to the compound and began to attack the people who had taken refuge there. Once again, the TNI simply stood by and watched. It was left to unarmed U.N. civilians to go out and shepherd the refugees through a small gate into the compound.

On most days, we could hear the militia and the TNI firing their weapons. And we could see the rounds of tracer fire as they streaked overhead. With each day the sense of crisis grew, and on Sept. 8 a decision was made to evacuate international staff, effectively leaving the East Timorese refugees to their fate.

We were stunned. There was no doubt in our minds that the refugees would be killed if we left. Three of us, who had been working most closely with the community leaders in the compound, were given the unpleasant task of informing them of the decision. This was unquestionably the worst moment of the whole ordeal. The physical danger we faced doesn't begin to compare. Sitting on our wooden chairs in that drab office, surrounded by friends whom we were about to betray, we could scarcely find the strength to speak. And as we spoke we wept. We tried somehow to make it sound like it made sense. We explained that the situation was becoming too dangerous, that it wasn't safe for anyone to be in the compound, and that our presence was, in fact, making the people inside a target.

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