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Timor Witness

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Winter 1999
Timor Witness
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When we finished most of them said nothing. The only person who spoke was Sister Esmeralda, a Canossian nun. She told us that she and the others were grateful for what the U.N. had tried to do in carrying out the vote. But they were not surprised we were leaving because they were used to fair-weather friends who abandoned them in their times of greatest need. The East Timorese, she said, would not give up. We could fly to safety, but they would stay and face their fate.

Overcome with feelings of profound shame, but also of deep respect, we resolved to fight the decision in whatever way we could. Immediately after the meeting, one of us approached the head of the mission and expressed our shared view that the decision to evacuate was wrong, politically and morally. He did not disagree. Meanwhile, a sense of outrage had begun to grip other U.N. staff, and the journalists and observers who had taken refuge in the compound. Those feelings fueled a rebellion of sorts. By about 9 p.m. there was near unanimity that international U.N. staff could not and would not leave before the 1,500 refugees had been taken to safety.

Surprised but, I believe, also heartened by this show of resolve, the mission head was able to contact U.N. officials in New York, and by 11 p.m. that night the decision to evacuate had been reversed. UNAMET staff would not be leaving until the 1,500 refugees in the compound had been taken to safety. What happened in the next few days was almost as remarkable. After weighing up all of the possibilities, it was decided that the refugees would be airlifted to Darwin, Australia, together with UNAMET staff. Facing intense international pressure, the government of Indonesia had agreed to let them go.

Just after midnight on Sept. 14, a convoy of military trucks began rolling out of the U.N. compound carrying refugees through what seemed like Hell to the airfield, where they were put on board C-130 Hercules transports. From my vantage point at the back of the lead truck, I could see the flattened, burning remnants of the city and, through the darkness and smoke, the headlights of the trucks following behind us.

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