Subject: Irish Times: Timor Anniversary Marred By Agencies' Insensitivity

Irish Times [Dublin] Saturday, August 19, 2000

Timor anniversary marred by agencies' insensitivity


EAST TIMOR: This time last year I was in East Timor to observe the independence referendum. I was a volunteer with IFET (International Federation for East Timor), accredited by the UN as official observers of the poll. I was deployed with three colleagues to the region of Oecussi (or Ambenu), a little enclave surrounded by Indonesian West Timor.

On the night of 27th August, just two days before the referendum, about 200 Besi Merah Putih (Red and White Iron) militia and pro-Indonesia supporters swept into the capital, Pantemakassar. During a horrendous night of terror they shot up and sacked the CNRT (Pro-independence parties umbrella body) headquarters, killing and injuring many CNRT members who were sheltering there, fearful to go home. Then they burned down 20 or more houses of CNRT supporters who refused to surrender their voting documents.

It was like a scene from Dante's Inferno as we watched, helplessly, from our house, a mere 100 metres away. Despite these and many other atrocities carried out by the Indonesian military and militias, the electorate came out in strength on polling day, and delivered an 80 per cent vote in favour of independence. They had every reason to expect that the UN, as the body conducting the referendum, could and would protect them.

We were forced to leave Oecussi for Dili on the day following the vote, as the Indonesian police "regretted" they could no longer guarantee our safety. Three days later the UN were similarly sent packing, though their plan had been to stay until November. The frightened populace begged us to stay. They said there would be massacres as soon as foreigners were gone.

Back in Dili, militia hoodlums were already beginning to flaunt themselves in front of the world's cameras, making it very obvious that they operated with the full approval of the Indonesian authorities. By September 4th, when the referendum result was announced, the stage was set for tragedy. The atmosphere of panic and fear which gripped the populace was palpable. Those who were in a position to do so fled the country.

Those who could not took to the mountains and the forests, leaving their homes and possessions to the mercy of the marauding militias. International media personnel and observers, now themselves in serious danger and under occasional fire, were ordered out. We were evacuated by Australian military planes to Darwin on September 6th and 7th, leaving our colleagues fearful for their lives. Guilt gnawed away at me on my return home, and within three months I was back in Timor. As I stepped down from the gangway, a young man warmly welcomed me back.

]Mi-rabile dictu, it was José, one of my erstwhile local colleagues, alive and well. He had hidden in the mountains, and was able to reassure me that all IFET local staff had escaped unharmed. A great weight was lifted off my mind at that moment.

The resilience of the East Timorese was striking. Back from the mountains and back from the so-called refugee camps across the border in West Timor, to find their homes and property almost totally destroyed, in a well-planned attempt at ethnic cleansing, they were remarkably cheerful and undaunted. They were so happy to have got rid of their tormentors that the loss of material possessions seemed a small price to pay for such a blessing. Sadly, however, many had also lost family members in the years of struggle.

The Nobel Prize winner Bishop Belo, and the Catholic Church, played a major role in the freedom struggle. The Timorese are a peasant people, pious and obedient to the Church, happy in their large and closely-knit families, gregarious and fond of music and song. They have a natural dignity and are gracious to the visitor, but, as the Indonesians found out, can be pugnacious and difficult if pushed too far.

Christmas in Dili, totally devoid of any commercialisation, was a deeply spiritual time. Midnight Mass offered by Bishop Belo in the grounds of his burnt-out residence was a profoundly moving experience, symbolising the triumph of good over evil. For me it was a great privilege to be able to celebrate with the "risen people" of East Timor. By comparison, New Year's Night was a real fiasco. A huge public party in the gardens of the governor's seafront offices, jointly organised by UNTAET (UN Transitional Authority for East Timor) and CNRT, to celebrate the Millenium, was aborted two hours before the midnight hour, when church representatives complained it was interfering with religious celebrations.

This Millennium Night embarrassment was a bad omen for UNTAET and the 40 or more international NGOs operating within the country. Local employees of the international agencies do not see why they should be earning mere pittances when expatriate staff earn perhaps 20 or 30 times as much. Work stoppages, strikes, and protests have become quite commonplace, and a "them and us" situation has developed.

This has become more acute since two luxury ships, equipped as hotels, were brought in from Australia early in the year, to accommodate UN personnel. This means that UN salaries, very handsome by any standard, earned in East Timor, are doing nothing to help the local economy, as everything on board is brought in from Australia.

If the millions spent for example on "floatels" had been used instead to build accommodation in Dili it would have meant a huge boost for the tiny economy. But local sensitivities and good public relations do not seem to be high up on the UN priority list, given that it took four months for UNTAET to produce a code of conduct for overseas staff.

In a country as battered as East Timor, this was surely a bad lapse.

On returning the Oecussi enclave, I was deeply saddened at scenes of utter devastation. Pantemakassar, nestling between the azure sweep of the beautiful bay and the lush green mountains, was a ghost town. While I was there, mass graves, containing up to 70 bodies, were being investigated by forensic experts. The fears expressed to us on 31st August 1999 had all too horrifically been realised.

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