East Timor: Independence day

When peace-keeping forces entered East Timor, they found an eerie mix of hope and despair, suffering and relief. Photographer Mike Goldwater witnessed the traumatic birth of a nation. Introduction by Richard Lloyd Parry
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Two months have passed since the referendum which started it all, but even now no one seems to understand properly what went so terribly wrong in East Timor. The facts are simple enough. At the end of August, almost 24 years after a brutal invasion, the East Timorese were asked to decide whether they wanted to remain a part of Indonesia. Everyone knew what the answer would be, and so it proved - when the result was announced a few days later, four out of five had voted for independence. And everyone expected trouble, but no one - neither the United Nations, which supervised the vote, nor the East Timorese themselves - was prepared for what happened next.

Within a few hours of the announcement, shooting was heard, houses were burning, and the capital, Dili, had come under the control of the Indonesian military and their gangs of militiamen. Within a fortnight, the UN mission had fled, and 400,000 people - half of East Timor's population - had been forcibly removed to Indonesia. After a week of diplomatic flurry, a multi- national force, led by Australia, was dispatched to bring order to the ruins. The evidence of what had happened was everywhere. Driving along the main road through the centre of Dili, fewer than half of the buildings remained unburnt. Thousands of refugees were sleeping in the open, huddled in a strip along the beach 10 yards wide by one mile long - the rest of the town was virtually deserted. The peace-keeping forces appeared vigilant, tense, watchful - but for whom? Every few hours, new fires broke out, but the men who wrought this destruction were seldom seen, and the demeanour of the Indonesian soldiers was so meek that it was easy to relax with them. Children began playing among the debris. Locals on motorbikes gave paid rides around the ruins to journalists.

The Indonesian army were the organising force behind the militia, but what exactly they hoped to achieve, and where in the chain of command the orders originated, nobody knows. Recent events make it all even more difficult to understand. On 20 October, Indonesia acquired a new president, a new cabinet, and a new military commander. East Timor is officially under the control of the UN, and the last Indonesian troops must leave. What little remained of their international reputation is in tatters; already, an investigation is under way into crimes against humanity. If they once thought of holding on to East Timor, that fight has been abandoned - in fact it was lost when the voters turned out for the referendum. So who exactly brought East Timor to this? What was the point of it all?

Richard Lloyd Parry is the Asia correspondent of `The Independent'

A kind of homecoming

With Dili calm once more, peace-keepers organise trucks to bring back the people who fled the city and took refuge in the hills to the south. In the small town of Dare, a crowd gathers near the church to pack themselves, and what possessions they brought with them, into lorries and return home. They have all heard stories of the militia's wave of destruction, and there is an uneasy anticipation about what they will find. Nonetheless, these people are genuinely excited that their long struggle to be free is finally won. Whatever greets them, they say, East Timor will rise like a phoenix from the ashes. For those whose homes are beyond repair, there is a shelter at the football stadium. Medical supplies are few and hospitals destroyed, but the city's water supply has miraculously survived the violence.

Port area, Dili

Australian peace-keepers take control of the port area in Dili where, after the pro-independence vote, many people had assembled, hoping to escape by sea from the violence that erupted. But few boats were available and there was no way out. The refugees found themselves stranded in the middle of a war zone, unwilling to return to homes that they knew were being burned and looted by pro-Indonesia militiamen, so they set up temporary camps around the port. But in the days before the Australian-led force arrived, this area saw some of the worst atrocities, as the militia meted out savagery to anyone who stood in their path. One group of nine refugees were attacked with machetes and killed. Their bodies were then loaded into a pick-up truck which was driven to a scrap yard on the outskirts of Dili and set ablaze. The corpses were later discovered by the Australian peace-keepers, who brought not only an end to such violence, but the beginnings of a supply of emergency aid.

Many of those who joined the militia are East Timorese themselves, often from the margins of society, who

saw a chance to better themselves instantly by collaborating with the occupying forces

A militiaman prowls the streets

His machete crudely hidden under his shirt, this militiaman, wearing the uniform of a municipal workman, stalks the abandoned streets of Dili in search of booty and his comrades in arms, many of whom have fled. The origins of those who joined the militia are much debated, but many are East Timorese themselves, often from the margins of society - petty criminals, thugs, those at the bottom of the economic ladder - who saw a chance to better themselves instantly and gain some authority over their fellow citizens by collaborating with the occupying forces.

Taking shelter

A displaced East Timorese family (above right) takes refuge in a burnt-out house in central Dili, fearful of being caught between the retreating militiamen and the advancing Australians. As the peace-keepers' helicopters clatter overhead, the couple cuddle their children for protection. After nearly 24 years of suffering at the hands of occupying forces from Jakarta, the East Timorese have remarkable resilience. In 1975 they wanted independence, but the world community turned a blind eye as Indonesia ignored United Nations resolutions and imposed its rule.

Clinging on to order

Peace-keepers and United Nations officials look on, powerless, as Dili's central bank on the waterfront is set alight. Only a few yards down the road from the bank is an Indonesian army barracks. Its occupants either stood by as militia began the blaze, or, as the peace-keepers suspect, started the fire themselves, determined that, if they could not have East Timor, they would leave nothing behind of any value.

Bus station, Dili

A child plays in the burnt-out shell of a bus. All six buses in this depot have been set alight, another example of the militia's campaign to destroy the infrastructure of East Timor as they flee. Any remaining cars have been commandeered or burnt, making getting around almost impossible. The refugees either walk or sit three or four deep on motorcycles. The telephone system, too, has all but collapsed. Even the most basic foodstuffs are in short supply, and the peace-keepers report finding whole families who have survived by cooking dogs over open fires, burning cardboard and plastic sacks.

God and gun

Sister Alma, a Canossian nun, discusses the future of East Timor with Conelio Gama, commander of the second region of the rebel independence movement, the Falantil. They are in the main square of Manatuto, on the north coast, and the town around them has been destroyed. Gama's soldiers, some of whom have spent the last 24 years in the hills conducting a guerrilla campaign, stand behind him. Despite their superior fire power and periodic offenses against the Falantil, the Indonesians could never defeat this well-organised and popular resistance army.

An unmarked grave

Workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross bury a victim of the violence in an unmarked grave on the outskirts of Dili. The body is decomposing and was one of three found in a drain. Few escaped the militia. One group of Salesian nuns, in Dili, was able to hide 106 refugees, but elsewhere even members of the clergy were targets. In Manatuto, the convent run by the Canossian Daughters of Charity was burnt to the ground. It had only been built a year ago. The Mother Superior escaped the blaze but was later killed as she travelled with a group of church workers.

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