"Please, stay with us, please," she gasped, her body twisting with sobs. "I am so afraid, you have to protect us, please. Tonight, when you are gone, they are going to attack us. They kill us tonight. Stay."
We did not stay. I and the five United Nations Security Council ambassadors who flew to the blood-soaked city of Dili on a day trip yesterday are back in our hotel in Jakarta. Maria - she warned that using her full name would reveal her to the militia butchers - was in the Unamet compound in Dili that has been under siege for seven days. She is still there, and what is happening there I don't know.
I do not mean to make light of the visit. The ambassadors, accompanied by a few press, arrived on an Indonesian military flight amid dire warnings about security. For several days Dili had been plunged in anarchy, while the delegation sought vainly in Jakarta to get Indonesian agreement for the rapid deployment of UN peace-keepers.
Their resolve had been hardened by reports such as this one: when an official visited the Timorese rebel leader Xanana Gusmao, who has just been freed from jail, the meeting was interrupted by a phone call. It was from two priests in East Timor. They were surrounded by militiamen and were about to be shot. They were calling to say goodbye. When he ended the call, Mr Gusmao broke down. Who wouldn't?
Going to Dili, seeing it for themselves, was the least they could do, the ambassadors decided, for a people who had voted for independence from Indonesia and were now being punished for it.
That Maria and a thousand others, refugees in their own land, have been safe until now is thanks to the UN staff at the compound, headed by a tall Englishman called Ian Martin. They had the chance to leave on Friday, but they stayed; they knew that if they left, the refugees faced almost certain slaughter. When you hear people castigating the UN, think of Mr Martin and the 80 staff who are with him.
You do not often find scenes like those we saw yesterday in the capital of East Timor. "Worse than Kosovo and Bosnia," one diplomat noted on our plane ride home. It is not that we witnessed the crimes that Indonesia must now answer for. Indeed Dili yesterday was almost entirely calm. We saw no militiamen, heard no gunfire. "It's interesting how they can switch it off when they really want to," remarked Mr Martin, as we toured the city.
But there are reasons for that. The Indonesian army, known as the TNI, had made sure to be quiet. We were treated to a surreal briefing at the military headquarters, where a general used a slide show to demonstrate that levels of violence in all five categories - "lootings, killings, kidnappings, burnings and terror" - had dropped off dramatically since martial law was imposed on Tuesday. "Isn't all that perhaps due to the fact that the people of Dili have all been driven out of the city?" asked a sceptical Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British envoy to the UN.
Martial law may have ensured our safety, but the killings, the deportations and the destruction have already been committed. The city has been laid waste, and the people are gone. Outside the Unamet compound there is virtually no one left to terrorise in Dili and precious little left to burn or loot. It is not a few buildings that are destroyed: it is hundreds of them.
Among our stops yesterday was the port. We wanted to see the warehouse where Unamet keeps its vital stores. It is, of course, empty. Children scurry in the mess of packaging and cardboard that remains. Outside, a stolen Unamet jeep is parked, filled to the brim with looted goods, the UN insignias painted over on its doors. On the bonnet, "Aitarak" is daubed, or "Thorn". It is the name of the militia.
What this port has witnessed in recent days we may never fully know. Here, tens of thousands have been herded on to boats, as part of the policy to empty an entire city of its population - a policy, by the way, carried out by the militia and TNI together. But officials at the compound tell a still more grisly story. They have hundreds of reports, they say, of militiamen combing the crowds for pro-independence sympathisers, pulling them to one side and then making them "disappear". Others have been hunted down once on board the ferries, all bound for West Timor, stabbed and thrown overboard.
So Dili is empty, or almost. Of the few thousand civilians we saw, most were huddled in displaced persons' centres, their
belongings - or others' belongings that they have looted - stacked all around them. Most are thought to be West Timorese waiting to go home. Others may have been those who opposed independence, who might have been allowed to stay. They have no reason to do so now: Dili is in ruins.
But that doesn't mean the terror is over. About 100,000 people have been forced into West Timor, mainly around the coastal city of Kupang, from where new stories of killings and persecution are now flooding in. But many more, up to 400,000, have fled into the hills of East Timor. Without shelter and food, they face mass starvation. On one torched house I saw this cruel graffiti, scrawled by the militia: "Freedom is the jungle. So stay there."
The compound, therefore, is the safest place for now. But conditions are dire. All around the UN buildings are families sleeping on blankets, cooking rice on little fires, weeping. The fear is overwhelming. A Unamet official hands me binoculars. "Look at the ridge," he tells me, "and you will see them - soldiers of the TNI, watching these people, ready to shoot any who run in their direction."
The refugees know they owe their lives to Unamet (whose real job, by the way, is actually over - supervising the poll of 30 August). But they are angry, too, because they think the UN will go soon, whatever happens, and they will be abandoned - by the UN, by the five ambassadors from the council, by us, the reporters, by the world.
"If they leave us, then we need only wait 30 minutes," said Sister Esmerelda, the only remaining nun in the compound. "They will kill all the people here. I am now waiting only to die."Reuse content