Crisis in East Timor: In the city of the vanished disappeared

IAN MARTIN'S mind is elsewhere when General Kiki Shahnakri of the Indonesian Army, the TNI, opens his briefing to ambassadors of the UN Security Council on the situation in Dili. The tall, balding Briton in charge of the besieged Unamet compound here is tucking in.

For the first time in days, Mr Martin is eating real food, or at least the tuna and rice packed inside the heated MRE - Meal Ready to Eat - just handed to him by a soldier. It was TNI issue, of course, with a black logo on its steel lid that showed a crouching soldier with his rifle held high and ready to fire.

The briefing, in the TNI headquarters, came midway through our flying visit yesterday to Dili by the Council delegation. It was the army's chance to explain how it had failed to prevent the carnage that followed East Timor's vote for independence. With a slide show, General Shahnakri shares the good news: levels of violence in all five categories - "lootings, killings, kidnappings, burnings and terror" - had dropped off dramatically since martial law was imposed on Tuesday.

But the ambassadors are clearly sceptical. "Isn't all that perhaps due to the fact that the people of Dili have all been driven out of the city?" asks Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British envoy to the UN.

Dili, indeed, is a city gutted. And as we drive around in our heavily guarded convoy, we see for ourselves. It has been emptied of its people, and the buildings they lived and worked in have been destroyed. The city might almost be a theme park for the sick of mind, dedicated to man's capacity for evil. The action is seemingly all over, and what remains are only the silent exhibits. There are no corpses. We hear no gunfire. Indeed, the pro-independence militiamen, who are accused of perpetrating the week of mayhem with the collusion of TNI soldiers, are nowhere to be seen. On this day, the TNI has indeed exerted control. "It's interesting how they can switch it off when they really want to," Mr Martin observed.

The calm is a surprise. The few ambassadors who opted to don bullet- proof jackets, in UN blue, soon took them off, sensing no danger. Only a single column of black smoke rises from the city's centre. But what hurts here is the emptiness. Almost everyone has gone: hundreds of thousands driven by the militia and the TNI into the mountains, or on to boats and buses bound for West Timor. "Freedom is in the jungle," jeer the graffiti scrawled by the militia on the wrecked houses. "Good riddance".

A few people remain. For protection from the militia they display the flag of Indonesia, to signal opposition to independence. Any building still remaining has the flag flying above it. Hundreds of people are gathered in holding areas, waiting for transport. We find them, for instance, near the police headquarters in the midst of mountains of furniture. Most of it has surely been looted, but these stragglers hope to take away with them whatever they can.

At the port we visit the UN warehouse that Ian Martin and his staff have not been able to get to for a week. All his provisions, of course, have gone. Parked outside is a jeep stolen from Unamet: bursting with somebody's stolen booty, it has had the UN logos on its doors painted over and the militia's popular name, Aitarak ("Thorn"), crudely daubed across its bonnet.

Even the port is relatively quiet. In recent days, we are told, it has heaved with people being herded on to boats going to West Timor. According to numerous reports relayed by UN officials, many refugees were weeded out by militiamen as suspected pro-independence sympathisers. Some were taken from the dockside and made to "disappear", others were stabbed on the boats and thrown over the side.

At the Unamet compound itself, the atmosphere is one of desperation and fear. The remaining staff of about 80 would have left by now, but opted not to because of one terrible responsibility. Crammed in here are about 1,000 refugees who poured inside when the killing began. Only when a new sanctuary has been found for them will these remaining UN personnel think of leaving.

"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." She believes Unamet intends to go, breaking a trust with these people. On a high ridge behind, we can see the silhouettes of TNI soldiers. Beside it is a 200-yard gulley which gives access to the hills and greater safety, but every time anyone from the compound has tried to run that way, the soldiers have opened fire.

The ambassadors hope the remaining Unamet staff will not leave. Their departure would signify the death, at least in the short term, of East Timor's self-determination process. But they also know that the situation has become almost untenable. There is insufficient food to feed all these mouths. On the eve of our visit, militia thugs had threatened to burst in and had terrorised the compound with gunfire and grenades.

A short woman, Maria, finds herself before the Ambassador of Namibia. She is weeping with terror. "Please, stay with us. Please," she gasps between sobs. "You must make peace, you have to protect us. I am so afraid. Please. Please." Ambassador Andjaba promises that the UN will protect her. He knows that the UN will try; he also knows that it may not be able to.