East Timor Crisis: Refugees vanish quietly into the night

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The Independent Online
THE EXODUS had been inevitable for days, and when the moment finally came it happened calmly, quietly and almost invisibly. In the darkness of early yesterday, with no fuss or noise, the refugees began gathering at the back of the UN headquarters in Dili.

Someone had cut helpful gaps in the cordon of razor wire; the small and nimble could duck under a dried-out culvert. There were fires burning throughout the city, and the usual background rattle of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, when the refugees gathered in their hundreds - young and old, men, women and children - patiently queuing to slip through the wire, scramble up the hill and melt away into the mountains.

Those who were there say that the atmosphere yesterday morning had changed drastically when the camp woke up to find as many as half of the 2,000 refugees vanished. When they arrived at the UN, it was a place of sanctuary, the last place in Dili which was still secure against the soldiers, police and militiamen who have turned East Timor into the world's biggest concentration camp. By Wednesday night, it had become a trap, liable at any moment to snap shut on top of them.

In the past 24 hours the UN's plans have been changing almost by the hour, but last night it seemed certain: this morning, after delaying for a day, most or all of the staff of the UN Assistance Mission in East Timor (Unamet) will pull out of their last redoubt in Dili. Since coming under virtual siege last Sunday, penned up inside their cramped compound, their presence has been almost completely symbolic. With today's withdrawal, the protection they offer will dwindle still further, and the East Timorese know it.

All over the territory, they are resigning themselves to a life lived in the darkness, cut off from international scrutiny, fending for themselves against a murderous enemy. Confirming tales of atrocity, in the absence of all independent observers, is almost impossible. But from those accounts which have filtered out, the dead must already rank in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, with many more casualties a certainty.

Every day in Darwin - the place of evacuation for foreign evacuees from East Timor, and the home to a large Timorese community in exile - one hears stories of individual Timorese, acquaintances and strangers, killed or missing. There is Father Hilario, the respected priest of Suai, murdered this week in his church, alongside as many as two other priests and six nuns, and 100 of the 2,500 refugees sheltering there. A returned Australian nurse described her vain attempts a few days earlier to save a man bleeding to death after being attacked with machetes. "Where do you put a tourniquet on someone who has been sliced all over their body?" she said.

Even if the killing were to stop immediately, the dying would not. The International Red Cross estimates that 200,000 East Timorese, almost a quarter of the population, have fled or been forcibly transported from their homes, many of them to Indonesian West Timor. In recent days, anti- independence militias have begun marauding there too. And the camps - ill-supplied, ill-protected and unsanitary - seem certain to breed a deadly combination of disease, hunger and despair.

Activist groups in Darwin reported further militia attacks and rampages yesterday in Los Palos and Baguia - strongholds of pro-independence feeling, which had previously been spared the worst of the militia and army violence. But only from Dili is there reliable information, and that only because of the failing eyes of Unamet.

When the head of Unamet, Ian Martin, announced on Wednesday night that the UN intended to withdraw yesterday morning, there was "complete panic" as news spread around the compound, said one of the few journalists still holed up there. "Usually when you walk past the refugees, they smile and say hello. But people were glowering at us, or begging, `Please get me on the plane'." Within a few hours, the escape through the fence and up the steep hill behind the compound, had begun. Shots were fired at the fleeing refugees; at least two were reported to have been hit and injured.

Then, amazingly, the decision was reversed, sometime around 2am yesterday. There are conflicting explanations for the about-turn. Some of those I spoke to in the compound said that it was the result of a virtual mutiny by UN staff, who petitioned Mr Martin to let them stay. Others suggested that it was more practical: the Indonesian army (TNI), the only force capable of protecting the evacuees on their drive to the airport, had explained that they were "unable to guarantee" its security. The soldiers, of course, control and arm East Timor's militias, whom they could easily outgun. Such warnings are scarcely veiled threats: bolt now, and we will attack you.

Trapped under the thumb of the military, the besieged in the UN have to be thankful for small mercies, and yesterday came several. An Australian Hercules transporter plane arrived at Dili airport and was allowed to unload its cargo of supplies. David Wimhurst, Unamet's spokesman in exile in Darwin, received a message: "Thanks for the toilet paper." In the afternoon, the mobile phones and land lines that had been cut off two days earlier were restored.

The TNI's goals and motivation are hard to fathom, but one theory was suggested by a senior source in the compound yesterday, which would explain the UN's sudden decision to keep on a skeleton staff. Having pushed so hard to drive the UN out, the TNI had now decided that it would be a good idea to keep a few of them around. "These people think that they are staying out of idealism," said the source. "What they don't realise is that they're hostages." After a couple of hours of open lines, the telephones were off again in Dili last night.