East Timor Crisis: Save my people, Gusmao tells UN

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The Independent Online
IN A WINDOWLESS room in the British embassy in Jakarta yesterday, a small man with intense eyes spoke for an hour in terms so clear that his guests could not misunderstand. He was Xanana Gusmao, the East Timor rebel leader, released from house arrest here three days ago. His guests were the ambassadors of the UN Security Council, now on a mission to demand that Jakarta stop the killings in his homeland. Among those present were the Foreign Office minister John Battle and Robin Christopher, the British ambassador.

If the outside world does not intervene to stop the violence there - violence, which, he said, is being abetted and orchestrated by the Indonesian government and army - it will be too late and genocide will be committed. "I kneel before the Security Council," he said, speaking through an interpreter, his voice cracking with emotion. "I kneel before the international community. Please save the lives of my people."

His face and his words, eloquent even in translation, were burning with pain. Pain over his inability to protect a people from state-sponsored savagery. And there was anger and frustration, though he voiced it without a hint of aggression. "Perhaps this is too small a thing for a decision by the Security Council," he suggested. "But if you wait, even for a few more days, then you will later enter an empty land and the international community will be faced with another genocide."

The pain was only to get deeper later in the day as news arrived that Gusmao's father had been murdered in the mayhem in East Timor. He did not know this at the time of the meeting and nor did any of us in the room. Only late in the evening, when his programme of meetings was ended, did his own staff break it to him.

Seeing Gusmao in person confirms the extraordinary legend that has surrounded him as the leader of the Falintil pro-independence fighters. He was captured and tried by the Indonesian government in 1992 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. But his sentence was commuted to house arrest early this year.

It is a legend of a leader with patience, charm and charisma. He is worshipped as an icon by those in East Timor who have dreamt for so long of independence from Indonesia. And until the eruption of violence there last weekend, he commanded the respect even of the anti-independence forces. His image is everywhere in East Timor, Che Guevara-style, on posters and T-shirts.

The reputation of Gusmao has only been reinforced since the weekend by the restraint shown by his forces. Instead of engaging with the militias, they have withdrawn to four so-called cantonments - camps where they offer sanctuary to refugees. They have not taken up arms and risked unleashing civil war. "We're not fighting for the future of East Timor right now. We are thinking only of saving lives," he explained.

But Gusmao also issued a warning. Twelve battalions of the Indonesian army, known as the TNI, have started to sweep across the territory of East Timor, he said, and are getting close to two of the cantonments. If they reach them, Falintil's restraint may be broken: "Then Falintil will have to react against the TNI." More blood would be spilt. Recalling the guerrilla war that followed the Indonesian invasion in 1975, he said: "It will happen again."

Gusmao has said he cannot, for now, go to East Timor. For his safety he must remain in this spartan room, with two small beds, a sofa, two easy chairs and an office partition set up in a corner to give him privacy for dressing and undressing. This meeting with the Security Council was therefore of immense importance. "The people of East Timor are looking to the Security Council as their last hope to live."

What was not available to anyone, including the UN, was more time, he said. Especially, do not wait until November to send in forces, when the Indonesian parliament is due finally to rescind annexation and grant East Timor the independence that it voted for in its UN-sponsored ballot on 30 August.

"By then, we won't need the Security Council any more, because the people of East Timor will have been reduced to the Stone Age," he said. "Please, give security to our people now, or just let us die."

He chastised Council members too, noting that he had spelt out to the UN the dangers of violence and had urged that peace-keepers be deployed before the ballot. "This should have been the first lesson of the UN after what happened in Rwanda. Only we don't have a million people to be massacred, we only have 800,000. I'm not asking you to bomb Indonesia, I'm only asking you to save the lives of my people."

The ambassadors listened with sympathy and, indeed, shared pain. "We understand, you don't have to convince us of this," one told him.

From that room, they drove directly to the palace of President B J Habibie. But if they repeated what Gusmao had told them, it did no good. Habibie slammed the door on a peace-keeping force.

If Gusmao is right, the Stone Age in East Timor is around the corner.

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