East Timor Crisis: UN Mission - General croons as his soldiers preside over the death of Dili

SIR JEREMY Greenstock looked up briefly from his papers as our military plane levelled off at cruising altitude after take-off from Jakarta, bound for East Timor.

Catching his attention was the Madonna video playing on a full-size television screen in front of his seat. It was early Saturday but here was Madonna in soft-porn mode and a topless dancer was shimmying down a steel pole, nipples erect and thighs glistening.

For the British ambassador to the United Nations it was just another in a series of surreal moments in Indonesia, moments when it was impossible to reconcile the awfulness of the tragedy the ambassadors have been trying to reverse in East Timor with the often jaw- dropping tactlessness of their Indonesian hosts.

What, for example, can General Wiranto, the armed forces chief, have been thinking yesterday morning when he attended a function for military wives in Jakarta? With television cameras rolling, he turned to his audience and impishly suggested: "You have the same feelings like me about East Timor." Then he mounted a small stage and began to sing the ballad "Feelings" into a microphone. The man who may one day face charges of crimes against humanity in a war crimes tribunal fancies himself as Morris Albert.

The unpredictability of the Indonesians has kept the UN delegation guessing at every turn. Saturday's journey to Dili was no exception. The ambassadors were determined to get there. At the very least, they wanted to show solidarity with the 80 UN personnel who had opted to remain in the besieged East Timorese capital, even though they had been offered the chance to leave. And they wanted to go to keep up pressure on Indonesia as it pondered allowing in foreign peace-keepers.

The plane provided by General Wiranto was a 29-seat, four-star Fokker. (Four military stars were mounted on the main cabin's bulkhead and on each take-off and landing a line of officers appeared tosalute the aircraft.) Its departure was delayed by concerns about safety in Dili and fierce disagreements over who should be taken along: 400 reporters were begging for just nine seats.

Even in flight, another surprise awaited us. A fuelling stop was needed in Bali, we were told. On landing in Denpaser, we spotted gaggles of generals on the tarmac and two military buses. When a general appeared to guide us down the aircraft steps, Sir Jeremy smelt a rat. "No thank you," he said. "We're staying on board. We don't have much time."

And supreme urgency, of course, has been the theme of the week. The UN Security Council has only words for wielding influence and for the past seven days these ambassadors have been trying to exert them in any way they could to persuade Indonesia to accept peace-keepers for East Timor.

In Dili we found graphic confirmation of why the mission has been vital. Everything we had heard in Jakarta was there before us: the column of smoke seen from the aircraft windows as we approached to land, the rows upon rows of burnt-out shops and homes as we drove, under escort, to our first stop, a gathering centre for displaced people at a police station.

Families with fear in their eyes sat surrounded by mountains of personal belongings. But apart from the throngs here and in the docks, which were also crowded, it was the emptiness of Dili that shocked us. The city, like most of its buildings, was a shell, gutted by an orgy of extraordinary evil.

It is a city that has been forcibly evacuated. UN officials offered some of what they had learnt. As many as 400,000 terrified East Timorese are thought to have rushed into the hills, where they face death from another enemy beside the militia and the army - starvation. And another 100,000 have been driven on to buses, boats and planes that took them to West Timor.

Grislier still are reports of how the militia worked through this mass of wretched souls, hunting down anyone suspecting of having have championed independence.

Some, UN officials insist, were weeded out at the port and made to "disappear". Others were stabbed on the boats and thrown overboard.

This day Dili was calm but that hid nothing. "You cannot cover up what has happened to Dili; it has been destroyed and shot up," Sir Jeremy said. This may be wrong, but General Wiranto, who came to Dili before the ambassadors, seemed surprised too.

It may be for that reason that the Indonesian government, and its military, suddenly changed tack last night.

There was no Madonna video on our return flight on Saturday. The military had provided a feature film instead. About a serial killer.

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