Over the past two days an impressive array of weaponry had been assembled on our behalf - two dozen Indonesian policemen and marines equipped with automatic rifles, combat knives and flak jackets.
The militiamen have a few automatics; mostly they are armed with homemade muskets and machetes. But the officer looked grave - a warning had been received and Indonesia's finest were unable to guarantee our safety.
Indonesia possesses a subtle and indirect culture but we had enough experience between us to recognise a death- threat. Within minutes three army trucks had arrived and we were being shooed into them with our bags, boxes and bottled water. A few brave guests stayed behind; as I write this, they are huddled in one room of the hotel, safe so far, with a few cans of warm lager and a walkie-talkie to comfort them.
The trucks pulled violently away and we began the journey to the UN compound along the Dili waterfront. It is a five-minute drive and I have made it dozens of times in the past fortnight, frequently nervous but never with such feelings of anger and frustration. From the moment we set off it was clear we were doing exactly what they wanted.
Less than five hundred yards down the road the militias appeared from a backstreet behind us, jeering and snarling. Two shots rang out from the homemade blunderbusses, more of a two-fingered salute than a genuine attempt on our lives. Everyone ducked, as the Indonesian policemen smiled at one another. My mobile phone started ringing - a producer from the BBC in London politely enquiring about the situation in Dili.
The sights of the town whizzed past in a blur. There was the compound of the International Red Cross, where 2,000 refugees are taking refuge from the terror; next door, in the garden of East Timor's bishop, Carlos Belo, between 3,000 and 4,000 were visible, peering through the fence, a little slice of the 150,000 people displaced across the territory. Every shop was shuttered; in houses the curtains were drawn. From at least two places smoke rose from burning houses. All along the route were soldiers, police and militiamen, waving and smiling with enraging gaiety.
It is tempting to call this anarchy but the word is misleading. There is terror here, almost beyond description. Last night there were reports of at least two massacres in Dili. Eight bodies were seen in the Catholic diocesan office, which was burning after gunfire in the afternoon. From the Comoro district, near Dili's airport, there were reports of 77 people murdered as militiamen went from door to door. But this is controlled carnage - observed, encouraged and directed by Indonesian security forces.
In the UN compound no one was surprised to see us. Four charter flights left yesterday, chartered by Reuters, CNN, Agence France-Presse, and the Portuguese media. But the official Portuguese delegation fled here yesterday after their house was assaulted by militias attempting to drag away their East Timorese staff.
The entire UN staff has been sleeping in its headquarters - a jumble of colours and nationalities camped on mattresses, blankets and camp beds. The scene was one of contained confusion until 7.10, when the shooting started.
There had been sporadic firing earlier, although much less than the day before - one suspects it may not be unconnected to the visit to Dili of the Indonesian foreign minister, justice minister and chief of police. But they had left a few hours before and this was a different kind of shooting: longbursts of machine-gun fire a few hundred yards from the compound, next door to the school which adjoins it.
Fifteen hundred refugees were in the school, living on the floor, cooking in the classrooms, surrounded by the smell of their own excrement. All at once the screams of children and women came from over the wall, and a desperate press began at the single, narrow door which leads into the UN.
The refugees have been here before, after a similar shooting on Thursday. Someone in the UN security section decided to festoon razor wire over the walls. It did not stop them trying, as clothes and bedding were hurled over the wall amidst shouting from UN policemen, Indonesian policemen and the caterwauling refugees. The shooting had been away from the refugees, designed to terrify and to further encumber the UN with the 1,500 new refugees who now joined us for the night.
We settled down to write on camp tables set out in the open or in the UN's press office. A convoy of UN officials arrived - 55 foreign and East Timorese refugees flown by helicopter from the town of Suai, where militia ran amok at midday, burning houses and attacking people as they fled, as the police walked among them. "These people walked around the town setting fire to houses and carrying out murders, without in any way being stopped by the authorities," said a UN official who was there.
The gunfire continued, sometimes distant, sometimes close by, but by now little more than background noise. Then an intense burst at 10.37. Ten minutes later, as I was writing the previous paragraph, a loud, proximate boom followed by the shriller sound of more automatic fire. Everyone on the press room fell to the floor, and crawled up against the walls and beneath tables. Someone had left the walkie-talkie on, and we could hear the messages of the UN's civilian policemen, punctuated by static, as they peered out into the darkness. "There's the glow of a fire on the horizon." Crackle, crackle. "The weapon has been identified. A grenade, a military-issue grenade."
The militias have grenades, undoubtedly given to them by the army, but the army is perfectly capable of doing this kind of thing for itself. On Saturday a American UN policeman narrowly escaped death after being shot in the stomach when Indonesian police opened fire on a UN evacuation convoy. Who threw that grenade? It hardly matters. Between the terrorist militias and the Indonesian security forces the only difference is the uniform.
How to describe the atmosphere here? In the UN compound it is less frightening than it might sound, for the simple reason that, if they wanted to kill any of us, they have had ample opportunity already.
The intention is to send the UN packing, and plunge Dili into the state in which so much of the rest of the country finds itself - a darkness of fear and terror, cut off from justice, and the watching eye of the outside world.Reuse content