`It's time for me to leave. Gunfire crackles, beside me a child is born'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JOANNA RODRIGUEZ gave birth to a baby boy at 3.45 yesterday morning in the United Nations compound in Dili. The child, a boy, was immediately baptised, by a UN official who is also a Jesuit priest. He was christened Pedro Rodriguez, and his middle name was given as Unamet, after the UN Assistance Mission in East Timor.

Joanna received no drugs or medication during her delivery, for none were available; automatic guns were being fired close by as the delivery was made.

The child is tiny, born a refugee, in a place under siege by a well-armed and vicious army. But yesterday morning - the last time that I was able to check on him - both he and his mother were in good health. Like his country, and the organisation which gave him his name, Pedro Unamet survives hour by hour in conditions of dire peril.

Pedro's first day was my last in East Timor, and God knows when I will be able to return. Twenty four hours ago I was sleeping on an open-air camp bed a few yards hundred away from Pedro. I write this now in an air-conditioned hotel in the Australian city of Darwinand I feel wretched.

Yesterday, I fled East Timor.

At the moment, it feels like the kind of decision that I will regret for a very long time.

In a refugee camp, which is what the United Nations in Dili has become, the day starts early. As the sun rises the refugees wake and wash and prepare tiny ingenious meals on stoves made out of twigs and tin cans.

From the moment I woke up I was preoccupied by the decision which had to be made: whether to stay here with the refugees and the dwindling number of UN workers, or to give in to my fears and leave. The previous evening, after two days of little sleep and less food, I had become frightened, as worse and worse stories filtered through of what was happening in the town outside.

But the night's shooting, terrifying in normal circumstances, had been light by Dili's present standards. Above all, the attack on the compound, by the anti-independence militia men an the Indonesian army which controls them, had not come. For two hours I wandered restlessly around the small compound, taking photographs.

The bad news began earlier than usual and quickly began to spread as the 15 odd journalists rang friends and offices all over the world on their mobile phones. The relative calm of the previous night turned out to have been an illusion - instead of blazing away round Unamet, the soldiers and militia men had picked out the Australian consulate, Dili's only other international institution.

Previously, the Indonesian tactics have been meticulously indirect, firing close to, but not directly into, their targets, in an attempt to scare them away without risking the international opprobrium of killing a foreigner. But several bullets had thudded into the consulate, and a house next door had been burned to the ground.

The Australian government's advice to travellers was amended - all foreigners were advised to urgently leave East Timor.

In Jakarta overnight, the government had declared a state of martial law in the territory, and the local military commander had been peremptorily sacked and replaced by a general of the feared military Indonesian intelligence services.

In practice, this will make little difference on the ground. Since Saturday, when the massive referendum vote in favour of independence was announced in Dili, East Timor has been under the thumb of the military, who have fired off guns and grenades, burned houses and forcibly trucked unknown tens of thousands of people away from their homes to who knows where.

The identity of the military commanders responsible for this devastation are still mysterious, but no one doubt that they have emerged from the oppressive anti-subversion apparatus created by the former Indonesian dictator, Suharto.

The announcement changed nothing on the ground, but gave a chilling legal respectability to a state of affairs which has existed for days.

Conditions in the camp were getting worse, and ragged morale was fraying quickly. More refugees continued to arrive, including Aida, the sister of Jose Ramos Horta, East Timor's Nobel Prize winning foreign minister in exile. A man in naval uniform had turned up at her home with a gang of soldiers. "You're in Indonesia now!" he said, before driving her out of her house. "Why did you choose independence?" As she left, he said: "Do not go to Unamet. We will bombard it tonight."

UN people, once discreetly cautious of the media, sidled up to the journalists all morning with alarming and subversive pieces of information. A convoy intended to retrieve bags of rice from a warehouse on the other side of town was prepared for departure, and then cancelled. People spoke of paralysis and denial among in Unamet's leadership.

There were personal disasters, large and small. A colleague of mine lay moaning on a camp bed with what turned out to be an appendicitis. The entire compound appeared suddenly to run out of a cigarettes

The UN's headquarters in the city of Baucau, we learned, the last of its outposts outside Dili, was to be evacuated. Then at 10 o'clock, it came under direct fire from Indonesian soldiers. Half an hour later, bullets started singing directly over our heads. But Australian Hercules transporter planes were coming in and anyone who wanted to leave could. Braver colleagues than I were set upon staying. For two hours, I dithered and bit my nails, incapable of a decision.

An army truck drew into the compound and people began loading up, arranging their bags against its wooden sides, in an effort to create a barrier against bullets. "Bags on the outside, bodies on the inside," said the UN policeman in charge. Two of my journalist friends, who an hour before had vowed to stay, ran up dressed in flak jackets and helmets, carrying their bags.

I clambered after them, as the first bullet embedded itself in a UN building.

Crushed against one another, knees against backs, we trundled into the streets as the firing continued to our right. Eleven Indonesian soldiers stood above us, brandishing their rifles and smiling - our guards, here to protect us against an attack by their own comrades.

As we pulled out into the deserted streets, the compound suddenly seemed like a very safe place to be.

Through the slats in the wooden truck, Dili could be glimpsed,utterly transformed. It felt like a science-fiction film, a journey through a town overtaken by body-snatchers. During the 15 minute journey to the airport, I saw not a single ordinary person. The shops were boarded and shut, the houses still. In front of them, milling singly and in groups, were hundreds of Indonesian soldiers and the black shirted members of the Aitarak militia.

I saw one Aitarak man with an AK-47; the rest carried spears or machetes and the soldiers towering above us waved and smiled at them. Behind us passed a stolen United Nations jeep, driven by the militia. The shots continued, but in the middle distance. Thick smoke from newly-set fires rose close to the road. After 48 hours cooped up in the compound, the sensation of being on the move again gave me an intoxicating rush of (euphoric) adrenalin.

The airport was as ghostly as the town. The offices of the commercial airline were empty and litter-strewn, and somebody had removed the light bulbs from the overhead sockets. Outside, 30 more soldiers urged us impatiently off the truck. Inside the departure hall, in a parody of airport procedure, polite Australian soldiers from the waiting evacuation force checked our passports and bags. "A few health quick questions, sir," said a soldier with a red cross on her arm. "Have you been scuba-diving at any time in the last week?"

As soon as the plane took off, gloom settled over me and a deep sense of self-directed disappointment.

I could have stayed, my friends in the UN compound were still there last night,struggling to make do with generators and satellites, after their power and telephones were cut off. As I left East Timor, peering from the cockpit of the roaring Hercules, I could see flames on the ground and long billows of black smoke drifting hundreds of feet into the air.

Comments