By the afternoon, more than 1,500 people had been evacuated, and the handful who stayed, a dozen aid workers and military liaison officers, had moved to their new sanctuary in the Australian Consulate building a mile away. The UN compound, once home to 3,000 people was empty. Two hours later, thick black smoke was seen rising from it.
For anyone who has been to the compound, the scene can be easily imagined. The Joint Operations Centre, with its vast map of East Timor pasted over two walls and the ceiling, gutted and smouldering. The scores of Land Rovers and Toyota Landcruisers, now undoubtedly smashed, fired or stolen.
Two weeks ago, there was an air of nervous exhilaration in Unamet after the unexpected success of the referendum on independence, in which almost 99 per cent of voters turned out in the face of brutal intimidation. Today, the last of its staff have fled to Australia and their headquarters is burning. It would be hard to imagine a more ignominious end to a noble undertaking.
Officially, Unamet is putting on a brave face - the mission has not evacuated to Darwin, but "relocated". When the Indonesian soldiers and their tame pro-Indonesia militias have been brought under control, the official line goes, it will return and resume its job of implementing the result of the referendum - a 78.5 per cent vote for independence. But in the next few days, barring diplomatic obstacles, a multinational military force will enter East Timor to restore order by force of arms, if necessary.
The idealistic - some would say naive - mission entrusted to Unamet will have been superseded by an altogether harder-edged project, and the future of the organisation is deeply uncertain. At the very least, a phase of the operation has come to an end, and among the evacuated staff in Darwin difficult questions are being asked. What could have been done to prevent this debacle? How did Unamet go so wrong, so badly?
Quite apart from the blow to its institutional pride, Unamet leaves the people it set out to help in an immeasurably worse state than when it arrived. In May, when the mission set up shop, East Timor was a restless and weary territory, seething with impatience after 23 years of occupation. Today, it is a society well on the way to complete destruction - its towns destroyed, its people terrorised, half of them driven from their homes to hunger and disease, unknown numbers killed.
The heaviest price has been borne by those closest to the UN - the drivers, assistants and interpreters, many of them young English-speaking students, who have been targeted for retribution by the soldiers and militia men. A few hundred of them, along with the compound's 1,400 refugees, were successfully evacuated after days of negotiations with the Indonesian military or TNI. In the end they were allowed out on the personal orders of President B J Habibie. But, as Ian Martin, the Unamet chief, said after his own escape yesterday, they represent "a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in East Timor".
Among some of the staff, his own shortcomings as a leader are being cited as one of the reasons for the mission's failure.
Mr Martin, a former secretary-general of Amnesty International, is a well-intentioned and methodical man with an unflappably bureaucratic manner. But his coolness and distance from even his most senior staff became a liability after the militia violence began to spread out of control, when a more passionate and inspiring presence was required. Twice last week, Mr Martin made the decision to evacuate; twice he changed his mind after virtual mutiny by UN staff who refused to leave without the sheltering refugees. "Martin is jelly-bellying," said one UN official last week; others spoke of Unamet as a "rudderless ship".
But the fatal flaws originated before Mr Martin was even appointed, in the UN-brokered agreement, signed by Indonesia and Portugal on 5 May, which gave birth to Unamet. Crucially, it left responsibility for security in the hands of the Indonesians. Within a few weeks, it was clear to those on the ground that the police and TNI were colluding in the militia violence; last week, they were openly operating together.
With hindsight, this appears to be a colossal error, but UN staff insist that there was no way around it. "If the world's fourth biggest country, a respected member of the UN, stands up in New York and promises to look after security, it's very hard to say to them, `We don't believe you'," said one Unamet official. "If we'd pressed it, there would have been no agreement. The referendum would never have taken place."
Should the violence have been foreseen and reinforcements brought in earlier? Leaked Unamet documents show that the mission had been warned of police and military plans to launch a terror campaign weeks before the vote. Militia leaders frequently and publicly promised bloodshed in the event of an independence vote. "It was widely predicted by those who have committed the violence," Mr Martin said yesterday, "but most of us were reluctant to believe that they meant what they said."
Such failures should not obscure Unamet's one blinding success - the referendum itself. For all the intimidation, all but a few thousand of eligible East Timorese registered their names; fewer than two per cent of them failed to vote. The referendum went ahead and produced an overwhelming and inarguable result.
"That's done now, and nobody can take it away," said one Unamet official. "For all those years, the Indonesians said that East Timorese wanted them here. Now we know the truth, undisputably."
THE TIMOR QUESTION
How serious a fighting force is the Indonesian military?
INCLUDING ITS national police, Indonesia possesses one of the biggest armed forces in Asia with some 450,000 men. Its elite units, including the Kostrad strategic command, and the notorious Kopassus special forces are highly trained and skilled, with officers who have studied in Europe, Australia and America. Under President Suharto, the military's principal security task was suppressing internal political dissent.
How is the crisis viewed by ordinary Indonesians?
UNTIL THIS year, the fate of East Timor was a matter of indifference to Indonesians who are baffled by the attention paid to the territory by foreigners. Newspapers and television tend to focus on pro-Indonesian leaders, and pay little attention to collusion between the armed forces and the militias. Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indonesia's most popular politician, opposed the referendum,but she insists she will respect its result.Reuse content