Guns at the ready to liberate the lost people of Dare

EAST TIMOR Australian convoy is met by thousands of refugees in its first sortie outside the capital
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The Independent Online
THE SOLDIERS sitting in front of and behind us wouldn't identify their unit, but they were the kind of soldiers who communicate with one another by hand signals even in a moving car, and their guns were cocked and pointing out of the window. There were fourteen vehicles in the convoy and the first and last were jeeps mounted with machine guns. "In the unlikely event that we are fired on, fellas," said the soldier behind the wheel, who himself wore a helmet and body armour, "I'm just going to ask you to get down."

For Interfet, the International Force East Timor, it was only the second day of operation and the first sortie outside the capital Dili. There were reports of road blocks on the road to Dare, and no-one knew exactly what to expect. The few aid workers who had visited spoke of terrible conditions among tens of thousands of displaced people; a week ago there had been reports of the Indonesian military (TNI) advancing up the mountain, slaughtering refugees. So it was a comfort, although a queasy one, to be accompanied by heavily armed men who may, or may not, have been members of the Australian Special Forces.

The road rose through steep hairpins into the mountains behind Dili, with dry scrubby jungle on either side. Our guards signalled esoterically to one another and muttered into their radios to their fellows in the other cars. Then, after half an hour, a sound could be heard from the bush, getting louder and closer with every yard - an incongruous mixture of cheers, chanting and clapping, like nothing so much as the sound of a football crowd.

The road bent sharply again and suddenly we were among them - thousands of men, young and old, all simultaneously cheering and singing. The armoured jeeps and the white UN Landcruisers were surrounded; clasping hands passed through the open windows.

"Viva East Timor!" people shouted, "Independence!" and "Viva Xanana Gusmao!" A sheet was held aloft, bearing the painted words, "Welcome to the New Nation - You are saving a Nation From Destruction." These were the lost people of Dare, about whom so many dreadful things had been heard and rumoured. Yesterday, every one of them had a smile on his face.

Dare is something like East Timor's Oxford or its Sorbonne - the site of a famous Jesuit seminary where many if its leaders, including the guerrilla commander, Xanana Gusmao, have studied. But two weeks ago, after the beginning of the terror campaign by the Indonesian army and its militias, Dare became a place of nightmarish rumours. No-one knows how many people have fled here, but the local leaders of the refugees reckon that there are 37,000 in Dare and the surrounding area. Most were still huddling in the interior yesterday, dispersed across miles of jungle. The brave few turned up to greet Interfet, and among them was a friend of mine.

I stumbled into him as I climbed out of the car - Fernao Gomes, a student of English who interpreted for me when I visited East Timor in June. Fernao lived in the Dili suburb of Kuluhun, a staunchly pro-independence area and one of the first places to be attacked by the militia and TNI when the referendum result was announced two and a half weeks ago. For 20 days he had lived in the jungle near Dare, eating the cassava plant and a little rice, carried - at great risk - from Dili. "I heard that my father was killed," he said. "I don't know where is my brother and my family. At the moment, when the UN comes, the people are very happy. But I have lost everything."

The word refugee and the images its suggests obliterate differences between people, but there are so many different kinds of people here, from the old farmers with betel-stained teeth - chewing bright red betel nuts is a common Timorese habit - to Bendito Freitas. Next month he is due to start an MA in international relations and strategic studies at the University of Lancaster. This morning, in a different world, he would have been booked on a flight from Jakarta to London. "Please can you help me?" he asked. "I cannot take my flight, but I want them to know that I really, really want to go."

Interfet's arrival in Dare has changed remarkably little overnight. "I feel very happy today," said Leandro Isaac, the independence leader, who fled to Dare himself, and who met yesterday with Ian Martin, the UN chief in East Timor. "Because we can see the international community is with us - for the people and for democracy." But the international community has let Timor down before.

Yesterday's convoy brought only promises, and no food. At least 20 people have died here, of dysentery, pneumonia, and illness-related malnutrition. As Ross Mountain, the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator for East Timor, said, "Time we lose is reflected in lives lost."

And last night, as the soldiers drove away, Dare was really no safer than it had been the night before. Last week, as the international community was wringing its hands in New York, several trucks carrying soldiers of Kopassus, the Indonesian special forces, suddenly arrived in Dare and began firing. Refugees scattered into the jungle; one woman was killed. Yesterday morning, the rumour went round that another attack was due; right up until the last minute, no-one was sure whether they were waiting for the commandos of Interfet or Indonesia.