`It is hell here. I want to cry out to everyone'

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The Independent Online
AS ACRID smoke from burning houses in Dili drifted towards the UN compound, it was left to a weeping UN official to announce that the international monitoring mission in East Timor would finally capitulate to Indonesian military pressure and pull out.

Unamet's 206 international staff, 163 local personnel and their families, and about 20 journalists still at the compound were last night preparing to evacuate but the fate of up to 2,000 Timorese men, women and children who had crowded into the compound seeking refuge was still far from clear. The desperation showed on their faces, even on the children's.

Local UN staff now face the certainty of reprisals. Their family members are scattered throughout Dili, or in the mountains, or in some cases forcibly removed to West Timor by Indonesian soldiers. So desperate is the plight of those left behind that five Catholic nuns among those sheltering in the compound used journalists' satellite phones to call the Vatican and appeal to the Pope's help in obtaining an international peacekeeping force. "It is hell here and I want to cry out to everyone to save us but nobody seems to be listening," one of the nuns said.

The UN "security evacuation" was negotiated at the highest levels, between the UN on the one hand, and Indonesian President Yusuf Habibie and his Defence Minister, General Wiranto, on the other, as well as the Australian government, which is to take care of the operation's logistics. But President Habibie's signed promise of safe passage for the Timorese personnel was being viewed with scepticism last night. The Indonesian government has consistently offered all possible security guarantees, only to break them. When Unamet was forced to abandon its regional mission in Baucau two days ago, the local employees were prevented from boarding the Australian plane sent to evacuate them.

"The military threatened to shoot us on the spot if we got on, and they meant it," said one. A compromise enabled them to reach the UN compound on board a UN helicopter.

To ward off a similar disaster today, Unamet officials said they planned to mix local staff with international employees when they shut down the mission.

Liberation's correspondent ROMAIN FRANKLIN is one of the few remaining journalists in Dili.