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Escape From East Timor


International Politics

Escape from East Timor

The Hotel Turismo is a two-story beachside villa. The doors have been torn off, the windows shattered, and the furniture looted. The water, electricity, and phones are off. The courtyard is littered with overturned picnic tables, crushed beach umbrellas, dirty toilet paper, and spent rifle cartridges.

But the Turismo was one of the few buildings left standing in Dili in mid-September after the Indonesian army and its loyal militias razed most of the capital. So scores of Australian troops moved in on Sept. 20 to lead a U.N. peacekeeping mission in East Timor. The balconies made convenient positions for their 50-caliber machine guns mounted on sandbags and offered a reassuring view of four Australian warships off the coast. The troops slept under mosquito nets in the halls, graciously surrendering the 20 bare rooms to dozens of foreign correspondents. If there was a safe place in Dili, the Turismo was it.

Or so we thought. Within a couple of hours, it was clear we were trapped in the Turismo, at the mercy of untold thousands of Indonesian army regulars and militias intent on exacting revenge on the international community for backing East Timor's Aug. 30 vote for independence. The Turismo came to symbolize the trap that every U.N. peacekeeping mission falls into: the myth that security, as defined by the U.N., can overcome total lawlessness.

The myth evaporated two hours after I checked in on Sept. 21. I took a short walk eastward on the beach from the hotel, surveying the thousands of refugees camped on the sand under makeshift tents of blue U.N.-donated plastic sheets. A dozen schoolgirls knelt at the foot of a white statue of the Virgin Mary and prayed for deliverance. Then an elderly couple sitting on a sofa stared at me as if I were a dead man. As I turned back toward the hotel, I found myself facing three men who had been following me all along but to whom I had paid no attention. One carried a hand-sharpened iron bar, another a crude, homemade musket, the third an Indonesian army-issued assault rifle. They did not wear the coy smile that normally greets Westerners in the remote islands of the Indonesian archipelago. An Australian soldier hissed at me and gestured with his rifle that I should stand next to him. I did, and the three men vanished.

Sander Thoenes, a Dutch stringer for the Financial Times based in Jakarta, was not so lucky. The next morning at the Turismo, I awoke to the sound of an Australian TV crew talking about a "mutilated white body" in the Dili suburb of Becora. I checked Thoenes' room. His backpack and laptop lay on the floor, untouched. His last kindness had been to vouch for me when the Australian soldiers admitted me into the hotel. We had traveled to Dili on a charter plane from Jakarta together and shared a ride to the hotel. In the departure lounge at Jakarta's domestic airport that morning, he had snickered about how he had left a reporting job in Moscow to come to Jakarta in September, 1997. "I was tired of covering crisis," he said. "I wanted to cover a fast-growing economy." But two months after his arrival in Jakarta, Thoenes was again covering crisis.

After making sure that I had been admitted to the Turismo, Thoenes took a motorcycle to Becora. There, witnesses say he was shot by six men who wore Indonesian army gear and carried Indonesian army assault rifles.

Thoenes' murder, though appalling, should not have come as a surprise. A few minutes after President B.J. Habibie announced that Indonesia would allow U.N. peacekeepers into East Timor on Sept. 17, his spokeswoman, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, warned the U.N. not to send in "white faces" because they would not be "palatable." The militia's deadly strategy was to keep relief workers from reaching the needy, and scuttle the U.N. mission in East Timor. In practical terms, that meant the militias could run attacks from bases on the Indonesian border of West Timor with the blessings of the Indonesian army.EDGY SOLDIERS. The terrorism did more than stop U.N. workers: Hundreds of thousands of Timorese who had been forced into the mountains risked death from hunger or malaria while they waited for help.

As the day wore on, the Australians started getting edgy. Soldiers piled us into several white U.N. Toyota Land Cruisers and drove us to the East Timor High Court building for a news briefing, carefully aiming their assault rifles out the windows. We waited 20 minutes in the sun while soldiers checked the building for unwelcome guests. Brigadier Mark Evans, commander of the Australian infantry component in East Timor, proudly announced that four points in Dili had been secured: the airport, the port, the bombed-out U.N. compound, and the still-inhabited Australian consulate. The Turismo was not on the list. "The general says he'd be surprised if somebody doesn't take a potshot at this place," said a resident of the hotel.

At 6 p.m., an Australian army officer called another briefing at the Turismo to issue instructions in case of an attack in the middle of the night. "If you hear three short whistles, run to the restaurant," he said matter-of-factly, referring to a stand-alone room in the center of the yard that the army used to store ammunition. I awoke at 3 a.m. to three panicked shrieks that sounded like they had come from a stabbed dog. An Australian TV cameraman explained that someone had been having a bad dream. For the next three hours, I lay awake as dry leaves and glass shards crumpled and crunched under the paws of a stray cat in the courtyard.COKE AND COLD CUTS. The next morning, 15 of us were at Komoro Airport trying to get out. For four hours, we watched helplessly as Australian and American military C-130 Hercules transport planes flew in from Darwin, Australia, disgorged troops, crates, and jeeps, and flew out empty. A female Australian army corporal holding a clipboard said she was waiting for clearance from an Australian military air base in Darwin before we could get on one of those planes. I followed the scent of ham sandwiches into the bushes--we had been living on army rations for three days--and stumbled across half a dozen Australian Royal Air Force officers gathered in a camouflage tent with ice coolers brimming with Diet Coke cans, cold cuts, and bread loaves. I asked for a Coke. An officer with a handlebar moustache ducked inside to fetch me one but begged me to drink it in the tent, "just so your friends don't know where you got it."

A female RAF officer in fashionable black wraparound sunglasses sitting next to the RAF major asked if the town was worth visiting. "There isn't much of a town left," I replied. They nodded shrewdly, as if they had heard this but didn't believe it. I asked if the airport was secure. They laughed and shook their heads. "We've got the outer perimeter defended," asserted another RAF officer, stretched out on the ground with a Diet Coke. The woman in sunglasses shook her head again. "The next 48 hours are going to be the worst," she said. "The Indonesian army is pulling out 5,000 troops and handing all their weapons over to the militias."

Clearance never came from Darwin. But we scampered aboard a charter flight. "We've dubbed her `The Diliverence,"' joked Patrick J. Walker, the British Broadcasting Corp. news producer who had chartered the ancient propeller plane. Two hours later, several of us were on the tarmac at Denpasar Airport in Bali, each $500 poorer for the charter, but just as glad to be alive.By Michael Shari in Bali


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