Inside the U.N.'s Last Refuge

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On the day the referendum result was announced, I stood with independence leader Leandro Isaac outside the Mahkota Hotel as he hugged journalists and friends. We will die if we have to, he told me. But even with the streets of Dili empty and thousands of refugees already sheltering in schools and church compounds, I didn't realize how soon his vow would be tested. Three militia attacks on the Mahkota that day sent the majority of foreign journalists scrambling out of East Timor on specially arranged charter flights. The 30 of us who stayed behind decided to move to the Turismo Hotel for safety, paying off police to protect us. Militias and Indonesian soldiers were already rampaging through the city, but we were confident we would be safe. A few hours later, however, police told us that there would be a militia attack on the hotel--and that they couldn't protect us. We boarded trucks supplied by Indonesian marines and, lying flat to avoid the frequent gunshots from militias, headed for the UNAMET compound. That night, as I sat on the steps of the main hall, I could hear gunfire moving closer to the school next door, where hundreds of refugees had been sheltering. All at once, the refugees came streaming over the compound wall, cutting themselves on razor wire in their frenzy to get in. The next day anxiety increased as the few journalists who had stayed behind in the Turismo were escorted by Indonesian police to the compound, bringing eyewitness accounts of the attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross. One journalist said she had seen militia and Indonesian soldiers shooting into the crowd of 2,000 refugees sheltering there, even as women held up their hands and begged them to stop. By now the UNAMET compound was coming under constant fire from the Indonesian military, police and militias just outside the walls. On Tuesday night, the phones and electricity were cut. The U.N. installed a generator, but there was enough fuel to run it only for a few days. That evening we learned that the compound would be evacuated the next day. The news was met with sadness and anger, and many U.N. staff simply broke down. Around us the refugees became aware that we were leaving. There was no question of taking them with us. You are abandoning us again, a Timorese friend said to me as he hugged his family and cried. The journalists agreed unanimously to remain. If we stay here they will kill us, said a colleague, but if we leave they will kill the refugees. We signed a petition to U.N. mission head Ian Martin protesting the decision to evacuate. His own staff felt the same way; they drew up a list of those who wanted to stay. By 1 a.m. there was a reprieve: Martin delayed the evacuation by 24 hours. The refugees were beginning to realize that UNAMET could not protect them. That night hundreds headed for the hills behind the compound as soldiers fired at them. Others stayed to see what the delay would bring. Frantic efforts were made to allow local U.N. employees and their families to be evacuated along with the international staff. U.N. officials also negotiated to move the refugees to the hilltown of Dare, 10 km from Dili, where thousands had already gone. On Friday morning, as 400 U.N. staff and the majority of the journalists prepared to leave, the gunfire continued. My feelings were mixed as I left in the back of an Indonesian army truck, my head forced down by the soldiers guarding us. I was happy to flee the constant intimidation, exhaustion and squalor of the compound. But I felt devastated to be leaving a country and a people I had grown to love. And I shuddered at the fate that awaited them. Joanna Jolly, a freelance writer, was among the last journalists to leave Dili