• U.S.

On The Razor’s Edge

7 minute read
Terry Mccarthy

The Timorese was a dead man walking when American teacher Pamela Sexton found him. The militiamen had used machetes on his arms, chopping repeatedly down to the bone. His stomach was slashed open. Blood covered his frame. “Where do you put a tourniquet on someone who has been sliced all over?” asked Sexton, a U.N. observer evacuated last week from East Timor. She took him to the Motael clinic in Dili, but he soon died. The militia later came back and burned the clinic to the ground.

Asia has a new killing field–East Timor. After a majority of the population voted for independence from Indonesia Aug. 30, pro-Jakarta militiamen rampaged through the territory, killing, burning and looting with impunity. Priests and nuns were among those singled out for execution last week as shops, churches, radio stations and clinics were torched. The Roman Catholic humanitarian agency Caritas said “a large part” of the 40-member Caritas team, “has been murdered.” Some 200,000 people–about a quarter of the population–have fled the territory. By the end of the week, the militias seemed to be withdrawing, and on Sunday evening, amid boiling international pressure, Indonesian President B.J. Habibie agreed to allow U.N. peacekeepers into East Timor. A U.N. team had visited the town on Saturday and gave the world some inkling of what to expect: hundreds of thousands of refugees and a moonscape of devastation.

The tragedy is that everyone saw East Timor’s violence coming, from U.N. officials on the ground to diplomats at U.N. headquarters in New York City. But it was a sign of the limits of international cooperation that while everyone saw it coming, no one knew what to do. As gruesome images piled up in newspapers and popped up on the nightly news, Americans were perplexed and worried. Why wasn’t this like Kosovo? they asked in call-in shows and letters to Congress. The White House responded to the growing public anger with strong condemnations of its own. By Friday, President Bill Clinton was saying, “It is now clear that the Indonesian military is aiding and abetting the militia,” and called for “an international force to make possible the restoration of security.” But presidential advisers made it clear that realpolitik ruled: the U.S. had no plans to fight its way uninvited into a territory that supplies little more than a specialty coffee bean to Starbucks. “Because we bombed Kosovo doesn’t mean we should bomb Dili,” said National Security Adviser Sandy Berger.

But the U.S. did push hard for international peacekeepers. And it seems inevitable that American logistics expertise will gird the multinational force that descends on East Timor. The peacekeeping agreement came after a week of difficult diplomacy, led by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Annan publicly tried to persuade Indonesia to invite an international peacekeeping force. Privately, he pushed other nations to issue an ultimatum to Jakarta: permit such a force or it will be sent in uninvited. A failure to permit peacekeepers into a killing zone like East Timor, he warned Jakarta, was perilously close to a crime against humanity. When Habibie called Annan at home in New York at 7:45 Sunday morning to announce his change of heart–Annan told aides he was “relieved” to get the call–the President said there would be no conditions. East Timor could have it’s violently won freedom.

Hints of the fury that struck East Timor had been apparent since January. When Habibie unexpectedly offered locals a referendum on independence, militia groups who wanted continued ties with Jakarta began to organize and acquire guns. Even before the vote, independence campaigners were intimidated and dozens killed. Although the militias were clearly supported by elements of the Indonesian armed forces, the international community in May agreed to entrust security during the referendum period to Indonesia. It was a fatal misjudgment, as the bloodbath showed. Why the killing? There were all kinds of theories. Perhaps the military, angered at having to give up territory it had fought so hard to pacify, wanted to get a few last licks in before pulling out. The military leadership was also clearly afraid that other restive provinces like Aceh and Irian Jaya would use the East Timor precedent to push for their own secession–and so, the theory goes, they wanted to make an example of East Timor. Others argued that regional commanders intended to defy Jakarta and reduce East Timor to a state of anarchy to cancel out entirely the result of the referendum. “The military feels insulted,” says Harry Tjan Silalahi, a think-tank director in Jakarta. “Some may want to restore order, but those in the field have a much different purpose.” In all likelihood, each of these explanations added a sliver of sick truth to East Timor’s fate.

Violence is not new to East Timor, an arid territory about the size of Connecticut. Colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century for its sandalwood, and predominantly Catholic, it was invaded by Indonesian troops in December 1975 with the tacit consent of President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Jakarta’s forces met bitter resistance–some 200,000 East Timorese died as a result of the occupation, and Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor was never recognized by the U.N.

It was to get rid of this diplomatic embarrassment that President Habibie proposed the referendum, ignoring the warnings of powerful military leaders, including armed forces chief General Wiranto. Habibie should have listened. Within hours of the Sept. 4 announcement that nearly 80% of the electorate had voted for independence, Dili and other towns echoed with gunfire as militiamen took over the streets, unchecked by the military. Civilians began pouring into churches, convents and U.N. compounds seeking safety (see accompanying story). “If there is a devil, these militia guys work for him,” said a photographer evacuated from Dili after the referendum.

If there was any light to be found in East Timor last week, it was in the U.N. compound in Dili, where a small group of aid workers, journalists and refugees kept up a heroic mission. Though Annan had ordered the compound shut on Wednesday, after militia groups attacked a U.N. food convoy, his local representatives revolted: fearing the 1,500 refugees in the compound would be massacred once the foreigners left, the staff members circulated petitions and announced they would stay. After a few hours of frantic negotiating, the U.N. left behind a skeleton staff of 84 people, who endured three days of nightmarish shelling and intimidation by pro-Jakarta thugs.

The future for East Timor is uncertain. Much of the territory’s infrastructure has been demolished, and even with topflight international help, it will take years to sculpt the shell-ruined jungles and villages of East Timor into a real nation. In Jakarta, politicians seemed to be coming to terms with the fact that East Timor must be freed. But that may be a more difficult sell on the streets of Dili, where pro-Jakarta militias must still be disarmed and–in some cases–arrested and tried for their crimes. That task now belongs to the U.N. As well as two other tasks: resettling the nation’s 300,000 refugees and asking the rest of the world how, less than six months after Kosovo, it allowed this kind of civil horror to strike again.

–With reporting by Lisa Clausen/Darwin, William Dowell/New York, Barry Hillenbrand/Washington and Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta

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