• U.S.

If We Stay Here, They Will Kill Us

3 minute read
Joanna Jolly/Dili

On the day the referendum result was announced, I stood with independence leader Leandro Isaac on the steps 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 taking shelter in schools and church compounds, nobody believed the worst-case scenario of Indonesian military brutality would happen. Shortly afterward, Dili descended into total violence. Most foreign journalists fled, but a core group of 30 of us remained, deciding to move to the Turismo Hotel for safety. Almost immediately police told us there would be an attack on the hotel, and they couldn’t protect us. Under guard, we moved to the U.N. compound.

Inside, the atmosphere was tense. U.N. staff had been there since the night before, living off ration packs and sleeping where they could. The compound was under constant fire from the Indonesian police, military and militias. That night was no different. As I sat on the steps in front of the main hall, crowds of Timorese suddenly rushed toward me. The intense gunfire had moved near the school compound next door, where hundreds of refugees had found shelter. All at once, the refugees had come streaming over the wall, cutting themselves on razor wire in their frenzy to get in.

By Tuesday it was uncertain how long the mission could survive in East Timor. All U.N. staff members were now concentrated within the compound walls, along with 2,000 refugees. Most of us had left for the compound with no more than we could carry. We could shower, but we were wearing the same clothes every day and eating and sleeping little. And since we were constantly under siege, we couldn’t go out all day and night. The psychological war being played out by the army was intense.

But it backfired. When the U.N. gave the order to evacuate the compound on Wednesday, no one was willing to leave. Around us refugees became aware that we might be going. There was no question of taking them with us. “You are abandoning us again,” one East Timorese friend said to me, as he hugged his family and cried. The anger and frustration became extreme. As journalists we decided that we wouldn’t leave. “If we stay here, they will kill us, but if we leave, they will kill the refugees,” said one of my colleagues. Among U.N. staff who had been working at the point of exhaustion, the sentiments were the same. A list was made up of civilian police, military liaison officers, and political and support staff who wanted to stay. By 1 a.m. there was a reprieve, and the evacuation was delayed 24 hours. The refugees were beginning to realize that the U.N. could not protect them. That night hundreds headed up into the hills behind the compound while Indonesians soldiers fired at them. On Friday morning, with 400 U.N. staff and the majority of the journalists prepared to leave, the atmosphere was still tense. My feelings were mixed as I left in the back of an Indonesian army truck, my head forced down low by the soldiers guarding us. I was happy to leave the intimidation, exhaustion and squalor. But I felt devastated to leave a country and people I had grown to love to a desperate and brutal future.

Joanna Jolly is a British free-lance journalist who was evacuated from Dili

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