|TERROR AND FEAR REIGN ON THE STREETS OF DILI|
A foreign Catholic observer at the 30 August Independence Referendum reflects upon the death silence as the fear of violence has laid bare the streets of Dili in the week after the vote. |
"Walking the dead streets seemed like an eternity, with every movement being calculated," Jerald Joseph of Malaysia said of the East Timor capital, which he noted had just completed the "successful" U.N.-organized vote on whether East Timor should remain part of Indonesia or be an independent nation.
Joseph, Father Antoine Sondag of France and Regina Pyon of South Korea were members of the International Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs (ICMICA) who monitored the direct ballot in which 98.6 percent of some 451,000 registered eligible voters voted.
"This success was quickly silenced by the eerie presence of nobody in the streets of Dili," Joseph said. "The silence of the city was loud enough to strike terror right into our hearts. A silence that was dangerously alive. Alive only to wreck harm and violence into anybody's peace," he added. A few groups of "Aitarak" (thorn) militiamen were walking around. "A few can be seen carrying some sort of weapon. This was not new, although I had been in Dili for only 20 hours," Joseph wrote Sept. 2 in a reflection.
The ICMICA delegation arrived in Dili at 4:30 a.m. on the ballot day from Atambua, in western Timor, Indonesia, after a delay in obtaining traveling permission into East Timor and a three-hour road journey with stops at seven or eight roadblocks manned by "the self-appointed police, the militias."
"We drove into Dili at 4:30 a.m. It was still. But then all cities are still at that time. Or are they? There was elation and excitement. We had actually made it past the dangerous militia and arrived just in time for the polling."
After checking into a hotel, the delegation went to the United Nations Assessment Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) headquarters to collect accreditation papers and observer cards.
"As observers we went straight into action. The whole day was taken up by observing! The process was smooth, fair and clean, at least at the polling stations. The polling stations were empty by 1:30 p.m., meaning that about 90 percent had already cast their ballot," Joseph said.
In Dili no incidents marred the voting. There was trouble, though, in two other areas. In Liquica, militiamen brought a funeral procession very close to the polling center, causing fear among the voters. In Ermera the militia came into the polling station and fired guns, injuring a few people.
Just after the balloting ended, a local UNAMET staffer was stabbed to death in Ermera, and at night a house in the village belonging to another UNAMET local staffer was burned down.
"By evening, the feeling of most observers and UNAMET staff was joy that the polling went on smoothly. Then night came. We, a group of eight locals and seven foreigners, were alone in our hotel. Only then did we realize that the city had become silent again," Joseph wrote.
"To make things worse, we realized the people we were sharing the premises with were four intelligence people ('Intel'), one informer for the pro-autonomy faction and one district/area leader of the militia," he said. "Every time we spoke they would try to listen," he added.
After finding an open restaurant, the ICMICA observers had their first rest in 40 hours. At about 2 a.m., however, Joseph "heard gun shots ringing through the night. It was terrifying. There were about three bursts of automatic weapons fire and a few single shots."
The following morning a chartered taxi was to come early and begin taking people, three at a time, back to Atambua along the militia-controlled roads. But the morning wore on with the taxi nowhere in sight.
Now there was "unfamiliarity and desperation as to how to escape the city we tried so hard to come into!" Joseph said.
After an Australian observer whose face was visibly bruised related at a morning UNAMET meeting how he had been beaten and interrogated by militiamen and a member of the military, the day became a tense series of meetings with U.N. staff, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Church groups, he wrote.
The layman quoted UNAMET head Ian Martin as saying that "even the U.N. staff security could never be guaranteed by the U.N. It was the responsibility of Indonesia," which Joseph said "sounded like confirmation that we were in trouble -- real trouble!"
Following the 2 p.m. U.N. security briefing that the ICMICA observer said did little but reflect how insignificant the presence of the U.N. police force was, the city started shutting down once more.
"Stillness and quietness was descending upon the city yet again. This silence was very intruding and kept me alert. Every vehicle that passed by was given attention," Joseph said.
"By 7 p.m. the city was totally quiet. One member of the group who went to get the tyre of our van replaced had still not come back. We needed dinner and we needed to make phone calls from a telephone inn ('wartel') that was about 150 meters away," he wrote.
"Four of us had to walk. There were no taxis around. There was a group of militia sitting 10 meters from the wartel. They had no arms, at least of what we could see in the dark. But their mere presence in the still city sent impulses of fear and the possibility of danger.
"We greeted them respectfully and just walked past them. While we were in the wartel, a group of three militia passed by. They had guns! Another group had just gone across the road to break glass bottles in front of the U.N. vehicles parked outside the hotel," Joseph continued.
"We again walked past them! Quietly we walked in a meditation of fear back to our hotel. That night dinner was biscuits and water. That's all we could manage. At about 10 p.m. there were three loud gunshots behind our street, then loud shouts or may be cries. We talked hushed voices," he said.
At 3:30 a.m. the first group of three departed the city, he said, "using the road of terror to Atambua. As we prepared to leave, there was a chorus of automatic gunshots. It was a farewell, but one that haunted us with memories of the dangers that lay before us on our road trip," Joseph related.
A priest made it possible for the delegation to make it to Atambua in time for the 8 a.m. bus in order to reach Kupang, capital of predominantly Christian Nusa Tenggara Timur province, at about 3 p.m. and to the airport for their 5 p.m. flight.
"We went through militia road blocks. Most stared at us, asked our destination and let us through. Two were more serious. They asked for the priest ID card and checked our baggage compartment," Joseph said.
The checkpoints were mainly manned by young men, he recalled, holding all kinds of weapons -- machine guns, home-made guns, long knives, sticks. They were in effect the local police, he said, noting that there was not a single member of the government police force to be seen.
Although their arrival in Atambua was a relief, Joseph said that it was not a joyful one. "It was possible for me to 'escape,' but what about the local Timorese who had no 'escape'?" he wrote.
"My journey was an eye-opener, a sensitizing of the senses, an intrusive understanding of fear and most of all a new vigilance for staying alive.
Never did I realize that such terror and fear on the streets of Dili and elsewhere have been around for the past 20 over years for the Timorese," Joseph said.
"My 48 hours in Dili of fear and terror was only a fraction of the Timorese struggle! My hopes are for peace for this new nation," the lay Catholic added.
UCAN 10:01am 7/9/99