Escape From East Timor (Part One)
An American in the firing line

The following dispatch comes from an anonymous election observer who was stationed in East Timor during the recent vote on independence. Until he leaves the area, he cannot reveal his identity. Our man is currently out of harm's way in Bali, but he intends to go back in the line of fire to examine the refugee situation in West Timor. This is the first in a series of reports GettingIt will run describing both his evacuation from East Timor and the situation in that troubled region.

I came to Dili because we had evacuated the isolated town where I was stationed as an election observer. Ten people had been killed at the Dili bus station the previous week, but even so, we felt safer there. Sure, the militia was killing some folks, but they were isolated cases, the airport was close by -- and hell, I could check my email.

See also...
... by Anonymous
... in the Scope section
... from September 14, 1999

Still, there were all sorts of ominous signs (and not just in retrospect). The first night in Dili, we passed a roadblock set up very clearly between the office and our house -- just a big pile of dirt across the road where one guy was pointing a gun at some unlucky soul he had stopped. When we got to the house, our man in charge of security gave us a "situation update" and some tips on safety. The roadblock didn't even merit a mention.

We had a press conference at a local Dili hotel the next day -- one of the few hotels that, as far as I know, still hasn't been attacked. Only about 20 journalists showed up (out of the 60 they were hoping for) and I could hear reporters whispering among themselves about organizing their evacuation charter planes. After the press conference ended, I started a two-block walk with a friend down to the decrepit but still very pretty Dili waterfront.

About two-thirds of the shops were closed (including, sadly, the bakery that kept all the foreigners loaded with cake and donuts), but the streets weren't totally empty yet. We saw a group of guys hanging out across the street. Nothing threatening, just some folks hanging out doing nothing. But we got spooked anyway and turned around. The militias had done their job -- we were too intimidated to walk the streets.

That day, the U.N. announced "total travel restrictions." We weren't supposed to leave our houses at all. Basically, it was self-imposed house arrest. We tried to ignore the "order," thinking "Hey, fuck the U.N., what are they gonna do to us? They're unarmed, remember?" But the situation was clearly getting worse.

Leaded or Unleaded?

The risks we were taking just to support our basic needs kept getting worse. Our organization had too many people to fit in one house, so we had rented a bunch of places throughout town and shuttled between them and the office. We had cars, but all of our local drivers had either fled to the mountains or were too scared to drive. Fine, we drove. But we needed gas, and all the stations were closed.

One observer who spoke Indonesian fluently volunteered to go out and find gas in Becora, the most dangerous neighborhood in town. He drove through street-fighting and what he called a "gun battle," ducked when he heard gunfire "really close by" and then stopped at some podunk little shop to negotiate with a clerk for a barrel of gas. The observer then drove back through the fighting -- this time with 60 gallons of gas in the back of the truck -- and returned triumphantly to our office.

Except for jaunts like that, we stayed in our house which, like most of the others in the 'hood, was built like a fucking fortress. A big gate blocked the driveway, the windows had bars over them and concrete walls 10 feet high surrounded two-thirds of the house. Not a very surprising architectural design considering that Indonesians built it in what was essentially occupied territory.

The high walls were especially nice because they protected us from stray bullets. We heard gunfire regularly, but as long as it wasn't too close (read: right outside the house), we'd just thank the walls and keep sitting on our back patio, smoking and bullshitting about theories as to what was going to happen. Our running hope: The Indonesian army would pull out, the militia would run rampant for a few days, and then Falinitil (the pro-independence guerillas) would come down from the hills and kick the shit of the militia.

Waiting for Bugout

Of course, the fact that we were hoping for a civil war to save us wasn't exactly a good sign. And we never figured that the Indonesian army would be bitter enough to stick around and help out the militia. That possibility never entered our minds -- even though we theorized for days on end.

The second night at the house, a few of us were sitting in the designated "smoking parlor" (even in Dili, we westerners made smoking restrictions). We heard what sounded like three or four loud explosions close by -- not directly next to the house, but definitely in our neighborhood. The explosions sounded like firecrackers -- but what dummy would light off a firecracker in the middle of Dili at a time like this?

So, we began to debate the possibilities abstractly. One friend, who lived in Cambodia for a period, told us that the noises sounded like someone firing a gun with bad ammo. He was no military expert, so I stuck with what I figured the most likely theory: Duh, we're in Dili. It's gunfire.

Perhaps it was one of the "homemade guns" we had heard so much about. But those things are chumpy and these explosions were too quick in succession. The homemade guns work like cannons; you have to light them and wait. Not exactly precision killing devices.

After a few minutes of this high-level theorizing, another one of our housemates walked into the room. He was spooked. Clearly shaken, he demanded that we shut up (not a bad idea) and turn off all the lights, which we did as well. We then helped him move his bed into the living room; this was a more central location in case we needed to evacuate.

That guy bugged out of Dili the next day. Although he had a ticket out for the day after, he paid $500 for a charter flight to get out as soon as possible. I stayed behind.

Read Part Two
Read Part Three