Escape From East Timor (Part Two)
Americans 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 second in a series of reports GettingIt will run describing both his evacuation from East Timor and the situation in that troubled region.

Read Part One

See also...
... by Anonymous
... in the Scope section
... from September 15, 1999

Lights Out for the Territory

The signs kept getting worse -- we sat on the front porch as we nonchalantly watched our Indonesian neighbors pack up all of their shit and leave town.

When I called the American Consulate folks to check on the status of evacuation plans, it took them way too long to find my name on "'the list."' I asked them if there was a problem. "No, it's just hard to find papers in the dark," they said. "We've turned off all the lights in the house. Just being safe." Definitely not a good sign when the U.S. Government is too scared to keep the lights on.

The CNN crew lived right next door to us. That was good, because we had no TV, no newspaper, and no real radio. Heading over to their house was the only way to get solid information -- and decent food. We had staples, they had noodles, crackers w/ brie cheese and red wine. So on the last night, we checked in with them to chat it up and use their phones, which we figured had to be better than ours ... and they gave us the bad news.

An American U.N. policeman had been shot, and the U.N. helicopter trying to evacuate him had been fired upon. CNN told us his first words to them were "Get the fucking peacekeepers in now."

They also told us there were reports of 40 people killed in a town outside Dili, and the hotel Makhota -- where most of the journalists left in town were staying -- had been attacked. Nobody was killed, but the militia had fired into the hotel. The day before that, the militia had waltzed into the Makhota looking for one particular journalist who had pissed them off. They went to the wrong room and wound up beating the shit out of the wrong guy.

The militia and military (who had stood outside during the attack on the Makhota) clearly wanted foreigners out. We all knew why: So they could kill people with total impunity. And they were doing a good job; CNN told us they were evacuating the next day. Our plan was that if things got really bad, the embassies would evacuate us -- why not wait for the free ticket out and avoid the hassle?

But CNN cautioned us that the U.S. government would risk a couple of citizens being killed before it put relations with the world's fourth most populous country on the line. Given that the sole representatives of U.S. government in Dili were cowering in their house with the lights off, not counting on the embassy sounded like a good idea.

I wanted out. But I didn't have a ticket, literally. I had been planning to island-hop my way back, and getting on a commercial flight without having bought any sort of ticket in advance was dicey. Also, I had fallen for one of my housemates, C. I really wanted to stay with her, but I wasn't going stay in Dili, risk my ass, and torture my parents just because I didn't want to leave her. We agreed to scope out our options the following morning. We would go to the harbor to see if we could catch a boat, then hop over to the airport. Not to make any commitments, just to check out the situation.

That night there was sporadic firing. At one point, one of my adventure-seeking housemates decided to see what was going on outside. We immediately got a call from the police. "Tell the 'malays' (foreigners) to stay inside." Fair enough. One of us came up with a personal theory on safety: "I'm fine with automatic gunfire. As long as there are no rocket-propelled grenades, we're fine." That night, we heard explosions in the distance. Definitely not gunfire. (A few days later, we heard that the militia/military were using grenades.)

In the morning, C. decided that she didn't want to leave. And she definitely wasn't going to see about the boat.

Read Part Three