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

See also...
... by Anonymous
... in the Scope section
... from September 16, 1999

Read Part One
Read Part Two

...But No Flights Out

C. agreed to go to the airport to check out the situation.

The drive to the airport was fine. Just military trucks, though now some sported a new touch: mounted machine guns. When we got there, it was crowded, but it wasn't a mob scene. It was almost exclusively foreigners, and it was kind of scary that a good majority of them seemed to be from my organization. Did they know more than us?

We saw the CNN folks. Sorry, they didn't have any seats, but they did have more bad news for us. Everybody, including Indonesian officials, was evacuating our neighborhood that same day. There had been police guarding those folks, but they'd be gone too. With that, our little suburb had gone from the safest part of town to an isolated outpost without any protection. We heard later that the whole neighborhood had been burned down.

There were other bad reports. A house of Aussies had been fired on and another (or was it the same one, no one knew) had been set ablaze. And one other thing: The shooting we had heard the previous night was right in front of an observer's house.

None us of had eaten anything, and nothing was open at the airport. At one point, I saw a Taiwanese reporter bust open a package of dried ramen. He broke off a piece and offered it to me. I ate it up thankfully and I knew it was time to go. Except, remember, I didn't have a ticket.

Two of my friends got on the one commercial flight out, which was leaving in a few hours. The only way you could get on that flight was if you already had a ticket for another day and you convinced the agent to let you swap. I heard about a charter plane that was going to fly out that night, but the guy keeping the passenger list told me: "It's a longshot. E.U. citizens get priority." I just sat down, nearly frozen with panic. There was nothing I could do to get out.

Eventually, I made my way back to the ticket desk and found C. She had been infected by airport panic and somehow she'd gotten a ticket to leave. The line at the desk seemed to clear up a bit, I took out a pile of cash and -- I still can't believe this -- the ticket agent sold me a business class ticket to Bali. I paid him a modest $10 "thank you fee," and was off.

No Bali High

When we got to Bali we tried to call the family we'd been living with before we had arrived in the relative safety of Dili. That was the town we'd left in a hurry because the U.N. had warned us that "the shit is going to hit the fan." We couldn't get through.

One of the daughters of that family was a local U.N. staffer. The local militia was, therefore, intent on killing them. Though we had offered her a ride to Dili, when the convoy came by to take us, it passed way too quickly -- so we had to leave without her.

As I write this report, I now know why we couldn't get through. The phone lines had been cut. Same thing went for the electricity. We read yesterday that "the town has been burned." But we don't know what happened to anyone there. It's the small things like that that make you feel guilty. Should we have waited for "our sister" and missed our armed escort?

For me, the story isn't over yet. I want to go back. I'm trying to get to West Timor right now. A mixture of guilt and boredom, and a sense that we should help, drives me. That's it. I wish I had a better ending, but I don't. And right now, neither do the East Timorese.