Barry Fowler's note: This is published with the permission of the author, taken from personal correspondence between him and me – we met originally in 1981. I asked him if I could publish it after the interest expressed on Army Talk when I mentioned it, and although it was not written with any form of publication in mind, he has agreed to allow me to publish it.
On Mission in East Timor:
In mid June, I was one of 12 South Africans recruited by the United Nations Development Programme in South Africa to serve on UNAMET (United Nations Assistance Mission to East Timor).
We served as District Electoral Officers and our purpose was to assist with the administration of the Popular Consultation (referendum) in East Timor. The work was very ‘hands on' and included notifying the locals about the vote (when, how and who qualified to vote); explaining what the UN's role was in the process.
We were assigned to specific regions in East Timor and then divided into teams comprising two District Electoral Officers and one translator and one driver per team. Each team was responsible for administering the process in a district. The District Electoral Officers were mostly professional people who had some research and electoral monitoring experience.
More about East Timor:
East Timor is a small island between Australia and Indonesia, about an hour's plane flight from Darwin Australia. The island has been subject to various colonial invasions stretching as far back as 1509 with the arrival of the Portuguese. Portugal has controlled the island at various stages of its history. In August 1975 Portugal finally pulled out of East Timor. In December of that year, Indonesia invaded East Timor with the tacit support of the US; Britain; and Australia. In 1978 Australia became the first and only major country ever to recognise Indonesian rule over East Timor. In 1991 Indonesian troops opened fire on mourners in East Timor killing 200 people. In 1992 rebel leader Xanana Gusmao (the ‘Nelson Mandela' of East Timor) was arrested by Indonesian soldiers and later sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 1996 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Roman Catholic Bishop Belo (resident in the capital –Dili) and exiled resistance leader Jose Ramos Horta. In 1998 President Suharto was forced out of power and was succeeded by President Habibi. In 1999 Indonesia announced that it would allow East Timor to break away from Indonesia if the East Timorese rejected an offer of autonomy within Indonesia.
Experiences on the Mission:
We arrived in Australia and were flown to Darwin for seven days of briefing. Our accommodation, referred to as ‘tin city', comprised air conditioned, prefab housing at the Royal Australian Airforce Base. The Base is a huge complex situated in lush tropical, landscaped garden on the outskirts of the city of Darwin. Everything is incredibly green –even greener than the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal.
Being on Mission with the UN is very similar to the military experience many South Africans have been through. The ‘hurry up and wait' mind-set is very applicable to the UN. However, at least one is not subject to military rules and discipline.
I took some pleasure in watching Airforce troops lining up for inspection and later, in physical training session, running around the base whilst I took a leisurely stroll to the dining hall for breakfast.
Our briefing in Darwin included instruction on how to register voters for the referendum and then training for the actual voting-process. We were also briefed on the health hazards in East Timor (Malaria; Cholera; Japanese encephalitis etc) and the physical dangers of working in the country (the militia).
Our group was part of the second wave of United Nations Volunteers that arrived in East Timor. We arrived on a converted C130 military plane and our first impression of the country was predictably the airport, set in a lowland area amidst lush, green, bush. The tropical heat hit us as we stepped off the plane. I thought the Durban International airport was bad…what a joke, sheer luxury compared with Dili's. For starters, there's no running water (anywhere on the island for that matter –even in the ‘smartest' of hotels), the stench of the clogged toilets at the airport was a sign of things to come. This was certainly not the tropical tourist destination one might dream about.
As we waited around at the airport for our UN contact to collect us, burley Indonesian guards swaggered around with automatic rifles. We went to the canteen to wait some more –another shock! Cokes, what! Where do you find them? Well eventually we did after a great fuss and the unlocking an antique fridge and the exchange of a wad of rupea.
Wildlife surrounded us in the canteen: a large green preying-mantis swayed across the table stalking its prey. A couple of goats wandered around in the airport's parking lot.
Eventually Christine, our UN contact arrived. She looked and sounded like an American tourist guide. The only difference being that instead of a cell phone in her hand, she had a crackling ‘hand held' (two-way radio). She was a thirtyish plumpish woman who looked like she had seen a lot. She greeted us in a loud, bossy but cheerful voice and at last we knew we were going somewhere. We piled into a UN bus and proceeded to the Regional UN Headquarters in Dili.
The regional headquarters is a far cry (literally and metaphorically) from the swish UN HQ in New York. It is a large old colonial style house that had seen better days. The backyard was packed with brand new UN Land Rover Discoveries. Fritz and Jan were the Mission staff co-ordinating our activities and seeing to our needs and were our immediate superiors.
On arrival at the regional offices, Fritz briefed us as to which districts we would be assigned to in the Dili-area. He looked concerned and said that he needed a volunteer for a ‘hotspot' area called Liquicia, located some thirty minutes away from Dili. Naturally, knowone wanted to work in a ‘hotspot' where the militia were rampant. Violence wracked Richmond-KwaZulu-Natal immediately came to my mind as he mentioned the word ‘hotspot'. There was no-way I was going to volunteer for this area I thought to myself. Since no-one volunteered, Fritz said he would have to randomly choose someone from the list of names he had in front of him. For some unknown reason, as we sat around in that semi-circle, some 30 of us in all, Fritz momentarily looked directly at me and I knew my name was destined to be chosen. Some few seconds later, I was not so happily assigned to Liquicia –my fate sealed. My partner was an Australian from Canberra, Sharmini Sherrard.
There was no time to waste; Sharmini asked me if I would like to come along to the market to shop for the household I would be part of in Liquicia. Although very tired, I decided to join her and help with the shopping. Well this was no ‘shoppertainment' –mall experience. The Dili market, consisting of wooden stalls, is large; crowded and you can buy just about anything. Sharmini knew what she wanted for our house and we proceeded directly to the stalls selling vegetables and kitchenware. We stood out quite prominently wearing our blue UN Hats and coats as we wended our way through the crowds. We were popular; people greeted us in exaggerated fashion. The UN had come to save them from oppressive Indonesian rule…
Unfortunately we were popular for other reasons as well, not least of which was the wealth we brought along in the form of the US Dollar. The market was hot and there was no respite from the sun. I dragged myself along, feeling the effects of my recent journey; remnants of a chest infection and, the sapping effect of having just run the Comrades Marathon.
Shopping required haggling over prices and also translation from English to Indonesia Behasa. Finally we were through with this exercise and headed off to Liquicia.
The colours of the landscape in East Timor are soft and the drive to our village was scenic. Driving along on that road, it was hard to believe that I was here for work purposes and not for pleasure. Liquicia is a small village right next to the Ocean, the clear water gently laps the beach. Looking at this tranquil scene, I could not imagine that at this very sight –the beach at Liquicia- a group of church goers were flushed out of the church where they were worshiping, butchered, and their bodies thrown into sea.
When we arrived in Liquicia, we found our UN colleagues in serious discussion: there had been intimidation of UN staff and local inhabitants of Liquicia. The night before I arrived, knowone had, had any sleep because of militia activity. The militia had been cruising around on their motorbikes (much like the hells-angels) and circling the small group of UN occupied houses. The day before that, threats had been shouted at UN staff. It was clear that the militia (pro-integrationists) did not want the UN in these parts. This had formerly been a pro-independence area until the pro-integrationist militia had rampaged through it, chasing away and killing (the cause of the church massacre mentioned earlier) Falantil supporters who were fighting for East Timor's independence. The pro-integrationists did not want to lose ground in this new stronghold.
Liquicia hits the headlines on CNN:
Our final evacuation from Liquicia was the culmination of a build-up of events: the intensity of militia threats against ourselves, and the locals helping us, had increased. We all felt unsafe and vulnerable. The civilian police who were guarding us were unarmed and the Indonesian police were quite ineffectual in their efforts to keep us safe. Our vehicles had been damaged after being stoned by the militia. The situation had become ugly and untenable. The residents in the area were terrified and fearful of even talking to us. This meant we could not do our work properly.
Finally, one Sunday morning, after another day of uncertainty, we decided to go to the beach to relax a little. It was a day of some discomfort for me because I felt feverish and was suffering from gastric flue. After the church service we rode in convoy, with a platoon of Indonesian police, down to the beach. Whilst others swam in the sea, I sat under a shady tree and felt miserable. My next task was to find a loo!
Well of course they just didn't exist and so I tried to do a disappearing trick to answer a call of nature. ‘Disappearing' was difficult with a platoon of guards keeping a sharp eye on us all. Finally I made it and when I returned from the bush, it was decided that we should pack up and head back to our houses and just hang out there. It was afternoon by this time. Some fifteen minutes after returning to our houses, the political affairs officer from the Dili UN HQ arrived to visit our group. He wanted to find out how we were doing and it was a surprise to see anyone from the ‘political department' since they had been conspicuous in their absence since the UN contingent to Liquicia had arrived. The political office was supposed to have assisted us (the DEO's) with the process of information dissemination at the local level.
As it happened the timing of the ‘politicals' visit could not have been worse. No sooner had they arrived when an urgent message came through on our radios that the militia were very active in our area and seemed to be preparing some sought of attack on us. We were ordered to vacate our houses and repair directly to our vehicles (some 7 Landrovers) which had to be parked all facing the same way (in our street) in a convoy to ensure a quick get way. Our civilian police ‘minders' took over the wheels of our vehicles at this point and we all waited for something to happen.
Earlier we had been briefed as to what the escape plan would be should such an eventuality arise. We would have to proceed in our vehicles to a secluded helicopter landing sight, if we were cut off en route to that landing sight, an alternative sight (secret) was marked out and if we were cut off from that sight, well we were in trouble. The final escape route was the beach…we were to move on to the beach and wait for further instructions and when given the order, we were to abandon our vehicles and commandeer fisherman's boats and paddle out to sea, heading towards the capital Dili. If there were no fishing boats we would just have to swim.
As we waited for something to happen, the tension grew and I ran through my mind various possible scenarios if the situation became more serious. Well it did become more serious. Our position had worsened we were told, the militia were swarming all over the area, armed and heading in our direction. Our small contingent of civilian police were in ‘field' and running for cover at same time trying to relay information back to us as to when we should get ready to go. Finally the frantic command came through, “shots were being fired, the militia were not far off”. Our drivers were instructed to start the vehicles and put them into four wheel drive.
Engines revved in anticipation, finally: “Go, go, go” came the command. We sped off as fast as possible in convoy down the road. Our route to the escape sight would depend on where exactly the militia was waiting for us. En route to landing sight 1, the radio crackled “abandon escape plan one we've been cut off, proceed to site 2, we changed direction and sped away again. The situation was close. Ours was the last vehicle in the convoy and we heard some shots behind us and we could see through the dust kicked up by our vehicle that a militia van was not too far off from us in hot pursuit. We were again told that we were cut off, the second evacuation sight had to be scrapped. We evaded the militia and pulled up on the side of the road. We didn't have much time to decide what to do, but in keeping with the original plan, we exercised our last and least attractive option and sped off to the beach.
At the beach we waited anxiously in our vehicles under a large tree. I dreaded the final command, “abandon vehicles and look for fishing boats and head out to sea”. I anticipated chaos, and a free-for-all as people fought over escape-boats. It would be everyone for him/herself under this situation and some people may have been left behind, trapped between the bush and the sea and perhaps unable to swim. They would have to run into the bush and hide, their fate uncertain.
Minutes ticked by. Word came through that the militia had trapped some of the civilian police who were still in their swimming gear, after the beach excursion earlier in the morning. More news came in, the helicopter was being shot at and stoned. Air evacuation seemed impossible. Minutes later, before anymore instructions came through, militia emerged from the bush and surrounded us. They brandished weapons (rifles and homemade pistols), pointing them at us through the windows of our vehicles. Everyone froze and our civilian police drivers told us to avoid eye contact and make sure the windows were kept up and doors locked. The threatening behaviour continued for a while, windows were banged on the militia wanted our translators to get out of the vehicles. We sat tight until finally and miraculously a contingent of Indonesian police arrived from the police headquarters.
Our platoon of Indonesian police guards, who had escorted us to the beach earlier, had vanished while we were being chased but at last it seemed other police were rescuing us. The militia were instructed to back-off and the police escorted us back to police headquarters in convoy.
Our suspicions that the Indonesian police and militia were in cahoots with one another were confirmed when upon arrival at the police headquarters, to our surprise, some of the militia were already there and wandering about in the headquarters. Nevertheless we were out of immediate danger. Finally about an hour later, after it had grown dark, the UN military arrived to escort us out of Liquicia in an armed convoy. We were not sure whether we would be ambushed along the way back to Dili and so the final trip back to Dili was also tense.
We were assigned new districts to work in, in Dili and continued with our preparations for the Registration and referendum. I had to cut short my two-month assignment to East Timor owing to [personal tragedy not relevant to this account]. I flew home.
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