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Island of Death
Thugs supported by the Indonesian military lay waste to East Timor--killing hundreds, rocking the government in Jakarta and ruining the country's reputation in the eyes of the world

Daniel J. Groshong/Sygma for TIME
U.N. workers bandage a young refugee.
The faint message picked up by an Australian ham radio operator on Dec. 7, 1975 echoes loudly a quarter-century later. The signal came from the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, 700 km to the north, which had been invaded before dawn by a force of Indonesian marines and paratroopers. "Women and children are being shot in the streets," an anguished voice said. "We are going to be killed. Please help us. Please... "

Last week that plea again burned the ears of the world. Within hours of the announcement that the vast majority of East Timorese had voted for independence from Indonesia, militias trained and supported by elements of the Indonesian armed forces had turned the tiny half-island into a tropical hell. Concerted attacks on churches and other places of refuge killed scores and terrified anyone who favored breaking away from Indonesia. An estimated 200,000 East Timorese (out of a population of 850,000) either fled or were forced from their homes. Gangs emptied and looted the capital, Dili, where columns of smoke choked skies all week long. The rampage drove nearly all foreign journalists from the territory, and by the end of the week, the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), which organized the Aug. 30 referendum, had dwindled to a skeleton crew of 84 staff. All week long U.N. offices in New York fielded horrified calls from Dili. "A lot of these people had been on missions in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Liberia," reports a New York-based U.N. diplomat. "They said this was the worst."

The death toll almost certainly reaches into the hundreds, perhaps the thousands. The pace of the attacks seemed to slow by the weekend--either because of Jakarta's reassertion of control or for lack of additional targets. But East Timor is now a blasted land, emptied of as much as a quarter of its population, and scarred by a nightmare that refuses to end. Its people can only cling to the hard equation that has defined their tragedy since 1975: that what they have paid in lives, Jakarta will suffer in the death of its reputation.

Island of Death
Thugs supported by the Indonesian military lay waste to East Timor--killing hundreds, rocking the government in Jakarta and ruining the country's reputation in the eyes of the world

A view from inside the U.N. compound

Meet the world's next basket case

No Refuge
There's no escape from fear in West Timor

Plan for East Timor Peacekeeping Mission Hits Snag
Indonesian military objects to Australian participation

East Timor's Agony
The former Portuguese colony descends into anarchy as pro-Indonesia militias go on a campaign of violence to thwart independence

One Reporter's Notebook
How journalists came under the gun too

Indonesia and East Timor

Should Indonesian President B.J. Habibie resign?

No, he needs to stay in place and do more to resolve the East Timor crisis
Yes, he should quit before he is deposed
No, if he resigns, the Indonesian military could seize control
View Results
That slender consolation relies on the world's outrage, which has been stoked by reports emerging out of Dili. (To blunt that outrage, Indonesia hinted at week's end that it may allow in foreign peacekeeping troops.) With most aid workers and election observers forced out of East Timor, the cramped UNAMET compound became even more of a nerve center. It was the only place that could communicate with the outside world (using U.N. and journalists' satellite phones) and the only safe ground for more than 2,000 refugees who clambered over razor-wire fencing to escape the militias outside. On Wednesday morning, after a U.N. convoy sent to retrieve supplies from a nearby warehouse came under fire, officials in New York decided to pull their people out. "These are supposed to be peacekeeping missions," says the U.N. diplomat. "You're not supposed to get killed." Dozens of staff members and journalists rebelled, fearing that in their absence militia members would massacre the East Timorese who had sheltered in the compound. Ultimately a crew of volunteers remained to fly the blue flag; almost immediately, they faced a mob of militiamen who bullied their way into the compound, threatened the 1,000 remaining refugees with hand grenades, and drove off with several vehicles.

Outside the U.N. compound there was a silence frightening in its completeness.

Other sanctuaries had shut their doors, including Dili's traditional safe havens--the home of Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo and the headquarters of the Red Cross, both of which were overrun by militias on Monday. Sister Merrilyn Lee, working with the aid group Caritas Australia, helped 400 mostly women and children hide in a Dili convent for a day before militiamen threatened to burn down the shelter. "So we told them they had to go," she says. "It was the worst thing I've had to do in my life. Women with babies at the breast, pregnant women: they had to go back to their homes, alone, with no food."

Rumors of mass killings filtered in, although individual tragedies proved easier to confirm. The U.N. reported that at least 100 people were killed in a grenade attack on a church in Suai, while more than a dozen priests and nuns in Dili and Baucau have reportedly been murdered. Caritas Australia says that its East Timor office head, the Rev. Francisco Barreto, and "most" of his 40-member staff are dead. On Thursday night independence leader Xanana Gusmão learned that his father had been killed in Dili. Many others could only fear the worst: in several cases militia members, with the connivance or open disregard of Indonesian troops, culled suspected independence supporters from groups of refugees being forced out of the territory. Their fate remains unknown.

The world knows where those pushed out have gone--mostly to neighboring West Timor--but not why. Many of those who fled were among the 21.5% of East Timorese who voted to accept autonomy within the Republic of Indonesia and who may fear retribution in an independent East Timor. In the West Timorese capital of Kupang, former government officials and their families fill the town's hotel rooms. Less well-off refugees are housed in large camps outside the city, controlled by Aitarak and Besi Merah Putih militiamen who have barred access to journalists and international aid workers. Those East Timorese thought to support independence have been picked out and confined in separate camps, where their condition cannot be monitored.

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