On the afternoon of September 13, 1999, I joined one of the last United Nations patrols to venture out into Dili, the capital of East Timor. Clad in flak jackets, but unarmed, we toured the city in three vehicles. In what had been a bustling city of a hundred thousand, there were now almost no local people in sight—only scavenging black pigs, a handful of Indonesian soldiers, and militiamen wearing red and white bandanas, loading up trucks with loot, heading for the border with West Timor. Just two weeks after the historic UN-supervised vote in which some 80 percent of the population had opted for independence from Indonesia, the city was a hollow, smoking shell.
Within hours of the end of voting on August 30, pro-Indonesian militia groups and members of the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) began a rampage of violence so sustained and so ugly that it surprised even seasoned observers who had predicted a backlash. Over the next few weeks, most towns and villages in the territory were burned to the ground. Supporters of independence were beaten and raped, while others were killed. By the middle of September, 70 percent of all the buildings in the territory had been burned or destroyed, an estimated four hundred thousand people—more than half the population—had been forced to flee their homes, and at least one thousand had been killed.
Helpless in the face of the mounting violence, the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), which had vowed to remain regardless of the outcome, evacuated all of its district offices. In Dili, armed militia gangs laid siege to the UN compound. Inside were some five hundred UN staff and more than fifteen hundred local people who had sought refuge there. Those of us inside worried that the militia might come over the wall at any time, unimpeded by the Indonesian army soldiers who were ostensibly protecting us. But many of us were also worried about being party to a humanitarian disaster. Haunted by memories of UN inaction or flight in Rwanda and Srebrenica, we wondered what the legacy of our mission might be.
There was quiet rejoicing in the compound when we learned that the Indonesian government had agreed to allow an international military force to “assist” the TNI in ending the violence. And there was relief when all of the refugees in the compound were safely airlifted to Australia on September 14, and something close to glee when an armed international force was deployed less than a week later. But the fact remained that the violence had been widely predicted, and the UN had failed to prevent it. The questions were troubling, and impossible to avoid. Why had the UN decided to proceed with the vote in spite of widespread predictions of violence? Why had peacekeeping forces not been deployed before the vote to prevent the violence?
In one sense the answers lie simply in the self-serving policies of the United States and other Western governments, which were reluctant to off...
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