The Shark Cage

The Shark Cage

Early every Sunday morning, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, the winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, held Mass in the garden of his residence in the East Timorese capital, Dili. The day before the referendum on independence from Indonesia, when East Timor changed forever, I went there hoping to hear him preach. The dawn service was always an occasion of soft dignity, with prayers and singing beneath the flowering trees. On this Sunday, August 30, 1999, more people than usual were in the garden, although Belo had gone to a service on the south coast. A priest read out a message on the bishop’s behalf: “Brothers and sisters, many people here in this time are very afraid. Do not be afraid. Be brave, and choose the future of East Timor. This is the generation that will create history, and one day people all over the world will speak of us, of the warrior people and the brave-hearted.”

All afternoon, cars drove out of Dili as diplomats, electoral observers, activists and journalists dispersed across East Timor for voting day. A group of us squeezed into a Jeep and drove toward Maliana, a three-and-a-half hour journey to the west, close to the Indonesian border. In every village along the way there were guard posts manned by members of the pro-Indonesian militia. In the previous six months, with the undisguised support of the Indonesian Army and police, the militia had driven people out of their villages, burned their homes, and killed activists of the independence movement in an effort to intimidate the population and sabotage the referendum. The closer we got to Maliana, the more alarming the picture became. Half an hour out we saw a mixed group of machete-wielding militia and rifle-carrying soldiers; a few miles further on was another militia group, carrying its own M-16s.

Since the referendum had been announced, Maliana had been the site of intense and violent militia activity. Stone-throwing militiamen had attacked the local office of UNAMET, the United Nations Mission in East Timor, and the mood among its staff was quite different from that of their colleagues in the capital. In Dili they were wary of journalists, but here they felt isolated and neglected, and their isolation made them eager to talk.

They talked about the Besi Merah Putih, the local militia whose name meant “Red and White Iron.” They spoke of the local military commander, who made no effort to disguise his relationship with the militias and his contempt for the UN. Several independence supporters had been murdered by the militia, and there were constant threats against UN staff. Three nights earlier, the house where the UN’s military liaison officers lived was under fire for three hours. Four thousand people, one-third of Maliana’s population, had deserted the town.

The Australian who ran UNAMET’s Maliana office thought that his bosses in Dili did not take his concerns seriously. The violence, he believed, was not random and opp...

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