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Witnessing East Timor's independence

Eureka Street - August 28, 2009

Meredyth Tamsyn – The day, like most others in East Timor, started very early. But it was not the chickens or motorbikes that woke us that day, it was heart-pounding excitement.

It was 30 August 1999. An event was about to take place that had seemed entirely mythical. It was so unlikely, yet here it was. After 24 years of military occupation, the East Timorese would decide via UN referendum whether to remain a part of Indonesia, or become an independent nation.

My colleague Mandy and I were UN observers visiting Maliana, the large town close to the border with West Timor. In the darkness we sat outside the UN compound eating hot bread rolls bought from a lone man pushing a cart. As we drove to the small mountain chapel where we intended to spend the day, scores of people lined the road walking slowly towards the polling booth.

At the chapel of Odomau-Atas I saw people I had met on previous visits to Maliana. They smiled shyly as they cast their votes and seemed a little perplexed as to what to do with themselves after this momentous, yet somehow mundane event (tick the box, fold the paper, place it in the blue box) was over.

But the euphoria would not last. By mid-afternoon as UN observers and staff celebrated the remarkably peaceful day, locals began to exercise long held plans to evacuate to Falintil (Armed Forces for an Independent East Timor) held mountain areas. Their fear was of a violent Indonesian military and militia backlash for their having had the audacity to come out and vote in the face of a tremendous months-long campaign of intimidation.

By nightfall there were over a hundred refugees seeking shelter in the backyard of the UN house we were staying in. The Australian head of the UN in the district spent hours negotiating with the Indonesian Police Chief for their safe passage to the police compound the following morning.

A week after the ballot, as police looked on, militia would murder 47 people there.

By then we were back in Dili. Our journey had beem punctuated by frightening searches at militia roadblocks. The beautiful, friendly people we had known were in a quandary – stay at home, or run to the mountains to hide. Some tried to leave but were stymied by an early release of the results: almost 80 per cent for independence.

The reality of the results would take some time to sink in as an overpowering fear was now gripping the country.

After days of shooting in Dili we were picked up by the Australian ambassador John McCarthy and evacuated. On the road to the airport there were cars lined up, piled high with household objects and mattresses, not moving. The heavily armed militiamen prowled up and down the centre of the road ensuring there would be no escape. The image of the static cars would haunt me for years.

Over 200,000 people would be displaced as a result of the ensuing campaign of terror by the Indonesian military as they executed their 'Operation of Sympathy', a long held plan to destroy all the vital infrastructure in East Timor and displace as much of the population as possible.

In the face of sudden and overwhelming Australian public outrage, the Howard Government was forced to send in peacekeepers. They were mobilised fast. Several skirmishes took place between Australian and Indonesian soldiers, although for the most part these were kept from the media,

Independence came in a lavish ceremony in 2002 attended by scores of world leaders. In 2005 the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation delivered its final report in which it recommended the establishment of an international tribunal to prosecute human rights violations by Indonesian forces during the 24 year occupation, as well as reparations to be made to victims. President Xanana Gusmco was reluctant to release the findings or follow them, preferring to focus on a close relationship with Indonesia.

A photographic exhibition in Dili organised by the UN opens at the presidential palace this week to mark the ten-year anniversary of the ballot, and there will also be a special Tetum language screening of the new film Balibo. The face of Timor has changed in the intervening years. Much of the infrastructure destroyed by departing Indonesian forces in 1999 has not been replaced and some people are poorer than they were under the Indonesian occupation. But there are very few who would want the Indonesians to return.

In the last ten years this small country has seen Indonesian militia incursions across the border, an attempted coup and an almost successful assassination attempt on the President. But this week it is worth remembering back to the day in late 1999 when residents of Dili watched in disbelief as Indonesian soldiers walked down to the wharf and boarded boats to leave East Timor forever.

Exhausted, emaciated and almost delirious with shock at what had been done to their friends, their family, and their country, they laughed, yelled and wept. It was over. For a fleeting moment the East Timorese could savour this extraordinary sight before the task of rebuilding the world's newest nation would begin.

[Meredyth TamsynMeredyth Tamsyn is a freelance writer who has written extensively about East Timor and Aceh.]