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Fear in the air before the poll sparked war in East Timor

The Australian - August 31, 2009

Mark Dodd – The first act in the birth of the world's newest nation – its 1999 vote for independence – began for me before daybreak in East Timor's western border town of Maliana.

Behind our guesthouse, hundreds of Timorese were walking down a narrow road heading into town, clutching their precious white voter-registration cards, which shimmered in the moonlight. Their destination was the Maliana gymnasium hall, converted to serve as the main voting centre.

After months of brutal intimidation by anti-independence militia gangs, the sight was one of the most moving I have ever witnessed. As dawn broke, the numbers of voters continued to grow, men and women, young and old, dressed in the sort of finery Timorese typically reserve for Sunday Mass.

Unusually, there were no children present, a sign the voters expected trouble. When asked, they said they feared for their lives and wanted to cast their ballots early and get out of town – at least those voting for independence.

Maliana was a bastion for militant pro-integrationists and pro-independence student activists staying at the nearby Don Bosco, a volatile mix which in the following days would explode into violence and mass murder.

My voting day started in picturesque mountain country 12km southeast of Maliana – neutral ground and the voting centre for pro-independence Falintil guerillas and their families.

Understandably, they were reluctant to come down from their mountain redoubt and agreed only at the last moment after tortuous negotiations with the Indonesians and the UN and assurances that the feared Indonesian military intelligence operatives (SGI) would stay away.

A UN electoral official, a middle-aged American woman who had worked months to convince this group to vote, broke into tears when she saw them arrive.

By 10am I went back to Maliana where voting was orderly as UN police, their Indonesian counterparts and UN electoral staff organised voters into long queues.

And there were some hilarious scenes. Inside the gym, I watched as an elderly man was helped by staff to a cardboard voting booth. After casting his vote, the man wanted to ensure the whole process stayed a secret and he set about dismantling the booth, before laughing staff ushed up and helped to usher him away. It was the only lighter moment that day.

If any trouble was going to happen it was expected to occur in Maliana and nearby Balibo, which had seen earlier militia violence.

So it was no surprise that many Dili-based diplomats, including Australian embassy staff, arrived to observe the vote, their presence hopefully acting as a deterrent to any planned disruption by the militias. But that would come after they departed.

In Balibo, voting began well at the local high school but UN polling staff were getting nervous about the presence of truckloads of militiamen driving up and down the road outside to intimidate voters.

Their efforts appeared to be successful, because most of the town's residents were preparing to relocate, their belongings piled outside their homes.

My last stop before heading back to Dili was a small voting booth about 20km east of the border hamlet of Batugade.

It was mid-afternoon and the centre's UN staff had left in fear except for one – a former Belgian paratroop major. He was alone, armed with a wooden club discreetly placed inside his office while he guarded the ballot boxes.

I accepted his offer of some cold water and we stopped for a brief chat while armed militia did burnouts in a pick-up truck on the road outside. The peace was about to end.