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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rescued Refugees Tell of East Timor Horrors




DARWIN, Australia -- Christina DaCarte had seen the killings, had watched the throats of two young men slit, had huddled once, twice, with her children, expecting death in East Timor. The men with the guns had already lured her 17-year-old son from safety; her tears drowned any talk of his fate.


But now, in the ominous quiet of Tuesday night, the 31-year-old mother clambered with her two babies aboard a truck driven by Indonesian soldiers. They were part of the same forces that had unleashed the militia gangs on her family and her hostage in a brutal effort to quash East Timor's independence aspirations.


DaCarte was fleeing the UN compound in the capital of Dili in the last, swift evacuation of 1,500 East Timorese orchestrated by the United Nations and Australia. To get to the airport, the evacuees had to go in trucks driven by the soldiers, who provided safety for the convoy under orders from Indonesian President B.J. Habibie. But the soldiers could not resist taunting the frightened passengers.


"They said, 'This is the independent East Timor you wanted, why don't you stay here? Leave your crying babies here, the militias will eat them,'" DaCarte recalled, sitting wearily with her children in a tent in the safety of Darwin on Australia's northern coast.


"We could not answer them back. We were too scared," she said.


Each refugee seemed to recall an indelible moment of fear.


For Mario, a gnarled man of about 50, it was when he was trapped in a schoolyard in the capital, Dili, by a gang of militia members. As they advanced on him and his family with guns and machetes, the family fled to the gates of the adjacent UN compound. But the gates were closed.


"I thought, 'Now we will all die,"' he said.


In desperation, men and women began clambering over the wall of the compound, slashing their arms and legs on the razor wire. They tried to push babies through the wire, and then resorted to tossing them over the wall. Mario watched as one boy got stuck and tumbled across the wall, streaked in blood.


"They destroyed all our houses," he said, brushing tears from his eyes. "There's nothing there now."


For Sebastiao Guterres, an East Timorese who worked at the UN mission, the moment came two days after the independence ballot on Aug. 30. The sudden explosion of violence forced his father, uncle and brother to flee into the hills near Dili.


His uncle, Manuel Sarmento, later returned to Dili to try to buy rice and other supplies for the swelling number of people hiding in the hills. As he drove into town, a gang of militia members stopped his car and ordered him out. Several witnesses told Guterres that he was gunned down on the spot.


"I want to get back to East Timor as quickly as I can, so we can kick those people out," Guterres said.


The operation that plucked out most of the remaining UN civilian personnel and the East Timorese who had crowded into the compound in Dili was a bold plan carried out largely in the dark of the early hours Tuesday.


Even as the UN Security Council wrangled and eventually agreed to send a multinational armed force into East Timor to restore order, six Hercules C-130 planes - five Australian and one from New Zealand - swooped into the abandoned Dili airport, scooped up the evacuees and returned for more.


Wednesday, safe in a tent city and hovered over by dozens of health and social workers, the refugees began to recount the harrowing tales of their last two weeks as the organizers of the airlift quietly rejoiced over a successful mission.


"It went pretty bloody well," concluded an Australian military officer.


Australia began removing UN personnel and East Timorese last week, sending occasional flights to the Dili airport to receive a closely guarded convoy of passengers from the compound about a mile away.


But Ian Martin, the chief of the UN mission in East Timor, would not evacuate the remainder of his staff without taking all of the refugees who had gathered in the compound.


"We insisted on taking them out with us when we left. We knew what their fate would be if we left them," David Wimhurst, the UN spokesman in Darwin, said.


DaCarte had cowered in her home in a pro-independence neighborhood of Dili as the militiamen killed four men and warned that "we will come back to rip you apart," she said. She fled with the children to the UN compound.


Natalino DaSilva was trying to rebuild his house, burned by the militias, when they threatened him again. He dropped his tools and left for the UN headquarters with his family of five.


But once there, the fleeing East Timorese found their refuge was becoming increasingly tenuous as Dili burned around it.


"Every day, there were shots and the sounds of explosions around the compound," DaSilva said. Food supplies became meager. The militiamen entered a section of the compound and ransacked cars. Some of the children were becoming ill.


Martin finally concluded the situation had become too hazardous and that everyone had to leave. In quiet negotiations with the Indonesian government, he secured a promise from Habibie that the military would cooperate, and by 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, the last of the 1,454 East Timorese, 74 UN employees and a remaining British reporter were squeezed into the final plane, loaded for Darwin. "As soon as we arrived here," DaSilva said, "there were no more fears."