Bloodied East Timorese Hope U.N. Will Return
The police officers, more than 60 in all, surrendered their weapons to the United Nations and marched out the gate of the national police headquarters. Walking at the head of the column was a U.N. official holding a blue U.N. flag to show that the group was under his protection.
When the police reached the Ministry of Justice a block away, members of the fledgling nation’s army were waiting. At least two soldiers opened fire, killing 10 police officers and wounding 27, including two of the U.N. police advisors.
“It was horrible,” said a U.N. advisor who witnessed the May 25 massacre. “It was brutal, it was one-sided, and it was unnecessary.”
The slaughter of unarmed officers while under the protection of the United Nations was perhaps the darkest moment in the brief history of the world’s newest country, which until recently had been seen as a model of U.N. nation-building.
U.N. peacekeepers first arrived in East Timor in 1999 after the then-Indonesian province voted to secede and pro-Indonesia militias responded by killing at least 1,000 people and destroying 70% of its buildings.
With the U.N. having restored order, East Timor held its first free election in 2001, and the U.N. provided specialists to help rebuild institutions such as the judiciary, the police force and the government administration.
Last year, however, the U.N. pulled out its troops under pressure from the United States and Australia to use its resources elsewhere. Political tensions began building and erupted this year into violence.
In recent weeks, the country of 1 million people has unraveled with stunning speed and brutality as the army and police have battled each other in the capital, thugs wielding machetes have cut down rivals in the streets and arsonists have set fire to houses, burning children alive.
At least 30 people have died and hundreds of houses have been destroyed, with 100,000 civilians seeking refuge in makeshift camps since late April.
An Australian-led intervention force began arriving in East Timor just hours before the police massacre and has restored a measure of calm to Dili, the capital. Heavily armed Australian troops now guard key government buildings and roadways; soldiers patrol Dili on foot and rumble through the streets in armored personnel carriers.
But violence continues, with reports Sunday of at least one shooting, the torching of several houses and renewed gang fighting.
Many attribute the surge in violence to Prime Minister Mari Bin Amude Alkatiri’s mishandling of complaints of discrimination within the military and his reliance on loyal but brutal army units to suppress antigovernment protests. The army also began attacking members of the nation’s police force.
“You have two institutions with weapons that were poorly managed,” said Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, who received the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to win East Timor’s independence. “All of this coupled with a weak economy, unemployed youth -- it was a problem waiting to explode.”
Alkatiri, whom many view as stubborn and arrogant, also has come under criticism for his slow progress in building the nation’s economy and for overseeing a system in which his relatives have been awarded lucrative government contracts for road construction projects and providing arms to the police.
Much is at stake for Alkatiri, who was elected to his powerful post by the nation’s parliament, and for East Timor in the next year. The island nation has received the first $600 million in oil revenue from fields in the Timor Sea and billions more are expected, a boon to its limited economy. Elections will be held next year, and some accuse Alkatiri of inflaming divisions in society as a way of maintaining power.
Four years ago, in a grand celebration attended by representatives of 90 nations, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan personally handed power to former resistance leader Jose Alexandre Gusmao, the nation’s first president. “Never before has the world united with such firm resolve to help one small nation establish itself,” Annan told the crowd that day.
Now some, including Annan, are questioning whether the United Nations was too quick to withdraw.
“There has been a sense that we tend to leave conflict areas too soon,” Annan said last week. “Would it have made a difference if the U.N. had stayed longer, if we had not drawn down our forces too quickly? This is something that I must assess.”
Sukehiro Hasegawa, the head of the remaining U.N. mission in East Timor, was blunter in calling for a greater commitment from the international body. At the least, he said, the U.N. should run next year’s elections to ensure that they are fair.
“This country still has a chance, and the Timorese leaders and people are asking for continuing U.N. support,” he said. “They need us.”
East Timor, which shares the island of Timor with Indonesia, has endured a long, tortured past.
After 400 years as a Portuguese colony, it was on the verge of independence in 1975 when it was annexed by Indonesia with the quiet support of the United States. East Timorese rebels took to the mountains and fought for independence for the next 24 years in a conflict that claimed about 200,000 lives.
Indonesia agreed in 1999 to allow a vote on secession, and the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence. In retaliation, pro-Indonesia militias launched their killing rampage. As Indonesian troops withdrew, a U.N. peacekeeping force led by Australia landed to restore order.
In East Timor’s 2001 election, people lined up for hours to vote and turnout reached a stunning 93%. Many voters cast their ballots for Gusmao, known by his nom de guerre, Xanana, believing the charismatic former guerrilla leader would govern the country. But the nation’s constitution had established a weak presidency and a strong prime minister’s office, which went to Alkatiri, a skilled inside operator who led the majority party in parliament.
“We voted for Xanana but got Alkatiri,” said Saturnina de Costa, a mother of three who fled with her family to the Comoro refugee camp in Dili when the fighting started. “Why did Alkatiri become our leader?”
Alkatiri’s government faced a major challenge this year when 600 soldiers who were recruited from the western part of the country after independence complained that they faced discrimination from veterans of the war, who come mainly from the east.
Alkatiri responded by firing the disgruntled soldiers, who made up nearly half the country’s 1,400-member army.
When an anti-government protest by the former soldiers and their supporters turned violent April 28, troops loyal to Alkatiri fired into the crowd, killing at least six people. The former head of the military police, who has since escaped to the mountains, has accused Alkatiri of giving the order to fire on civilians, a charge the prime minister denies.
From there the situation deteriorated. East Timorese troops loyal to the prime minister began searching homes in Dili for government foes. The soldiers who had been fired retreated to the hills. The army suspected that some police officers were sympathetic to the rebel soldiers and the two forces clashed.
Gusmao has called for calm, but has resisted firing the prime minister. Alkatiri retains a strong base in Fretilin, the party of the resistance movement, which won a majority in parliament.
Fighting between the army and police reached a peak May 25, when army troops attacked the national police headquarters in the center of Dili.
Saif Malik, the U.N. police commander, negotiated a cease-fire and arranged for the police to surrender their weapons to the U.N. in exchange for safe passage. Malik did not require the soldiers to lay down their guns nor did he take advantage of U.N. vehicles to ferry the police from the base. Malik himself led the group down Rua Jacinto de Candido holding the U.N. flag.
According to U.N. officials and witnesses, a small group of soldiers waited by the roadside with their weapons as the column approached. As the police passed by, one soldier began shooting at them with an M-16. Another soldier fired an M-1 carbine, apparently targeting a specific officer. One or two other soldiers may also have fired. Many of the victims were shot in the head.
“I lodged the strongest protest,” Hasegawa said. “This is a gross violation of human rights and a breach of understanding reached by U.N. police advisors who negotiated with the [army]. It’s a miracle only two U.N. officers were injured.”
Soon after the massacre, Australian troops began taking control of the capital, and the soldiers and police who remained in the city fled. That temporarily left much of Dili unprotected, and roving gangs took the opportunity to attack their rivals and burn down their houses. It took days for the Australian forces to bring the city under control.
If Alkatiri had hoped to solidify support within the armed forces by cracking down on the protesters, his strategy has backfired. Last week, his defense and interior ministers were forced to resign. Ramos-Horta was sworn in Saturday as defense minister while keeping his post as foreign minister.
With nearly half the army dismissed, the other half battling police and nearly all of them abandoning the city to armed thugs, critics wonder how the prime minister can keep his job. Some predict he will be forced from office after security has been restored, and that Ramos-Horta will take his place.
Ramos-Horta noted that he was the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to become a defense minister. Even before taking the oath of office, he began questioning whether East Timor needed an army.
“I will be there not so much to lead the army, but to lead the process of healing,” he said. “We will decide in the next few months the fate of the army.”
On Saturday afternoon, Jose Lopez, an instructor at the police academy, visited the site where the 10 police officers were killed; one was a friend and fellow instructor. Small shrines of stones, flowers and candles had been placed in the street where each of the victims fell.
“This is the worst thing I have ever seen in my life,” he said. “If the Australian forces had not arrived, we would all be dead.”
For Lopez, the answer for East Timor is clear: “Only the U.N. can fix the problem.”