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Saturday, September 4, 1999 Published at 01:03 GMT 02:03 UK

Face-to-face with Timor terror

The Aitarak militia were armed by the Indonesian authorities

By Matt Frei in East Timor

The pigs of East Timor are dark grey and thin, with an unusually high-pitched squeal. They roam the streets of Dili, nosing through the rubbish with an air of disdain as if the rubbish wasn't good enough, which is probably true since this place is very poor.

Now three of these supercilious underfed pigs were eyeing me and my colleagues as we were cowering behind their sty.

We were hiding from the feared Aitarak militia, in the middle of a pitched battle between them and pro-independence supporters.

Aitarak means 'stick of thorns'. These are the men you may have seen on your television screens in the last week.

[ image: Victims of militia attacks recuperate in hospital]
Victims of militia attacks recuperate in hospital
They wear black T-shirts with a little red and white Indonesian flag.

They carry machetes, knives and guns. A whole variety of guns: Medieval looking blunderbusses which are fired by lighting a fuse; home-made pistols with three barrels that fire three bullets simultaneously; and M16s probably supplied by the Indonesian military.

There are perhaps 10,000 of these militiamen or more. They were trained and armed by the Indonesian army earlier this year and they are fighting to prevent East Timor's independence.

Money motive

They are motivated by a whole number of reasons. Money is the first. They are paid about 5 a day to take part.

Some of them genuinely believe that East Timor is too small and poor to function as a separate state.

Others have benefited from the Indonesian occupation. They see Indonesia as their liberator from the oligarchy of old East Timorese families who ran this place under Portuguese colonial rule.

Many of them fear reprisals from the guerrillas hiding in the hills. This isn't far fetched - a Czech UN worker told me that the guerrillas had lists of the militiamen and pro-Indonesia supporters whom they would kill as soon as the results of the referendum were announced.

"We, the UN, will end up protecting the Aitarak men in our compounds in the way that we now have to protect the Serbs in Kosovo," the UN staffer said.

Drugged or drunk

But to be honest, my sympathy for the militia was running out as I hid behind a pig sty, while a black T-shirt was slashing the air in front of my face with a machete.

The man was probably in his thirties, his eyes were bloodshot and glazed, he was drugged or drunk or both. I wasn't going to ask him.

We had been trapped in the middle of a terrifying battle. It was time to run for it.

The man ran after me, machete flying.

Now the black T-shirts were everywhere. Another man with a knife in one hand and a rock in the other also began chasing me. He threw the rock at my head but missed.

I was screaming at him and just about everyone else. I think the word that came out was "No!".


[ image: Safety: The gates of the UN compound]
Safety: The gates of the UN compound
Out of the corner of my eye I could see another black T-shirt swinging his blunderbuss around to my direction. The gun was far too large for such a small man.

I think he was fiddling with his cigarette lighter to light the fuse. I heard something go off with a loud bang but nothing hit.

While I was running towards the UN compound a pro-independence supporter was being hunted down like an animal.

Like a butcher's shop

The young man fell after being hit on the head with a machete. Then six black T-shirts descended on him.

A colleague hiding in a shack just opposite the gates to the UN compound filmed the whole thing. It took only 30 seconds to hack the man to pieces.

The attack was so ferocious that bits of him were literally flying off, the sound reminded me of a butchers shop - the thud of cleaved meat, I'll never forget it.

I carried on running towards the UN gate behind which people were screaming at me and waving. A man pulled me inside. I was safe.

They say that the militia just want to scare us journalists. But does a militiaman who has just butchered an unarmed civilian like a pig really know the difference between fright and murder, between the sharp end and the blunt end of his machete?

I don't want to find out.

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