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Saturday, September 18, 1999 Published at 00:20 GMT 01:20 UK

Dili: a smouldering shadow

The scene which met the diplomats and journalists as they flew in

By Matt Frei in Dili

We had only left Dili a week ago, but in seven short days this city of 140,000 people had by all accounts been transformed into a smouldering shadow of its former self - without shops, people, cars or anything else that passes for normality in East Timor.

East Timor
We were on a special plane, laid on by the Indonesian air force for a delegation from the UN Security Council - the first to visit Dili since the referendum.

For some of us, including myself, it was a return journey. Others had flown in from New York to see for themselves what life was like in Dili.

Dili, the name sounds strangely silly for such a terrifying venue.

Safety risk

The British Ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, took charge, sounding like the responsible school prefect which I am sure he once was.

"You're coming at your own risk," he told us. "We are flying into the unknown, the Indonesian army cannot guarantee our safety."

All true. A pile of bright blue UN flak jackets was waiting for us in Dili.

Patches of blood red on cheerful bright blue, I thought. My imagination was clearly running riot.

'Insincere smiles'

There had been no time for breakfast. The bitter Indonesian air force coffee was playing havoc on my empty stomach.

We sat down in the four star general's Fokker and strapped in, the UN ambassadors and Indonesian generals in officers' class maintaining the polite distance and insincere smiles of diplomatic enemies.

And behind the net curtain, in sergeant's class, the press, tired, distracted, apprehensive.

A ropey take-off. Oh dear. A failed attempt to read about the Indonesian economy in the Jakarta Post.

Four long hours later we would be in Dili, after a short refuelling stop in Bali. Do those honeymooners have any idea, I wondered?

In-flight entertainment

Suddenly the screen in front of us flickered into life.

A bit late for the safety video, I thought. Perhaps a propaganda film. Neither.

It was Madonna, in black and white, wearing a G-string, getting friendly with a large metal pole while two men in leotards were doing pelvic thrusts and flicking their tongues at the camera.

This week has been full of memorable and ambiguous military moments.

Take your pick: General Wiranto, the chief of staff, singing 'Feelings' to a gathering of army wives, to express his feelings about the suffering in East Timor, suffering which his soldiers had helped to cause.

Good versus evil

Some of this is funny, but most of it has been deeply upsetting. I have rarely felt more engaged in a story.

Perhaps because I have never come across such a clear-cut case of good versus evil.

The innocent civilians of East Timor who have been hunted down like animals because they voted for independence are just that - innocent.

We did not see much of their suffering when I visited Dili.

This was a place of chilling absences: the roads were deserted; the buildings empty; the population had already escaped into the parched hills, cowering in fear of the militia, without water, food or shelter.

Unless help comes soon, thousands will die of starvation.

At the end of our day, we were driven back to the airport in a military truck.

Before the violence

We passed the hotel where we had stayed for two weeks to cover the referendum. Then, the hotel was so new it did not even have a name.

We called it the "National Panasonic" because of the large advertisement above the front door.

There was nothing glamorous about the National Panasonic. Every night, rats the size of poodles raced around the courtyard.

It is hard to believe that this became our home.

The family looked after us like house guests: spindley Harris, a 10-year-old street urchin with an impish smile who kept saying "hello mister"; his grandmother who washed our shirts by hand, kneading them like dough with her bony fingers; Jiniydie, the Chinese-Indonesian owner who never stopped smiling and provided absolutely everything we wanted - air conditioning units, beds, shelves, a sofa.

Dili ablaze

All that effort and money was now concentrated in a large funnel-shaped plume of black smoke filling the late afternoon sky.

As we drove past, I could see the room we had used as our radio studio burning brightly, the flames licking the roof. The freshly-painted white walls were now pitch black. Not a soul in sight.

I later heard that someone had seen Jiniydie at Bali airport. He had managed to get out on one of the last flights.

But Harris and his grandmother and the others had all fled to the hills after the militia paid them a house call.

Some of our drivers had turned out to be intelligence officers. They were all okay.

The others were just drivers. They were now dead.

Return flight

It is impossible to confirm any of this, but as we boarded our Indonesian air force Fokker back to Jakarta I felt sick in the stomach.

We were all exhausted and tried to settle into our seats.

The screen on the plane flickered to life again. Another film. Please, no soft porn this time.

But the in-flight entertainment programme on the four star general's private jet had changed.

On screen I could see the lacerated body of a woman. Very graphic stuff. We were being shown a film about a serial killer.

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