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Welcome to Dili. 'Don't even tell your wives' what you did.

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 17, 2000



DILI, EAST TIMOR

As Sander Thoenes pulled away from the Turismo Hotel on Sept. 21, perched on the back of a motorcycle taxi, he traveled through an eerie city.

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The people were mostly gone, the buildings burned or demolished, the streets filled with rubble and garbage. The remains of a dog rotted in the late-afternoon heat. A few thousand refugees camped along the waterfront near the hotel.

Pro-Indonesia militia groups had terrorized the city following East Timor's rejection of Indonesian rule three weeks earlier. Dili's residents had fled to the hills or been shunted onto planes, trucks, and boats bound for West Timor, a part of Indonesia.

An international peacekeeping force had begun arriving the day before. The Australian-led troops were cautiously securing a few key points around the city. The atmosphere was tense.

No one knew how the militias or Indonesian soldiers would react to the influx of foreign troops.

But Thoenes felt safe enough to take a quick look around the eastern Dili suburb of Becora. Coincidentally, British reporter Jon Swain had set out in the same direction, an hour or so ahead of Thoenes. But on the outskirts of Becora, Mr. Swain was already regretting his decision.

Swain was sitting in a decrepit blue taxi with a photographer, an interpreter, and the car's driver. They were grinding their way up one of the hills that ring the East Timorese capital. The car was burning oil and losing power.

As the taxi crept along in search of a place to turn around, the rifle-toting motorcycle escorts of the Battalion 745 convoy swept into view. They quickly surrounded the taxi and began hurling insults and tugging on the doors. One gunman, using his rifle butt, struck driver Sanjo Ramos in the head with such force that he lost an eye.

Battalion commander Major Yacob Sarosa pulled up in his staff car. "These people are East Timorese too," he shouted at Swain and Chip Hires, the photographer, referring to the members of the convoy. "They are very angry, very angry with [the] UN and you Westerners. You must understand."

The soldiers forced Swain's interpreter, Anacleto Bendito da Silva, to climb aboard one of their trucks.

Battalion 745 Sgt. 2nd Class Hermenegildo dos Santos, riding in one of the last vehicles of the convoy, remembers passing the taxi, two Westerners, and the bleeding Mr. Ramos. The sergeant's yellow truck rumbled on to the Becora bus station, a few hundred yards down the road.

Most of the convoy waited there while some of the motorcycle riders and officers menaced the journalists. Finally, one soldier shot the tires and radiator of the taxi and told Swain and Hires to "go, go!" They ran for their lives.

At 4:53 p.m., hiding in the undergrowth near the road, Swain used his cellular phone to call for help.

The convoy reassembled and began moving along the main Becora road. Like Dili, its buildings were mostly gutted.

Having heard the Australians were on the ground, Helio Goncalves de Oliveira had come down from the hills and was hiding near the bus station when he saw the escorts: armed, uniformed men brandishing flags of red and white - the Indonesian colors.

Any East Timorese would have known to lie low, and Mr. de Oliveira did so. "The soldiers on motorcycles weren't shooting, but those in the trucks were," he recalls.

A square-faced young man with bristly hair, he says the 745 soldiers killed his brother's friend Manuel Andreas by shooting him in the back as he ran down a side street away from the convoy. Residents say that soldiers from another unit later rolled the body into a drainage ditch.

Shortly after Swain began calling for help, Thoenes and his driver, Florindo da Conceicao Araujo, put themselves on a collision course with Battalion 745.

Tooling along the main road, Mr. Araujo suddenly saw six soldiers on three motorcycles coming straight at them. Some were holding guns and shouting, ordering him to stop.