East Timor: A Slice Of Hell

More than a week after Australian troops spearheaded the U.N. peacekeeping mission into East Timor, their writ still extends no more than a few miles from the trashed capital, Dili. But the greatest wonder is not that they have done so little, but that they have done anything at all.

By the standards of U.N. peacekeeping missions of the last decade, the East Timor Operation, code-named UNIFET, gives a whole new meaning to "shoestring."

CBS News Correspondent
On day two, force commander Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, a decorated Vietnam veteran, showed up for an impromptu press briefing in a U.N. Range Rover - not, note, a UNIFET vehicle, but one borrowed from the U.N. humanitarian mission.

Contrast that with Somalia, Bosnia or Kosovo, where the troops arrived with enough armor to start a small war. For those missions, there were trucks, HumVees and helicopters for everyone.
Australian troops came in fast and efficiently, but did not have the wherewithal to bring in masses of transport. The idea was to get on the ground and establish a presence.

That, too, was an unusual operation, not least because the Australians had to work as virtual allies with the Indonesian forces that set up and ran the notorious militias. Those militias were the same bloody gangs that pushed the U.N. Security Council into action in the first place.

Identifying The Enemy
In East Timor, telling the bad guys from the frightened victims is as big a problem as transport. In Bosnia, for example, the local forces may have looked and talked pretty much the same, but at least they had lines and areas of control and/or influence that were more or less demarcated.

In East Timor, they are everywhere, and nowhere.

It is generally accepted that anyone with a red and white headband or tee-shirt (the colors of the Indonesian flag) is a militiaman or at least against independence.

An East Timorese refugee carries a sack of rice during a food distribution by Australian peacekeepers.

But itÂ's not that simple. Before the arrival of UNIFET, the only way to be safe was to appear to be a militia supporter. Riding around town on the back of a smoke-belching Indonesian army Land Rover, a colleague with experience in East Timor tried to educate with a game of Â"spot-the-difference.Â"

Â"I figure that anyone who looks like a bad guy, is one,Â" he said. Â"But then again,Â" he added with a wave to hundreds of families sitting among heaps of belongings on thside of the road, Â"If I was one of the poor bastards who had to run from them, I guess IÂ'd pretend to be a militia guy too.Â"

· · · · · · · · · ·
·Guerrilla War In East Timor?
Militia leaders pledge to battle peacekeepers.
· · · · · · · · · ·

Keeping track of whoÂ's a god guy is nerve-wracking enough for a journalist (witness the attacks against them, one of them fatal, that took place in the first two days). For U.N. troops with the power of life and death, it can be a serious drain on what U.S. forces like to call Â"mission capability.Â"

It will only get worse as the U.N. troops push their way into the mountainous interior and closer to the border with West Timor, which is Indonesian territory. The militias who retreated to that part of the island promised vengeance on any and all Â"white faces,Â" especially Australians.

The reasons why the militias are not content to accept what the government in Jakarta has agreed upon has its roots deep in IndonesiaÂ's brutal struggle to cling to the former Portugese colony.

Over the 25 years since the Portuguese pulled out and Indonesia moved in, many of the soldiers who served in East Timor put down roots. Some married locally, others lost too much of their youth, too many friends, to simply walk away. In some ways, East Timor is to Indonesian soldiers what Vietnam was to Americans, only more so.

Paradise Lost?
One evening, as the setting sun dappled the gentle waves of an East Timorse lagoon, we set up our TV camera amid palm trees bent towards the sea. We watched as three small, black-haired little girls in flapping skirts gathered bits of flotsam in what could have been a scene from a Gaugin painting or any fantasy of a South Seas paradise.

But the fine sands were littered with rubbish, and the sea breeze was marred by the stench of a dead dog and human excrement, no doubt from the line of refugees squatting between the beach and the road.

East Timor is a mess. Only te outside world can save it from itself. Look at the children and you think itÂ's worth it. Look at how many such messes there are in the world, and one has to wonder if the rest of the world has the stomach, the will and the means to do the job for the decade or more it will take.

Written by Allen Pizzey
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