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    Observing in East Timor

AS Perspectives / Summer 1998

When Trevor Olson and Elwin Wirkala headed to East Timor this summer as volunteer observers for the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), they knew the situation could turn violent. But they never imagined the chaos that would erupt following the East Timorese vote for independence.

 
Elwin Wirkala (far left) accompanied a joyful group of East Timorese people to the polls--before the region erupted in violence and chaos.  

A little history: East Timor had been a colony of Portugal for 400 years, until the Portuguese pulled out in 1975. The East Timorese declared independence but soon were invaded by Indonesia,which used violence to control the residents. A massacre in 1992 brought international focus to the situation and eventually led to consultation--essentially a referendum--for independence. The consultation took place August 3, with U.N. observers on hand to ensure the citizens' safety.

Olson, a UW economics major, first learned about East Timor in 1992. "I was in the U.S. military in Indonesia," he recalls, "and I met a man who had escaped East Timor. I didn't believe all that he was telling me about how this small island had been raped and plundered, but I began to research East Timor on my own." That research, plus Olson's interest in a career in international affairs, led him to volunteer for UNAMET.

Wirkala (BA, '70), a UW professor of Portuguese and a UW alumnus, saw the trip as an opportunity to meet Portuguese speakers while helping the people of East Timor. He received travel support from several UW units, including the College of Arts and Sciences. "I thought it was a noble cause," says Wirkala. "I didn't realize we were setting people up for acts of genocide."

As U.N. observers, Olson and Wirkala were asked to accompany East Timor's citizens to the polling stations and monitor the militia, reporting any acts of intimidation or violence. Wirkala recalls the morning of the election as "a joyous occasion." Olson describes it as "simply amazing," with 1,000 people at the polling station by 5:30 a.m. But the joy soon turned bittersweet. When the consultation results were announced two days later--with three-fourths of the East Timorese choosing independence--the military retaliated with a huge show of force.

"The days right after the election were eerily calm," recalls Olson. "We knew something was going to happen once the results were announced, but we didn't fathom the extent to which the Indonesians would be systematic and organized in their reign of destruction."

The U.N. observers, although not targets of violence, sometimes were caught in the middle. Wirkala was punched in the face after witnessing a soldier burn down a house near a police station. The police did nothing to help. "They were in cahoots with the militia," says Wirkala. "It was a farce."

Eventually, UNAMET decided to evacuate East Timor. "UNAMET, the Red Cross, and the Catholic Church were all under seige," says Wirkala. "Everyone realized we better get out."

Olson recalls feeling "relieved but also full of guilt" for leaving. Both Wirkala and Olson plan to return to East Timor, possibly within the next few months. They also welcome opportunities to speak about East Timor in the Seattle area. They realize there will be no quick fix to this situation.

"The next few months will be critical," says Olson. "The political and intellectual elite--the leadership of East Timor--is being systematically killed. With those kinds of losses, I think it will take 20 or 30 years to rebuild the country."


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