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Birth of a nation

Ending a failed 24-year occupation that culminated in a rampage of destruction, the last 900 Indonesian soldiers remaining on this island territory pulled down their red-and-white flag and departed from East Timor on October 31, 1999. An estimated 200,000 East Timorese were killed or died of disease and starvation with tens of thousands of Indonesian soldiers also losing their lives here since Indonesia invaded this land as its 27th province. The troop departure was the final step in a painful separation that began with a referendum on August 30 in which 78 percent of those voting chose to break away from Indonesia.

The vote was followed by a rampage of terror and destruction by militias backed by the Indonesian military that destroyed or damaged an estimated 70 percent of the buildings in the region and forced most of its 800,000 people to flee. As a result, an international peace-keeping force of 7,500 troops was deployed here on September 20. Even though the Indonesian parliament voted in October to accept East Timor’s vote for independence fewer than half of this new country’s residents have returned to their homes from refugee camps and mountain hideaways.

Military and humanitarian officials estimate that 240,000 East Timorese are still in camps in Indonesian controlled western Timor, where they are being intimidated from returning by armed militiamen who roam through the encampments at night. More than 200,000 others are believed to be camping in the hills of East Timor, either unaware of the security forces or worried that their towns are not yet safe.

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Local CNRT leader in school library, Viqueque, East Timor 11/1999. During its quarter-century of occupation, Indonesia poured an estimated $100 million a year into this tiny territory - much of it was spent in trying to subdue the small but stubborn guerrilla resistance. “There was a lot of blood spilled over the decades in keeping their empire together, but they spent a fortune trying to make it a showplace. They used to tell me a lot of soldiers were angry about how much money was being poured in here than into their own towns. So they made it a showplace and now they’ve trashed it, and they did it with such a vengeance.” Eric Chamberlain, former Australian military attaché in Indonesia, now working for a relief organisation, Dili.