Canadian Help for East Timor

In the basketball arena in Kupang, West Timor, the young boy was all kitted out in his L.A. Lakers jersey and shorts. A refugee, he looked about 12 years old, one of the thousands of victims of two weeks of violence in East Timor.

Canadian Help for East Timor

In the basketball arena in Kupang, West Timor, the young boy was all kitted out in his L.A. Lakers jersey and shorts. A refugee, he looked about 12 years old, one of the thousands of victims of two weeks of violence in East Timor. But while he sported a fine pair of running shoes, basketball was the furthest thing from his mind. "That outfit was all he had," said Ken Sunquist, Canada's ambassador to Indonesia, after a visit last week to refugee camps in the Indonesian province of West Timor, which shares a mountainous island north of Australia with its devastated neighbour. "He didn't know where his family was, nothing. He was just sitting in there in a corner." The indoor basketball arena, Sunquist said, was home to about 10,000 people. "And that was one of the good camps."

Privation and death are all the people of East Timor have known since the United Nations announced on Sept. 4 that 78 per cent of them had voted for independence from Indonesia after 24 years of occupation. But last week, help was finally on the way. In Darwin, Australia, 720 km south of the East Timorese capital of Dili, a multinational peacekeeping force, which will include Canadians, was starting to muster. An advance force was expected to arrive in Dili by early this week. The UN began dropping food and blankets to some of the 150,000 people taking refuge in the mountains. In Dili itself, the streets had finally turned quiet. "It's looted and destroyed," Sunquist said. "There's nobody left to shoot at, there's nothing left to burn."

Incredibly, Indonesian soldiers, after sponsoring the orgy of violence against those who opposed a continued link with Jakarta, were reported to be sweeping the streets, cleaning up for the peacekeepers. But the reception the Australian-led UN force would get was still an open question.

The mission, authorized by the UN Security Council to use "all necessary measures" to bring peace, gained assurances from Jakarta that remaining Indonesian soldiers would co-operate, after the 20,000-strong contingent began a gradual withdrawal last week. Ominously, however, Indonesia announced it had cancelled its military co-operation treaty with Australia. And senior Indonesian officials warned that the military-backed, pro-Jakarta militias responsible for Timor's mayhem hold deep animosity for the West, and Australia in particular. One militia commander said his troops would "eat the hearts of those who come to East Timor." Australian officials warned that their soldiers would retaliate if attacked.

Canada's full role was still being worked out. Although Prime Minister Jean Chrétien pledged up to 600 soldiers, Defence Minister Art Eggleton said the Canadian Forces are "stretched" and might send only 250 ground troops. Currently the 60,000-strong military has about 4,000 troops stationed overseas in various peacekeeping missions, including 1,500 in Kosovo and 1,300 in Bosnia. They regularly rotate back to Canada, making the full Forces involvement much larger. Chrétien later said that while ground forces were still under discussion, 100 pilots, mechanics and support personnel on two Hercules aircraft would land in Australia by next weekend, and the naval supply ship Protector, with about 250 aboard, would arrive by about Oct. 11.

In any event, military brass insisted that ground troops must first undergo a 40-day period of inoculation against tropical diseases, meaning a late October arrival. But Canada could help in other ways once peace is restored. Officials said it could send police officers, administrators and legal experts.

International organizations will meanwhile try to put numbers to Timor's horror. Hundreds, more likely thousands, have died. Up to 200,000 refugees have crossed into West Timor. In the camps, Sunquist noticed that there were virtually no young men - amid reports that militias separated men from their families in refugee columns. East Timor's short and violent nightmare may be drawing to an end, but the trauma will last long.

Maclean's September 27, 1999