John Sayles is a writer and film director.

This story originally appeared in The Austin Chronicle.”Welcome,” reads the banner hung in the airport lobby in Dili, East Timor, “to the World’s Most Recent Nation.” This newly independent half-island, literally on the other side of the Earth from North America, has suffered invasions by the Portuguese, the Japanese, the Indonesians, and most recently by a well-meaning horde of international relief agencies. I passed through the new country at the end of April after visiting refugee camps scattered within neighboring West Timor and talking with concerned parties of various backgrounds in Jakarta. “What a fiasco,” says the nervous U.N. official as he whisks us through one of the largest camps, near Kupang. He isn’t referring to the operation of the camp, but to the sudden escort of police following us through the rows of tents and metal-roofed huts. “Usually they’re afraid to come in here. It’s the TNI [Indonesia regular army] who control security here.”

The TNI colonel in charge of all camps in West Timor had assured us the day before that his soldiers were only used in emergencies and that it was the local police actually keeping order. Then he asked to see our schedule of visits.

The camp is like a poor village grown huge–no fences marking its boundaries, just mud and barefoot kids, a tentative stringing of electrical wire, and every so often the large, round water tanks that are refilled from trucks every day. Slight variations on the basic short-haired, famine-ribbed, rat-tailed Third World Dog root for scraps all around us. The feeling is not desperate, only tense and a bit aimless–too many people crowded together with nothing to do and no clear end in sight. There is a narrow gauntlet of stalls offering food and cheap goods for sale.

“The ex-militia control most of that,” says the U.N. official. “There are some people still receiving pensions. I’ve been here three months. It feels like I’ll be here 20 years. Decisions have to be made right away.”

The population of East Timor generally hovers a bit under 1 million, frequent genocide providing some precipitous declines, and it offers no staggering abundance of mineral wealth, no tourist paradise that can’t be found in more convenient locations. South of the Philippines, north of Australia, it is no more strategically located than a dozen other islands in the same region. The land is mountainous, the people mostly farmers. Why, from a pragmatic point of view, should we give a shit what happens to these people?

This was probably the question running through then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s mind when he was informed by Indonesian authorities of their plans to invade at the end of 1975 (East Timor was independent once before–for all of nine days following a left-wing military coup in Portugal that suddenly ended colonial rule). His response was a green light to Jakarta, instructions to U.N. ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan to obstruct the effectiveness of any international objection, and an increased supply of “counterinsurgency equipment” to the Indonesian military. Kissinger and President Gerald Ford happened to be visiting General Suharto on the day of the invasion.

East Timorese resistance was far stronger than expected, and they paid by losing a tenth of their population in the first few months of battle.

Subsequent U.S. administrations, Republican and Democrat, continued to support the TNI through years of occupation. East Timorese were kept from all but the lowest-paying jobs, human-rights and independence activists were routinely killed, and army officers ran the territory for their own profit while the West knew little and cared less about the situation.

An American woman who has raised children in West Timor speaks Indonesian fluently, and is active in church and feminist groups. “I come near them with all their weapons and I start to shake,” she says of the influx of TNI that have overwhelmed the area since the refugees were sent there. “I’ve realized it’s not fear–it’s this incredible anger.”

Colonial rootsEast Timor is a tiny artifact of colonialism. The Dutch and Portuguese were competing in the area from the 1600s on, and in Timor this resulted in a neatly divided island, somewhat like the Dominican Republic/Haiti in the Caribbean. Though populated by several ethnic and language groups, the island was split politically between Dutch Protestants and Portuguese Catholics. When, after a brief, horrific Japanese occupation during World War II, the Dutch were ousted and Indonesia created in 1949, East Timor remained a Portuguese colony. People in West Timor identify strongly as being Indonesian–the common fight against the Dutch seems to be the strongest link holding thousands of islands and hundreds of peoples together. It is a heritage the East Timorese never shared in.

“The rains have lasted longer this year,” says a doctor. “This makes the respiratory problems even worse. We can’t really treat TB in this situation. But when the rains stop and the puddles have a chance to settle, the malaria will start up again. Last season we lost at least 600, most of them children.”

A massacre of demonstrating mourners in 1991 brought East Timor back onto the radar of Western public awareness. A few countries tried to link aid and weapon sales to human rights, but the East Timorese remained under military control, living in an atmosphere of constant fear and suspicion, a place where “half the people are forced [to] spy on the other half.” Only when General Suharto was forced to resign during the political crisis of 1998 did an end come in sight. President Habibie of Indonesia’s fledgling civilian government, sensitive to the international embarrassment East Timor was causing his avowedly anti-colonialist nation, floated the idea of a referendum on independence. Though attacked by political enemies as craven approval-seeking from the West, the offer stood, with one important, non-negotiable caveat–Indonesia and only Indonesia would provide security for the historic vote.

The men look like they don’t get much sleep. They are West Timorese, and risk their necks gathering information. They’ve been arrested, constantly threatened. The biggest worry is what will happen to their side of the island if militarization continues. “They’re still recruiting new militia and training them,” one says. “Only now they put them in TNI uniforms and drill them with the regulars. Never more than 15 at a time. Five leave and another five go in, so you never see a big concentration of people.”

The “pro-integration” forces, vehemently opposed to independence from Indonesia, were spearheaded by militias armed and trained by the TNI, a rough equivalent to the street gangs aligned with organized crime in the United States during Prohibition. But despite their open threats of retaliation, despite 25 years of repression, the voter turnout was more than 90 percent, and nearly 80 percent voted to break from Indonesia.

The violence started the day after the referendum, well-organized mayhem leaving thousands dead, the country ankle-deep in rubble, and at least 250,000 East Timorese in exile.

The exiles generated by this murder and scorched-earth campaign were the specific focus of the delegation I traveled with. A trio of congressional staffers, a graduate student expert in Indonesian affairs, a representative from the East Timor Action Network (ETAN), and a pair of freelance journalists visited refugee camps, spoke with relief workers, rights activists, bishops, colonels, governors, ambassadors, and mass murderers in an attempt to learn if the bleeding had ended and the healing begun.

We motor along winding jungle roads near the border, through tiny villages, past women lugging bundles of maize and cassava. “These [roads] used to be a nightmare,” says the Irish priest. “Then the army paved them for the invasions in ’75.” He drives expertly, scrawny chickens flapping out of our path at the last moment. “I suppose that’s what it takes.”

We pass a heavily wooded section. “This is where they dumped a lot of the bodies.” In the first few months in the camps, the militias continued to hunt and murder their political enemies. Decapitated bodies were found miles away. “The people here are naturally polite–they hate to say anything unpleasant in conversation. The phrase that went around in those first months was ‘Our dogs no longer eat at home.’”

Against their willThe camps in West Timor are unusual in that a large percentage of the original refugees did not flee there willingly but were kidnapped–forced at gunpoint onto ships, planes and trucks, and dumped in Indonesian territory. And once U.N. peacekeeping forces were allowed into East Timor, these unfortunate people were joined by the very people who’d sent them packing in the first place, the militias and demobilized East Timorese who’d served in TNI battalions. The first months were punctuated by open militia training and continued reprisals. United Nations and other aid workers were threatened upon entering the camps, delivery of health services was difficult, and any sort of reliable census or rapid repatriation impossible. The bulk of the refugees became hostages to the pro-integration militias. People have managed to return home though, some on their own, most through the efforts of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Nearly 150,000 had gone back by the time our delegation arrived, leaving a higher percentage of those victimized in the massacres (and their extended families) remaining. What became clear from source after source, however, was that tens of thousands more would return if the militia ringleaders were taken out of the camps, and also that the current military leadership in the area was not willing to do this.

We are surrounded by silent, sullen militia members in a camp near the border. “No meetings are allowed,” our colonel reassured us, but the summit we walked in on had been going on for two days. Hard rain drums on the metal roof overhead as lower-ranking men take over the food distribution in the background. The leader of the local militias is passionate as he speaks in the carefully wrought phrases of a political information officer. “This is a time for reconciliation,” he begins, “not for justice. My troops want a peaceful transition, but of course they are willing to fight for their rights.” He indicates that any negotiations with his group should be preceded by granting them a secure area of land in East Timor. This is a refrain we hear a few times–because 20 percent voted against independence, they should get 20 percent of the country. “We have no weapons,” he continues. “Of course I can’t speak for everybody.”

Military regimes are a plague throughout the world, and Indonesia’s have racked up an impressive body count in a relatively short period. But it must be remembered that this extremely populous, multiethnic nation is only 50-some years old. At that age the United States was still busy slaughtering native peoples in the quest for “manifest destiny,” a concept often invoked to explain Indonesia’s incursion into East Timor. The most common attitude toward the referendum I encountered among Indonesians was suspicion that it had been rigged by sinister international powers–something akin to what you heard in 1960s Mississippi about “our colored” being stirred up by “outside agitators.” The people who seemed to accept, if not celebrate, the new nation most pragmatically were in West Timor. Rather than fearing a foreign power next door, they worried about the possible permanent dumping of pro-integration militias and refugees in their territory. This is not paranoia. Whether the change is viewed as positive or negative, Miami has clearly never been the same after the Cuban Revolution and the subsequent arrival of exiles. The West Timorese don’t want to become a staging area for raids into the east.

We leave the clinic and roll through the dust-choked streets of Dili. Large, bristly hogs strut through the endless reconstruction sites–survivors. Water buffalo, still used to work the rice fields here, were gunned down systematically in the militias’ retreat. “The World Bank sent a representative down,” grumbles the American volunteer. “Listens to the long list of immediate crises we’re facing here–no medicine, no doctors, no anything–then launches into this speech about how important it is to make sure health care is privatized.” A man squats at a traffic circle, absently petting a piglet tethered to a post by its trotters. “Before it can be privatized it has to exist.”

Brave new worldEast Timor remains a work in progress. Hopes to extradite and try militia leaders for human-rights violations are made speculative at best by the lack of a judicial system. Justices, prosecutors and defense lawyers will have to be trained. The older, exiled professional class has begun to return, but their long absence and advocacy of Portuguese as the official language alienates them from the masses. Resentment over the slow pace of recovery, inequity between salaries for international aid workers and those few East Timorese who have found jobs, ethnic and class differences continue to cause tension. The U.N. transitional authority will be in place for a long time. Islamic citizens are threatened. But eventually East Timor will be on its own, and its most logical trading partner, culturally and commercially, will be its former oppressor–Indonesia.

An important adviser from the Habibie government is articulate and cautiously hopeful. “I don’t mean to sound callous,” she says, “but East Timor is a sideshow. A bloodbath was predicted for our own first elections, and it was avoided. We need to build our own judicial system, need to develop a police force that can be effective, need to do so many things. And certainly the TNI must be under civilian control.”

It is vital for both East Timor and Indonesia that some sort of trials take place, and inevitable that some high-ranking TNI officers are implicated in the post-referendum murders. But it is equally important that these trials proceed with regard to rule of law. Think of the number of years and millions of dollars it took for U.S. law enforcement to put away one Mafia capo like John Gotti–and that only after admitted executioner Sammy Gravano was given immunity. We should not be surprised if some of the worst perpetrators walk in this highly charged political situation. Because the process is as important as the results. Better an honest process that leaves a couple of fish unfried than an autocratic sacrifice of a few colonels to protect business as usual.

In Jakarta, the U.S. ambassador sits in a very large, very air-conditioned room. An international tribunal is out, he says, because of the Chinese veto in the United Nations. He wonders if East Timor can ever be a viable economic entity. He thinks the militia ringleaders should be transported to parts of Indonesia far from Timor. He asks for renewed financial commitment from the United States, but wants it to go through USAID, which he controls. He is extremely confident in his ability to influence President Wahid, but concerned about increased violence from Islamic fundamentalists.

Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world. Governing it democratically is a near-impossible challenge that calls for international support. It is important that the United States continue to suspend military sales and training (and by extension, approval) from the TNI. Military reform will be slow in Indonesia; resumption of arms sales should wait until lasting reform is apparent. East Timor’s development as a viable nation will be equally slow. They need everything but spirit. During our late adventure in the Gulf, restoring royalty to Kuwait, George Bush talked a lot about doing “the hard work of democracy,” which added in no small way to the cynicism of the young people I know. What has to happen next in Timor, East and West, is the actual hard work of democracy. If we in the West are to sell that concept without cynicism, ask our soldiers to risk their lives maintaining or establishing it in the far-flung reaches of the globe, if we want to look the people of developing nations in the eye as anything more than cheap labor to stitch our designer clothes, we had better care about what happens to people in places like East Timor. EndBlock