Scorched Earth: true courage

August 29, 2019

How do you fight for survival when your country is a killing field and it’s difficult to know who to trust? For women it included sewing slips of paper in the lining of their clothes, travelling over mountains to deliver strategic messages to guerrilla fighters. For children, it meant keeping silent, learning how not to say a wrong word to the wrong person, without knowing who that could be. But knowing it could lead to the death of their entire family. For men, it included standing between their families and militia when the time came, being the first to feel the machetes, buying time for their families to run.  

That was the plight of East Timor: a country invaded; divided; slaughtered for beliefs. Those who were determined for their land to be free vowed they wouldn’t surrender: when the last of them were dead, their blood and bones would still cry ‘freedom.’ It wouldn’t take much longer. Within 24 years, a third of the entire East Timorese population had been killed. More died daily.  

Their plight had been brought to the heart of the world and, finally, the international outcry helped secure East Timor’s referendum in 1999. That referendum was one that was to be controlled by the invading country and monitored by the United Nations. 271 UN police peacekeepers from 27 countries signed up. They were given dog tags. They were unarmed. They knew that the security during the referendum rested on the armed shoulders of the same military and police that had been involved in joint operations with militia. They still went. 

This is the story of how two determined groups – the Timorese fighting for life and the peacekeepers facing death – fulfil their roles to bring about a referendum that resulted in the scorching of a country and the freedom of a people.   

History tells us that the UN supervised vote in East Timor was a betrayal of those who took part in it. The UN Peacekeepers, volunteers and others depicted in this heart-stopping account, went unarmed believing the Indonesian police and army were there to protect them. Anyone familiar with the previous 24 years of Indonesian occupation knew this was an act of faith beyond all reason. The very people assigned this protective role had perpetrated a genocide in East Timor second only to the Holocaust in the blood-soaked twentieth Century. Yet, against all odds the UN pulled off a credible vote in which the Timorese chose independence. The losers then turned on the population to kill them and burn their country to the ground… The heroism and raw honesty with which their story is told in SCORCHED EARTH, is a tribute not only to those brave UN volunteers, journalists and others but to the East Timorese themselves.  

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