After a few pops of palm wine, the men in the little mountain village in East Timor loosened up enough to ask Father Peter Ruggere the question that hung heavy on their minds: Are they going to come and kill us?

It was the night before the Aug. 30 referendum on independence for East Timor and Ruggere, a Maryknoll priest based in Washington, had come to the village as an official United Nations election observer. And now these men were repeating a rumor Ruggere had already heard: If the Timorese voted for independence, the Indonesians would invade, as they did in 1975, when they conquered the former Portuguese colony, killing thousands in the process.

Don't worry, Ruggere reassured them. "In 1975, nobody knew about East Timor. But the world is watching now. We're here." He pointed to his UN badge. "They can't get away with it this time."

Telling that story on Wednesday, a few hours after returning from East Timor, Ruggere smiles at his naivete. After spending a week hiding from rampaging Indonesian-backed militiamen, he's safe at home but far less optimistic about East Timor.

Ruggere, 57, has been a missionary in Third World countries for most of his adult life--serving in Peru and Egypt, among other places--but nothing quite prepared him for his adventures in Timor. He sits in Maryknoll House on 16th Street NW, still amazed by the story.

"There's a surreal quality to all this," he says.

He arrived a couple of days before the referendum, part of a 12-person U.S. team of observers. The first hint that things might not be right was their housing. They were ensconced in a big home in a wealthy section of Dili. But the place had no furniture. The rich Indonesians who owned the place had fled, taking all their possessions with them. Ruggere and his fellow observers slept on the floor. It was uncomfortable, but he didn't mind. "It was an adventure," he says.

He was dispatched to the tiny town of Matata, where he heard the rumor about a possible Indonesian invasion. The next morning, he hiked down the steep mountain to take his post at the polling place in Railaco. It was packed with people. They looked solemn and serious and perhaps a bit frightened. "These were people who had never voted in their lives," he says.

The voting went smoothly and when the polls closed, Ruggere and another observer set out on foot for the small city of Gleno, where they were scheduled to spend the night. It was a hike of several miles, so they flagged down a passing truck. It stopped. It was filled with men wearing combat boots and military hats--but no uniforms--and carrying automatic rifles.

"Don't make eye contact and don't look at the guns," Ruggere, a veteran of Third World dictatorships, advised the other observer.

The truck dropped them off in Gleno. They found the house where they were staying, took a shower and headed out for dinner. But it was dark now, and bands of thuggish men strutted the streets. A sympathetic passerby silently signaled them: Go back. They returned to their house to find the caretakers gone. They slept without dinner, arose at dawn and went in search of breakfast. A few blocks away, a British UN worker stopped them. Two observers had been beaten up in the marketplace, she said. Go to the UN headquarters immediately.

They obeyed and found the place packed with Timorese election workers, who were visibly frightened. A helicopter flew in to pick up the referendum ballots. When it tried to land, it was driven off by gunfire. A while later, it returned and was driven off again. On its third attempt, it managed to land, pick up the ballots and zoom off.

"It was beginning to dawn on us that we should be afraid," Ruggere says, smiling.

At mid-morning, Ruggere and the other election workers piled into cars and headed off in a convoy for Dili, an hour away. They didn't get far. The militia stopped them before they got out of Gleno and held the convoy hostage.

At dark the militia released the convoy, and the frightened drivers stomped on the gas, racing down the twisting mountain roads. "It was really frightening," Ruggere says.

Back in Dili, he returned to the house with no furniture, ate a bowl of soup--his first meal in two days--and slept on the floor again.

The city had a spooky feel. Their driver disappeared. They hired another, but he never showed up. Taxis were scarce. Stores were closed. For a few days, they lived on crackers and coffee. At night, they awoke to the sound of gunfire. They'd get up, look out, see nothing, slowly fall asleep again, then wake to more gunfire.

They kept the house dark to avoid attention and huddled inside, listening to the radio. Broadcasts from Australia spoke of mobs burning houses and shooting people. Folks from the UN team and the U.S. Embassy called to tell similar stories.

A frightened Timorese family arrived. Their home had been burned, and they needed sanctuary. They got it. Then a second family came. One family had four kids; the other had nine. Their parents seemed to think they'd be safe if they were with the foreigners. Ruggere wasn't so sure.

A few blocks away, a mob threw rocks through the windows and fired shots into a house full of Australian election observers. The police watched. The Australians called their embassy. The embassy called the cops. The cops--who'd done nothing to stop the attack--escorted the Australians to the airport.

Last Saturday, Ruggere tried to get to the office of Dili's Catholic bishop, Nobel Peace Prize winner Carlos Belo. He found a cabbie willing to make the trip. But soon they heard automatic weapons fire, a lot of it, very loud and very close. The cabbie turned around and took Ruggere back to the house with no furniture, where life would have been dull if it wasn't so frightening.

"You're worried and you're tired and it's boring," he says, "and you can't read because you can't turn the lights on. You fall asleep and the gunshots wake you up."

On Sunday the foreign press was leaving Dili, and Ruggere and his companions decided they had better flee, too. Ruggere broke the news to the Timorese families.

"I told the father, 'We're leaving.' He said, 'You're abandoning us.' I said, 'It's better for you because they're looking for the foreigners.' He didn't buy that. He saw us as their shield. 'What about us?' he said. I didn't have an answer. I couldn't look at him. I said goodbye. There was no shaking of hands. He was angry."

At the airport, everything was so normal that it was strange. A charter plane arrived and carried the press away. Another came and hauled off the foreign observers.

"The object was to drive out the foreign eyes--first the press and then us," Ruggere says.

He flew to Bali, then Hong Kong, then Los Angeles, then Washington, arriving Wednesday morning.

Now, eight hours later, he's sitting at home, telling his story, his black priest's shirt unbuttoned almost to his middle-age gut. He glances at his watch. It's time to go to the Indonesian Embassy. There's a protest there, and he promised he'd go.

He gets up, drives to Dupont Circle and parks his old Chevy Lumina in a space reserved for diplomats. He walks to the embassy, buttoning his shirt as he goes. He joins a scraggly picket line of a couple dozen protesters, many carrying white crosses. An organizer asks him to speak and hands him a bullhorn.

"I just arrived this morning from East Timor," Ruggere tells the protesters. "The election was fair. Ninety-eight percent of those registered voted. In spite of fears and rumors, they voted. They voted overwhelmingly for independence. Unfortunately, the Indonesian authorities have now allowed terror to take over. They have their goons on the streets, and they are burning houses and killing people. The press has left. The foreign observers have left. The only way Indonesia will respond is through economic pressure."

Ruggere speaks for only a few minutes, and then the demonstrators march toward the State Department. Ruggere doesn't go with them. He climbs into his car and drives back to Maryknoll House.

Inside, a cook is serving dinner to three priests. Ruggere joins them. The men stand at the table, hands folded, as one priest says a quick prayer. Then they sit down to eat. They haven't seen Ruggere since he left for East Timor.

"So," one priest says with a sly smile. "How was your trip?"

CAPTION: The Rev. Peter Ruggere protests at the Indonesian Embassy.

CAPTION: East Timorese voters press in on a guard during elections in June.