Christina DaCarte had seen the killings, had watched the throats of two young men slit, had huddled once, twice, with her children, expecting death in East Timor. The men with the guns already had lured her 17-year-old son from safety; her tears drowned any talk of his fate.
But now, in the ominous quiet of Tuesday night, the 31-year-old woman clambered with her two babies aboard a truck driven by Indonesian soldiers. They were part of the same forces that had unleashed the militia gangs on her family and had held her hostage in a brutal effort to crush East Timor's independence aspirations.
DaCarte was fleeing the U.N. compound in the capital of Dili in the last, swift evacuation of 1,500 East Timorese orchestrated by the United Nations and Australia. To get to the airport, the evacuees had to go in trucks driven by the soldiers, who provided safety for the convoy under orders from Indonesian President B.J. Habibie. But the soldiers could not resist taunting the frightened passengers.
"They said, 'This is the independent East Timor you wanted, why don't you stay here? Leave your crying babies here; the militias will eat them,' " DaCarte recalled, sitting wearily with her children in a tent in the safety of Darwin on Australia's northern coast.
"We could not answer them back. We were too scared," she said. The operation that plucked most of the remaining U.N. civilian personnel and the East Timorese who had crowded into the compound in Dili was a bold plan carried out largely in the dark of the early hours on Tuesday.
Even as the U.N. Security Council wrangled and eventually agreed to send a multinational armed force into East Timor to restore order, Hercules C-130 planes--five Australian and one from New Zealand--swooped into the abandoned Dili airport, scooped up the evacuees and returned for more.
Today, safe in a tent city and hovered over by dozens of health and social workers, the refugees began to recount the harrowing tales of their last two weeks as the organizers of the airlift quietly rejoiced over a successful mission.
"It went pretty bloody well," concluded an Australian military officer.
The rescue operation had been in the works since local residents fleeing the violence began massing in the presumed safety of the U.N. compound after an Aug. 30 referendum on independence. The anti-independence East Timorese militias and their backers in the Indonesian military unleashed a campaign of killing and forced relocation in response to the ballot, in which nearly four-fifths of East Timorese voted to break with Indonesia.
Australia began removing U.N. personnel and East Timorese last week, sending occasional flights to the Dili airport to receive a closely guarded convoy of passengers from the compound about a mile away.
But Ian Martin, the chief of the U.N. mission in East Timor, would not evacuate the remainder of his staff without taking all the refugees who had gathered in the compound.
"We insisted on taking them out with us when we left. We knew what their fate would be if we left them," said David Wimhurst, the U.N. spokesman in Darwin.
DaCarte had cowered in her home in a pro-independence neighborhood of Dili as the militiamen killed four men and warned that "we will come back to rip you apart," she said. She fled to a compound of Roman Catholic nuns, but there, surrounded again by the militias, they all prayed in preparation for death. When it did not come, she fled with the children to the U.N. compound.
Most citizens of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, are Roman Catholics; Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country.
Lorenca Lay had thrown her 8-year-old daughter over the fence into the compound to get the child to safety, a sacrifice of love when she expected the family would be killed.
Natalino DaSilva was trying to rebuild his house, burned by the militias, when they threatened him again. He dropped his tools and left for the U.N. headquarters with his family of five.
But once there, the fleeing East Timorese found their refuge was becoming increasingly tenuous as Dili burned around it.
"Every day, there were shots and the sounds of explosions around the compound," DaSilva said. Food supplies became meager. The militiamen entered a section of the compound and ransacked cars. Some of the children were becoming ill.
Martin finally concluded that the situation had become too hazardous and that everyone had to leave. In quiet negotiations with the Indonesian government, he secured a promise from Habibie that the military would cooperate.
Still, it was a dangerous plan. The Indonesian military had backed the marauding militias and had failed to curb their violence in the province. Now they were being asked to guard staff from the United Nations, the very focus of their ire.
At 11 p.m. Monday night, the refugees were gathered in the compound and told to prepare to depart. "We were told to be calm and quiet, and to prepare our bags," said DaCarte. "They said, 'No cheering.' "
At 11:30, they started boarding the trucks. Suddenly, four young men who had been in the compound balked at leaving. They said they would flee to the hills to join the pro-independence guerrillas who had fought so long for an independent East Timor. The men bolted from the camp.
"Three of them were shot. One of them returned," said Manuel Doutel Silver, 37, in an account confirmed by other refugees.
The East Timorese were ordered by the soldiers driving the trucks to put their heads down. But those who peeked saw a Dili that was pillaged and smoldering. Eerie orange glows marked buildings still ablaze; black shadows and rubble were the only markers for buildings now destroyed.
At the airport, more Indonesian soldiers ringed the tarmac as the convoy waited in the dark. Finally, as the dawn grew to a clear morning, the first Hercules plane swung low over the burned city and made a quick landing on the 3,000-foot runway at 9:15 a.m.
Every half hour, another plane landed, loaded its desperate cargo and left for Darwin. The shuttle went on through the day. Some cheered as they lifted off the runway; others cried. One pregnant woman felt sharp pains, which turned out to be false labor.
DaCarte choked back tears over the whereabouts of her son, who had followed militia instructions to board a truck that was supposed to go to western Timor. She said she had not heard if he arrived.
By 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, the last of the 1,454 East Timorese, 74 U.N. employees and a remaining British reporter were squeezed into the one remaining plane, loaded for Darwin. "As soon as we arrived here," said DaSilva, "there were no more fears."
CAPTION: An East Timorese woman washes a pot at a camp in western Timor. Over 100,000 have fled or been forcibly relocated from the province.