Four times the militiamen came to the Salesian Sisters' convent, armed and searching for independence leaders. Four times, Sister Marlene Bautista insisted, "We have no one but women and children here."
It was a lie. Along with 106 terrified refugees, Sister Marlene and the other nuns were hiding important members of the East Timor independence movement. Had they been discovered, they almost certainly would have been killed, perhaps along with the sisters.
Over 18 days, as East Timor burned outside the convent walls, the nuns kept their charges safe through guile and courage. When one militia search party arrived at the convent, the sisters threw water on the floor and mopped earnestly to discourage inspection of a back room hiding their "special guests." No sooner had the militiamen left and the floor been dried, the Indonesian army made a surprise visit.
"We had just got it mopped up and we threw the water back down and grabbed the mops," said Sister Marlene, giggling.
Sister Marlene, 38, who was born in the Philippines and raised in California, celebrated Monday's arrival of a multinational peacekeeping force in East Timor by going with other nuns to collect their first fresh food in weeks. "We're looting vegetables," Sister Marlene quipped to a reporter to whom she had given a lift. When the first convoy of United Nations trucks arrived, the nuns broke into cheers and applause.
Sister Marlene, who has been a missionary in East Timor since 1988, would not publicly identify the independence figures whom the nuns were sheltering; it is still dangerous for them, she said. The convent remains filled with scores of women and children who turned to the sisters when their world went crazy.
The violence started Sept. 4, when the announcement of results of an Aug. 30 referendum showed East Timorese voting overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. That day, nearly 400 frightened residents flocked to a school near the airport where the sisters taught.
Sister Marlene initially thought their fears were overblown, but that judgment proved incorrect. "We expected real problems, but nothing like this," she said, adding: "These people have lived for 24 years under Indonesian rule. They know what real fear is. I had never experienced real fear until the last two weeks."
At nightfall, members of anti-independence militias supported by the Indonesian military gathered outside the school gates and yelled to the refugees: "Those who wanted independence come show your faces!" The refugees cowered in fear. The nuns shut off the lights to darken the building and watched licks of fire rise around them.
"I watched as the militia moved from house to house," Sister Marlene said. "First they would break the windows and doors. Then they would steal everything -- couches, tables, chairs, clothing. Then they would set it on fire."
The next day, as the shooting continued, they moved the refugees to the adjacent priests' compound, which has higher walls. As they did, Sister Marlene was accosted by Elvis Gusmao, a cousin of East Timorese independence leader Xanana Gusmao.
"He said, `They are looking for me to shoot me. I have already taken my wife and five-month-old son to the military and said please protect them, and then I ran,' " she recalled. "He said `Please take me to the [United Nations] compound.'
"He was really panicky. He sat in the back of the car. I thought it was ridiculous," she said. But then militiamen on a motorcycle spied her passenger and motioned to a truck full of their comrades to stop her.
"Gusmao said, `Sister, you have to accelerate.' I stepped on the gas like never before," she said. "They shot at me. I couldn't believe it. It was the first time in my life that anyone shot at me. It's a good thing they're lousy shots."
That day she moved to the convent where she thought "this would all blow over in a couple of days. I just brought two day's worth of clothes."
But as the shooting continued and the fires claimed more houses, 400 more refugees surged into the convent.
"We prayed a lot. The shooting started, and we would pray," she said. They slept on the floors, staying low to avoid the gunfire. On the convent dining table, she laid out a plastic dish filled with rifle cartridges collected by the children.
Keeping the militias at bay sometimes required steely bluntness. When one armed search party tried to steal the convent's car, "I said, `No, you can't,' " she recalled. She then demanded that they all go together to discuss the matter with the local head of the Indonesian army. The militia retreated.
After four days in the convent, most of the families fled in desperation to the nearby mountains. Some of the men tried to sneak down into town at night to find food. The Indonesian military, which took up positions in houses all around the convent, fired throughout the night at the shadowy targets.
They killed at least two people, Sister Marlene said. Before the mili tary vacated the houses this morning, she said, they stuffed one of the bodies in a bag and removed it. They did not move the other, and hours after the troops left, Sister Marlene led a reporter 200 yards up the steep hillside. There, in a crevice, was the body of another man. It had been disfigured by dogs and the fierce tropical heat, but still wore a Nike sweat shirt and sneakers.
"It's a real miracle we're still alive," said Sister Marlene. "We were so scared. The children were so scared they didn't talk. Only now are they starting to make noise.
"We were afraid, too, but we couldn't show fear to the women and children because they would fall apart," she said of her fellow nuns. "We went from hope to despair, despair to hope, depending upon what we heard.
"The kids were amazing. It's like they have a sixth sense. They would cry when the Indonesian soldiers came, but then the [U.N.] soldiers arrived, and the children put out their hands to reach them."
Monday she asked the children to draw pictures showing something for which they were thankful. Almost every picture, all decorated in childish optimism with bright houses and yellow suns, featured a message.
"I'm thankful because I'm still alive," read one.
"I'm thankful I didn't die," read another.