Once again this fall, as in Kosovo last spring, the world was confronted with genocidal massacres in a far-off land. Something terrible happened on the little island of Timor as the world delayed in deciding whether it would do anything about it. That indecision was a clear moral test for the international community, and especially for the NATO allies who had earlier intervened in Kosovo.
After almost 80 percent of the people of East Timor voted in a U.N. referendum to become independent of Indonesia, criminal militias supported by the Indonesian military and police went on a bloody rampage. Hundreds of people were murdered, as many as 200,000 fled their homes, tens of thousands left the country, and an orgy of burning and looting created a scene of "utter destruction," according to eyewitnesses. The capital city of Dili was left in "smoldering ruins," said many observers, after an organized assault that devastated the city’s commercial and residential areas, especially targeting independence leaders. "It’s scorched earth, it’s ethnic cleansing," a U.N. spokesperson told The Washington Post. Others compared the rape of Dili to the 1975 takeover of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, by the brutal Khmer Rouge guerrillas.