A Moment of Destiny

In June I stood with a small group of foreigners to witness the opening of the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor, UNAMET. Thousands of Timorese filled the street and surged up the driveway, sitting on the walls and perching in the trees. As the United Nations flag rose up the flagpole in the courtyard, the crowd cheered, clapped, and sang, shaking all the trees. The roar seemed to go on forever.

I was deeply moved thinking how long the Timorese had waited for this moment, and sobered as I realized the tremendous expectations they had in the United Nations. Their outcry was an expression of 24 years of suffering, combined with an undying hope that the international community would respond to their struggle. Yet just before the flag-raising, a U.N. official turned to me and said quietly, "Frankly, if we can pull this off, it will be a miracle."

It just may take a miracle given all the obstacles the United Nations faces in order to fulfill its mandate: to organize and supervise a free and fair election in less than two months’ time. Almost since the day in 1975 when Indonesia invaded the tiny half-island and "annexed" it as it was being let go by its colonial power, Portugal, the United Nations has tried to resolve East Timor’s status. Under Indonesian President Suharto the effort went virtually nowhere. But Suharto’s fall last year from three decades in power, coupled with the country’s severe economic crisis, led to a U.N.-brokered agreement between Indonesia and Portugal. In August, the Timorese will vote to accept or reject an offer of autonomy from Indonesia. Rejection of the proposal would effectively be a vote for independence.

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