Elevate Difference

"If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die": How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor

In 1999, twenty-four years after the original invasion and occupation by Indonesia into the former Portuguese colony, 1,500 East Timorese were killed after a referendum in which the majority voted in favor of independence. Under the Indonesian occupation, hundreds of thousands of East Timorese had already been murdered, debatably, as an act of genocide. That independence was desirable was obvious, yet Indonesian paramilitary groups worked with oppressive diligence to incite fear into hopeful hearts after the country’s landmark referendum. During the outbreak of violence that followed the vote, a significant portion of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed and 400,000 people abandoned their homes.

Geoffrey Robinson—a history professor, scholar of the islands, former Amnesty International principle researcher, and former UN officer based in East Timor during the 1999 conflict—is arguably one of the most informed, compassionate outsiders to tell the story of the violence in the small island nation. In “If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die”, Robinson frames the struggles of East Timor as emblematic of struggles against colonization worldwide. He also explores how Cold War politics impacted nations like East Timor, the intersections of militarism and extreme nationalism, and the overlap in debates over humanitarian aid and intervention.

Unlike some scholars, Robinson posits the theory that the violence in East Timor was neither spontaneous nor a final result of the long-standing ethnic tensions between the Portuguese, Indonesians, and East Timorese. Instead, he makes the case for larger international political and cultural relations that supported Indonesia’s militaristic actions and ideology, tracing several decades of history that led up to the violence of 1999.

In his writing, Robinson mixes historical fact with his own truth, careful to separate but respect both. He explains a complicated past in linear form and displays empathy for people with whom he shared such a life-altering experience. Even if you don’t have much baseline knowledge about the conflicts between these Southeast Asian islands, this book will illuminate the complicated history is accessible terms. Robinson offers crucial perspective on modern colonialism and explores issues of accountability and justice with aplomb.

Written by: Brittany Shoot, April 17th 2010