Natalie reid '99 noticed an overwhelming sense of hope on the streets of East Timor when she traveled there for two weeks in late August and early September. She arrived nine days before the vote to break free of Indonesia, but left when gunfire threatened to plunge the country into chaos.
A Watson Institute research assistant, Reid was one of four people from Brown who witnessed the vote and its bloody aftermath. Reid applied to be an international observer after writing her senior thesis on the occupations of Western Sahara and of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony invaded by Indonesia in 1975. The other Brown observers - Michael Bhatia '99, Tonya Langford '99 A.M., and Jarat Chopra, the Watson Institute research associate who organized their trip - traveled in a separate group.
Minutes away from Reid's office in Dili, anti-independence militia members were beating voters and burning their houses. Before long, the popping of homemade guns gave way to the ominous sounds of sustained automatic gunfire. Reid knew that the only automatic weapons on the island belonged to Indonesian soldiers. War correspondents who Reid says had "seen everything" told her they had never felt so unsafe.
Soon Reid saw terrified and panicked observers fleeing the island. "The distinct impression you got," she recalls, "was of rats leaving a sinking ship. And you know if they're leaving, you're still on that sinking ship."
The situation deteriorated further after the four Brown observers returned to Providence. Despite the danger, Bhatia, who has been working at the Watson Institute since graduation, wishes he'd never left. He worries about the fate of his driver, wonders if a young boy he encountered is still alive, and he fears for the lives of the many others who remained on the island. "When we were leaving," Bhatia says, "everyone was leaving. I think we should have stayed just to maintain the presence, to hold the fort, keep the flag flying."