The continual violence between East Timor and Indonesia erupted again last Wednesday as 3,000 militiamen and supporters stormed the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the border town of Atambua, West Timor.
The rioters beat and stabbed three UN peacekeepers to death with machetes before mutilating their bodies and burning them in the street. This time, one of the victims was a Cornellian.
Carlos Caceres J.D. ’91 had been on assignment in Indonesia for six months and died doing the work he truly loved. He studied journalism at the University of Florida before attending law school at Cornell and later studied at Oxford University.
An extraordinary scholar, Caceres had earned three doctorates and spoke five languages and had worked with the UNHCR since 1987. He was 33 years old.
“[Carlos] was the kind of person that always made you feel special, as if no one else mattered to him,” said Abel P. Montez J.D. ’91, who was a close friend of Caceres’ during law school. “I believe that is how he treated each and every refugee he assisted in his daily work as a protection officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.”
Sadako Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, called the tragedy “the worst security incident ever to face UNHCR” and described the attack as barbaric.
“The mob was on a man-hunt, looking for international staff to attack,” Ogata said in a press release.
Caceres and the UNHCR had been delivering aid to an estimated 90,000 refugees who were living in border camps after fleeing the violence in East Timor last year. Ogata explained that the UNHCR had been “trying to offer the refugees protection, assistance and an opportunity to decide whether or not they wished to return to East Timor.”
“Why my son?” Josefa Collazo asked last Thursday after learning that her only child had been killed. Collazo remembered asking her son why he didn’t come home to Florida to work as a lawyer.
“He said, ‘I like what I am doing, to see how other people are living, to see what they need, and to be able to help them.'”
“What I want is that Carlos should be buried with the full honors that befit a citizen of the United States who gave his life for humanity,” Gregorio Caceres, the victim’s father, told the Associated Press.
Renaldi Winoto ’02, president of the Cornell Indonesian Association, said he wished to “express my deepest condolences on behalf of the CIA.” Winoto said that he had been in Jakarta this summer and said he felt that the Indonesian people want to end the conflict with East Timor and “start rebuilding Indonesia.”
Just six hours before the brutal attack, Caceres e-mailed a friend at the security office of the UNHCR in Skopje, Macedonia, aware that the mob was on its way.
“His e-mail correspondence was filled with so many wonderful details about his work, his life and his thoughts,” Montez said. “That is why I was not surprised that he wrote the e-mail sent to the UN as the mob was making its way to his office.”
“We sit here like bait, unarmed,” Caceres wrote. “These guys act without thinking and can kill a human being as easily (and painlessly) as I kill mosquitos in my room … I was in the office when the news came out that a wave of violence would soon pound Atambua. We sent most of the staff home. I just heard someone on the radio saying that they are praying for us …”
Last Wednesday’s bloody rampage was apparently sparked by the murder of a militiaman who was opposed to East Timor’s independence. Witnesses to the murder said some in the crowd accused the UN of ignoring their suffering.
Ogata said that the UNHCR had encountered many disturbances in the past month and that the overall security situation had deteriorated to the point that operations had been suspended for a short while two weeks ago.
“Carlos was one fascinating and wonderful individual,” Montez said. “He was the type of friend that was truly devoted to each of his friends.”
“He felt very responsible for the refugees he encountered,” Montez said. “He would often say, ‘If I am not here, who is going to care about them? If I was not here, who would be?'”
Caceres’ sister, Elba, said her brother “would evacuate thousands of refugees from the militia, and the refugees would look at him as God because he was helping them. He gave up his life to help these people.”
“I don’t know what made him decide that he so wanted to help others that he traveled thousands and thousands of miles to help strangers,” she said.
Ogata said she had “expressed her concerns to Indonesian President Wahid … and was told that he shared in her mourning and that he was sending two battalions into West Timor to control the situation.”
“I hope very much that this tragedy will open the eyes of the assembled world leaders to the need to prevent and stop conflicts,” Ogata said.
— The Associated Press contributed to this story
Archived article by Katherine Davis