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Witness to the Birth of a Nation

Author and historian captures Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence in his latest book

Voters wait in line on the day of the UN refer- endum in Timor-Leste on August 30, 1999. Timo- rese overwhelmingly voted for independence. Voters wait in line on the day of the UN referendum in Timor-Leste on August 30, 1999. Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence.

Geoffrey Robinson has published widely on political conflict in Southeast Asia, but his most recent book, If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die, a passionate retelling of the violence in Timor-Leste that took him nearly 12 years to write, is a must-read for anyone interested in Timor-Leste’s history.

Unlike many scholars who write about Timor-Leste and Southeast Asia, Robinson was an eyewitness and near victim to the horrific violence that took place in 1999. Now a professor of history at UCLA, Robinson was working with the United Nations during September 1999 when Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence. Over the next 10 days after the vote, he witnessed and fell near victim to some of the worst violence Timor-Leste would experience in its long struggle for freedom. He coped with the bloodshed by spending his nights writing, sparing no details.

Geoff Robinson Geoff Robinson

“Nineteen Ninety-Nine was a bad year in East Timor,” the first line of Robinson’s book lucidly begins. “Between January and late October, at least 1500 civilians were killed among a total population of well under a million. Some of the victims were shot dead; others were decapitated, disemboweled or hacked to death with machetes.”

Leaving the imagery to speak for itself, Robinson in simple prose describes towns and villages burned to the ground and shops and homes looted in plain sight. The displacement of nearly half the population and the crumbling of Timor-Leste’s infrastructure left the country in embers.

If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die could have dwelled on the victimization of Timor-Leste, but it does not. Describing instances of Timorese fighters battling without weapons, the message of the book really is about the ultimate triumph of the Timorese against all odds and a powerful reminder that international organizations are still relevant in world affairs.

A former United Nations and Amnesty International consultant, Robinson provides a fullthroated defense of the role international organizations played in addressing the conflict. He dismisses arguments that criticize international organizations as powerless and passionately argues that these organizations establish essential norms for human rights and, as he writes, “affect the calculus by which states determine their national interest.”

Old man voting

Timor-Leste has long been at the center of Robinson’s work: but, this book, he says, wrote itself over a period of years and series of life experiences. He was a graduate student at Cornell University when the conflict erupted and became so moved by the events in Timor-Leste that he switched his studies to focus on social justice and political and economic change. At that time in academia, he remembers, there was a movement for academics “to be politically engaged and think about what we ought to do, what we could do.”

If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die is a clear indication that Robinson believes that still.

Geoffrey Robinson. If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die. Princeton University Press, 2010.

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