Friday, April 28, 2006

(East Timor Problems) Under siege in Dili

After lunch I made my way to the mikrolete (minibus) stop in Kolmera (Dili) near Daniel’s place of work. All the number 10 mikrolete were packed to the rafters so I waited under the shade of a gum tree. After about 30 minutes, the Chinese Timorese owned electronics shop across the road hurriedly closed its doors and people started running down the street. I wondered what was going on and thought perhaps it was due to one of the many rumours that pass as news in Timor.

I continued to wait under a tree but no mikrolete came. Not long after, lots of cars, motorbikes and people started running up the street towards the hills. Then the police appeared in their 4WDs many with mean looking guns. They motioned to people to get off the streets and people began running. I thought it was time to make my way to Daniel’s workplace and proceeded to walk quickly, while my heart beat a little faster than usual.

As I approached Daniel’s street I noticed a group of men at the end of it and wondered if they were part of the Kolmera martial arts group (gang) which were recently involved in the death of a young man. The heavy gates to Daniel’s work place were closed but as I peered through the bars I saw Daniel and some of his colleagues under the marquee, set up for a celebration planned for tonight. I motioned to him to let me in.

I was relieved as I entered the gates as I had been growing quite frightened. Upon entering I noticed two little children, relatives of two of Daniel’s Timorese colleagues and I made an effort to smile so as not to worry them.

One of Daniel’s malae (white foreigner) colleagues, whose last day it was today at their NGO, was wondering if we should all try and head home rather than stay put in Kolmera. The area is renowned as a problem neighbourhood because of the martial arts groups (gangs) and the mixed community. There are Chinese Timorese along with people from the west and east of the country, which makes for a volatile mix when tensions arise.

People were trying to use their mobile telephones and the single landline but the system was jammed. After a couple of attempts, I managed to get through to the AVI Country Manager who arrived in Timor last week and who will now be based in Timor instead of Australia. She is staying at a hotel near the government building. She advised to stay put.

The Internet connection was also down and with no radio at hand, it felt very unsettling not to have a link to the outside world. Radio Australia has disappeared from the airwaves of Dili yet again (when they will return is anybody’s guess), so we would be reliant on local radio in Tetum, Portuguese or Bahasa Indonesia.

During the course of the afternoon, I received the following text message (five times) from the Australian Embassy in Dili (while Daniel has yet to receive it!):

Reminder from Embassy. Exercise caution. We recommend all Aust stay well clear of any gatherings and demonstrations, as they have the potential to escalate.

This message comes on top of the one I received (three times) on Monday which read:

Emb suggests Australians stay away from protest. Protest expected to start today 24th, Tasi Tolu, GPA, Lu Olo’s Office & Palace of Ashes till 28th Enq (phone number)

One of Daniel’s malae colleagues arrived in a badly damaged car driven by another malae woman. Most of the car’s windows had been smashed with rocks which sat on the dashboard as testament. The car had been parked outside the government building while the two women ate lunch together in a nearby malae restaurant. As they left the restaurant, they noticed about a hundred young men wielding long sticks and rocks which they were using to damage parked cars. Then the tear gas appeared and suffering the consequences of it, the two women made a hasty retreat back to the restaurant to wash their eyes before going back outside to collect their car.

What appears to have happened is that disturbances have occurred next to the government building in the heart of the city, about a kilometre from here. Young men have destroyed property and set buildings and cars on fire. It is unclear whether these men are part of the ‘591’ sacked military, members of martial arts groups (gangs) or random individuals. Given the situation has been mostly calm all week with the ‘591’ conducting themselves peacefully, I would guess that it is the gangs taking advantage of the situation but I cannot be sure. (The unemployment rate for young people in Dili is 40% and some young male members channel their frustrations vis-à-vis martial arts groups.)

At around 3pm Daniel and some of his colleagues ventured beyond the gates to see if people had returned to the streets of Kolmera. They had so some of Daniel’s colleagues tentatively left the premises and headed for home.

The situation remains tense. We have heard reports of people throwing rocks at bis (bus) headed for the east to Baukau and Lospalos. Many Dili residents are also fleeing to the surrounding hills. One of Daniel’s Timorese colleagues is convinced things are only going to get worse. He even asked us that if we are evacuated to Australia, would we take him with us!

What a fragile democracy is Timor.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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