Thursday, May 04, 2006

(East Timor Problems) The evacuation of Dili

East Timorese children stay in the church for safety in Dili after last Friday's riots. Source: Reuters and the ABC website
Thousands of people have fled Dili over the past two days following much tension stemming from a myriad of rumours, including that a violent show down (between who and who was not clear!) may occur this afternoon. Our Timorese colleagues are saying that it's just like 1975 and 1999 all over again.
However this is based solely on rumour, speculation and (most importantly) deeply felt trauma over past events. There is no evidence from the government of Timor, the Australian Embassy or the United Nations Security Office in Dili that events will again turn violent. We are trying to keep our ears to the ground while also heeding the more reliable sources of information.
Food supplies are running low as people panic buy and fresh fruit and vegetable sellers who normally come in from the districts have stopped bringing in produce. Petrol prices have soared from 80 cents yesterday to $1.25 a litre today with long queues at petrol pumps.
Half my colleagues failed to turn up to work today while the majority of Daniel's colleagues have either remained at home or fled to the districts. When I arrived at work my colleagues were having a discussion about the little girl who has been staying at our shelter since January (see The rape of a child). Due to the situation in Dili, both my colleagues and the girl's father want her to return to Los Palos but none of our drivers are willing to take her because they're all loromonu!
As I thought, the violence last Friday was started by hooligans and not the '591' petitioners. These young men hijacked the demonstration and the leader of the '591' 'lost control'. Upwards of 20% of young men in Timor belong to martial arts groups (gangs) and surprisingly 5% of young women according to a youth survey report produced by the Timorese government. The Government says that the hooligans are linked to a radical political group that are connected to the integrationist militias of 1999 and that they want to destabilise the government in the lead up to the 2007 elections.
Half the petitioners never participated in the original peaceful week-long demonstration as they had already returned to their villages. Now the leader and approximately one hundred of his men are hiding in the hills of Dili, refusing to come down to participate in the government's promised commission to investigate their claims of systematic discrimination in the country's military. Five people are confirmed dead but again rumours abound as to the exact figure; generally an inflated figure is bandied around.
We have been watching the local news and doing our best to translate from Tetum to English. For the past two nights, the broadcast has been brief to allow for a parade of ema boot to plead with the Timorese to return to their homes. First it was the Prime Minister; then the President followed by the President of Fretilin before a spokesperson for the Catholic Church. Last night it was the Interior Minister. All essentially say the same thing: peace prevails, there is no problem, please come home. Few heed their calls.
Last night we walked along the beach from Rai Kotu to Tasi Tolu and stopped in on four of the five malae that live there. One couple are from Georgia (former USSR/Russia); he is the Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Timor and she works for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The other couple are a woman from Canada who has just finished a contract with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and her partner an Australian Volunteer like us. They were all fine although all but six of their Timorese neighbours had fled. I talked to a police officer who lives next door to the couple from Georgia and he seemed calm and, unlike reports to the contrary that police officers in Dili have sent their families to the districts, he had his small children entwined around his legs.
We walked over to Tasi Tolu on Tuesday morning to see for ourselves the damage wreaked on the village last Friday. We were shocked to see that every single shop had been burnt down along with any houses attached to them. There is not one shop standing in Tasi Tolu (nor houses connected to shops) and no where for both the communities of Tasi Tolu and Rai Kotu to buy essential goods. People now must travel further afield which for already impoverished people is an added burden they can ill afford.
Upon leaving the house for a walk we noticed a military tent erected on top of the hill that lies behind our house with at least one soldier wandering about. This morning they were still there.
Most of our neighbours have yet to return although the father of our ema boot family next door returned yesterday and went to work this morning. In times like these, one becomes better acquainted with one's neighbours. We regularly talk to a couple of families who tell us that during the day they stay at home, while at night, the women and children head to Dom Bosco seminary for the night where thousands continue to seek shelter. This is quite common, particularly for the women and children of families. Often the men stay to guard the houses throughout the night.
For a week now we have not heard a single child playing or the morning cries of the modo (vegetable) or paun (bread) sellers. It is eerily quiet in Rai Kotu.
On the one hand official news sources tell us that everything is "normal", on the other, we see thousands of people fleeing in large over packed trucks or whatever vehicles are available. Many are just walking out of town with whatever possessions they own on their backs.
Our nerves our frazzled. We are unable to sleep for thinking about what might or might not happen. I hope that there will be a speedy resolution to this "crisis" but I'm not holding my breath.
Two days ago I read the East Timor United Nations Development Assistance Framework, 2003-2005 document and on page 8 this one sentence caught my attention:
Political stability and government commitment: on the positive side, however, and unlike many other recent post-conflict situations, there is no internal conflict in East Timor.
Not any more I sadly said aloud to my empty office!
The Australian Embassy sent the following text message this afternoon:
Aust advice updated 4/5 - reconsider need to be in E. Timr due to high level of communal tension. Avoid unnecessary travel, locatns pvsly mentioned. Ex ext. caution.
Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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