Wednesday, May 24, 2006

(East Timor Problems) The sound of gun and mortar fire

As I sit here, typing this post, I can hear the sound of gun and mortar fire. It’s been going on for four hours already. Senyor Raphael told us that it is coming from the military compound next to Tasi Tolu Peace Park, less than two kilometres from our home, and where most Sundays, we take a leisurely pasiar (stroll). It is the first time in my life that I have heard exchanges of actual gunfire, up until now, such sounds have been confined to news reports from far away places.

While I called the AVI Country Manager to tell her what I was hearing, Daniel started packing a bag while asking me if we should take such and such valuables. I grew more agitated by his questions and comments (feeling they were quite demanding). The AVI Country Manager soon advised us to stay put.

At 10pm last night, we received the following text message from the Australian Embassy in Dili. The wording was the strongest yet:

Austemb advises security situation extremely dangerous and australians in east timor should consider leaving.

This message alarmed me and I immediately called the AVI Country Manager. She said that in light of the Australian SBS journalist David O’Shea’s emergency evacuation earlier that morning (see below), and the fact that he was the first Australian to be caught up in the violence, they were compelled to send such a message.

At 10am this morning we received the following from the Embassy:

Austemb advises: do not travel past Comoro (airport) roundabout in the direction of Tasi Tolu due to major ongoing gunfire.

Hah! I thought, how about those of us who actually live out here!? (beyond the Comoro roundabout).

This text message was immediately followed by one from the AVI Country Manager:

Advise you do not travel in dili, stay where you are. Fighting in & near Tasi Tolu continues, a few random acts of violence in Dili eg Stoning of cars and sml grps of youths sighted with bows & arrows, machetes. Extreme caution.

We are listening to Radio Australia to monitor the news but they are yet to mention these recent developments. Instead, the focus is on yesterday’s violent confrontation between the twenty or so rebel Military Police who went AWOL with their weapons not long after the riots of 28 April and currently serving F-FDTL soldiers in the mountains that surround the capital.

Apparently, following an interview with David O’Shea, Major Alfredo (the leader of the rebels) ordered his men to open fire on unarmed F-FDTL soldiers. Thankfully, there were armed soldiers in the vicinity but according to reports one soldier and one other person were killed, with a number of others wounded. It appears that none of the rebels were captured and perhaps it is they who are now exchanging fire with their former colleagues in my neighbourhood.

Timor’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta was interviewed on Radio Australia’s Connect Asia program this morning. He said that he, the President and the Prime Minister would meet today to discuss whether Timor needed Australia’s offer of assistance. However, he said that if they did, it would be in the form of police not military assistance.

Meanwhile, both Australia’s Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs are talking up the security situation in Timor while stating that the warships on standby off the coast of northern Australia will only be deployed if the Timorese government asks. Moreover, the ships will be used as part of an assisted evacuation of the 620 Australians registered with the Embassy in Dili (although there are approximately 800 Australians in Timor).

The AVI Country Manager called me back to advise that the F-FDTL (army) are conducting an operation from the roundabout at the airport through Rai Kotu and Tasi Tolu to Dili’s border with Liquica. She reiterated that we are to stay put. She also gave us the United Nations Security Operations telephone number. We are to call them if we feel our personal security is under threat and they will send out an armoured car to collect us.

Unlike the events of 28 April, where we were not able to get home, we are now confined to our house. At least we have our escape route sorted (the hole in the perimeter fence to the airport) or a UN escorted vehicle!

In the meantime, we sit tight, monitor the radio and if our minds will allow, perhaps try and read a little. Daniel is starting to worry about leaving all our read and unread books behind.

Late this morning I received yet another call from the AVI Country Manager. This time it was to say that as soon as the shooting stops and the F-FDTL opens up the road, we are to move to a hotel close to the centre of Dili. That may happen later today or tomorrow morning. Moreover, that AVI are considering evacuating all 50 odd volunteers currently in Timor for a period of two weeks.

The 11am news on Radio Australia finally mentioned the outbreak of violence this morning. However, they gave little information and we are certainly more informed than they are. The World Today program followed and Timor headed the bulletin. The Country Manager for the NGO Concern Worldwide was interviewed and what she had to say alarmed me further. She said that apparently groups of armed men are gathering to the west of Dili and that police officers from Lautem (Los Palos) district in the east are heading to Dili in order to protect their “own” people. She suggested that the whole east/west issue is coming to the fore.

At lunchtime, AVI sent the following text message:

Important message from avi. Please be ready for possible avi organised withdrawal to Bali for two weeks and then review. Stand by for decision and further details. Exercise high level of caution.

The AVI Country Manager called us to say that we were being moved to a hotel in the centre of Dili in preparation for the evacuation. We had less than an hour to pack all our things, quite a stressful activity as we are not entirely sure if we will be returning or not. More importantly, we were upset to leave “our” family as we felt we were abandoning them and by us leaving, we would be sending a message that the situation was serious enough for us to leave Timor. Also, we are leaving the asu (dog) behind who has been moved out of our immediate neighbourhood by a more dominant male dog. “Our” family showed us where she had moved to and I took her some food and water.

However, I cannot rely on “our” family taking over the baton as they may leave Dili for Bobonaro and if not, have other pressing concerns to worry about. I fear that if and when we return, our little asu will be dead.

As Timor is now rated a category 5 security risk, we are being evacuated to Australia tomorrow on a 5pm chartered flight to Townsville in Far North Queensland. The flight from Australia is full of troops who will disembark in Dili while we embark. We are told that it will be for a week and that we will be returned to Timor ASAP.

We are now staying at the Turismo Hotel, made famous by John Martinkus’ reports from the roof of this very hotel during the chaos of 1999, and which he wrote about in Dirty Little War. Yet again, it is swarming with Aussie journalists, many of whom will undoubtedly file sensationalised reports.

Tonight we tried to get un update on the situation in Timor and tuned in to both Radio Australia and ABC Asia Pacific Television (the only advantage to staying in a hotel). To my absolute disgust, both were playing the State of Origin rugby game live from Australia! I tuned in at 7pm and they couldn’t even take a five minute news break! How bloody typically Australian I thought: a game of sport is more important than news and the situation in Timor.

We found the local news on RTTL but we tuned in too late to see the leading news item which we assume was about the outbreak of violence this morning. Following the news, Foreign Affairs Minister Jose Ramos-Horta gave a speech about the outcome of the government’s discussion today on whether to invite Australian forces into Timor. The answer is yes, Australia along with New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal will send troops to Timor. Approximately 600 Australian troops will arrive tomorrow. Thank goddess!

I have an unanswered question: where has the President been throughout this whole sad sorry saga? He has been conspicuously absent ever since the Fretilin Party Congress. Is he in ill health? Does anybody out there know? There has been talk of Jose Ramos-Horta nominating for the presidency if Xanana Gusmao doesn’t, however to me it seems he has already assumed the president’s duties!

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

Português/Portuguese Français/French Deutsch/German Italiano/Italian Español/Spanish 日本語/Japanese 한국어/Korean 中文(简体)/Chinese Simplified


Sam and Daniel, I have been following the blog carefully - worried though. There seemed to be a large gap until today. Is that because you are now in the hotel - or on your way back to Austalia, I wonder. I haven't got your email address at work - although I thought I knew it off by heart, it has bounced back at me. Please keep blogging, Samantha - thoughts with you both.

By Blogger Jane, at 3:03 pm  

The President is very sick. He's doing the best he can. As is everyone.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:52 am  

How utterly frustrating. I hope that you have managed to get out safely. Sadly, coverage of Timor Lest is very poor in the US news and I admit I was totally unaware of what was going on. Thanks for updating us. I hope you'll continue to blog even if you are evacuated.

By Blogger Elizabeth, at 5:29 pm  

Is your government making you leave or are you leaving because you're afraid for your life?

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:24 am  

I was mandatorily evacuated by my volunteer sending agency who are funded by the Australian government. I was not afraid for my life.

By Blogger Samantha, at 10:40 am  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link