Dili Unrest #8

It has been much quieter today and something closer to normality (for a Sunday) seemed to return after lunch. Micro-buses and taxis returned to the roads in limited numbers.

Again, there is no problem moving around. The police/military roadblocks to the west of town were removed this afternoon.

The semi-official position for most of the day was that it was OK to move around but to avoid the Comorro market and Tasi Tolu areas on the western side of town. I have heard nothing with respect to problems on the eastern side since that area had trouble on Friday night.

I could add little today until we took another drive in the afternoon. We drove to have a look at the Don Bosco Technical School which is south of the airport and roughly in between the Comorro and Tasi Tolu areas. The school is a boarding school run by the Salesian Brothers and is a rambling campus of buildings. It is hard to estimate the number of people seeking refuge there, but I will have a go and say definitely more than 2,000. Someone else thought more than 5,000 and even up to 10,000. It is hard to tell and made even harder as some people go out for the day but return to stay at night.

One of the brothers thought the numbers were roughly similar to the previous night but the general demeanour was much happier than the night before when gunfire could probably be heard. Most came with no food or water but the World Food Program, the government and some of the embassies have taken immediate steps to assist in this regard.

Some of the churches around town have also a number of locals taking refuge and a figure of over 1,000 was quoted by the foreign media for the main cathedral.

Further out, we saw around 20 destroyed houses at Tasi Tolu and evidence of a number of burnt-out tyre barriers on the road. The heavy smoke reported was most likely from the burning tyres. The official reports have said 100 houses were destroyed. Given we did not leave the main road, I will go along with that.

There is no doubt there are 4 main factors which contributed to the current situation :

(1) public protests by sacked soldiers who had been seeking better conditions in a primarily labour dispute
(2) the high number of unemployed and disenchanted youth who saw an opportunity to have a bit of a rumble
(3) another group opposed to the government who saw the opportunity to piggyback on the protests
(4) the opportunity by others to get stuck into the east-west ethnic issue and settle some scores

Its a bit of a mixed bag with different groups laying blame in slightly different directions.

One of the things that has made the reporting so variable is the extent of rumours.

At the moment, it is said that the protesters have headed for the hills and that the military were given orders to chase them. Others say this is not the case. But I am prepared to go with the view that most of the violence was not caused by the sacked soldiers but by disaffected youth and others with an east-west ethnic chip on the shoulder.

As for casualties, I only know of the 2 dead and 21 injured from 2 nights ago. Some say more than 10 by now but others say this is not true. It is hard to know really.

The mainstream press have been a bit slow getting onto this but Eric Campbell from Australia’s ABC seems to have got pretty close to the mark in a short space of time. I expect that he will get access to more accurate info than me, but so he should – he gets paid to do it. I am but an inquisitive observer.

Dili Unrest #6

I have heard from an acquaintance scheduled to fly out that the airport is now open again and the AirNorth flight from Darwin will arrive shortly (ie should have arrived and left by now). Another said the City Cafe is now open.

For the locals, much of the feedback has come back through local TV and radio. However, I am told that it is customary for the local media to be in holding pattern over the weekend, with very little new news coming on-stream until Monday, which as it is the Timorese Labour Day holiday on Monday, may mean Tuesday.

I understand that until today, the military and police were sympathetic to reaching a satisfactory solution with the protestors as the “sacked military” guys were once part of them. I also understand that this kid gloves approach is to cease today which may explain the retreat of trouble to the outskirts of Dili.

There is little doubt that “unemployed youth” took advantage of the whole situation and may well have contributed to the destruction of property. I have already heard enough from various quarters to suggest that there is also score settling with respect to the east/west divide thing.

It feels like things are loosening up around town. One can move freely but the continuing absence of mini-buses and open shops seems to indicate a continuing nervousness. I have also heard that there are a considerable number of people seeking refuge at the Don Bosco Centre (Salesian Brothers) in Comorro near the airport. The usual water supply and sanitation issues are a problem.

Although the Lita supermarket is closed, the CoolStore supermarket is open. Food supplies may be an issue for those who were not prepared for this sort of thing so this open supermarket is a good thing. I believe the Landmark supermarket is also open.

Sunset awaits.

Dili Unrest #5

It was a pretty quiet night here, but an acquaintance who was meant to be flying out this morning found that all flights are cancelled and the airport is closed. But more importantly, machine gun fire was heard in the vicinity.

We did a drive around central Dili this morning and the streets are very quiet, all the barricades have been removed and there are no restrictions to movement. No shops were open, but the Cafe Brasilia did have its doors open.

Cafe Brasilia is about 200 metres from the Palacio do Governu where three burnt-out vehicles sit outside the front of the Palacio plus another 6 vehicles with all windows smashed. The windows on the eastern and western ends of the Palacio were broken, but there appeared no damage to ones on the front of the building. The eastern and western ends are in close proximity to side streets, while the front is more easily defended. The broken windows were clearly made of shatter-proof glass as they are all heavily cracked but have remained intact. Other buildings out the back have had windows broken.

As for other parts of town, the Taibesse market area was very quiet and 99% of all shops were closed wherever we looked. There were about 30 vehicles parked outside the front of the US Embassy, full of families and a selection of personal possessions. Most of them appear to be the extended families of Timorese who work at the embassy.

Other reports suggest that there was frequent gunfire in the Comorro area overnight but the real hotspot appears to be the Tasi Tolu (three lakes) area a few kms further west of Comorro.

It is expected that the casualty count will increase when information trickles back from the Tasi Tolu area. Word from locals suggests that they expect an intensification of trouble today but who knows.

Dili Unrest #4

The usual press outlets have already reported 2 dead and 21 injured. We received a phone call from a Timorese in the current hot area Comorro. People are scared and people have seen smoke rising from the general area.

Lets just say we have bunkered down for the moment.

Nevertheless, I did get through to one of my acquaintances briefly before the line dropped out and she was collecting take-aways to take back to an office farewell party.

There has been absolutely no trouble where I live and I guess there are many who haven’t heard much and just carry one.

An important thing to note is that mobile phones are absolutely useless in these circumstances when everyone is trying to use them to found things out. The network just can not cope.

And earlier reports of weapons taken from a nearby military camp have proven to be incorrect. (Of course, there may be weapons obtained from somewhere else.)

Another acquaintance had his motorbike knocked over while he was having lunch but the bikes either side of his were torched. And he also came out when the police were using tear gas.

It is deathly quiet out there

Dili Unrest #3

As I said last time, better not to move. Its OK where I am.

A friend dropped around to say that things in the area surrounding his workplace have heated up and he received reports which suggested that weapons have gone missing from a nearby military camp to the east of Dili. He also reported gunfire between the military and the police in the Comorro area, a suburb in the west of Dili. (Note : the OZ Embassy is in this area.)

From a separate source, we have been told that things in the Comorro area have heated up and that locals are extremely worried. The reports suggest that many have already sought refuge at the US Embassy which is located in the same general area.

There is no doubt that tensions are high and people are expecting trouble tonight and tomorrow.

To put this all in perspective, the trouble areas are a moving target and if you are not in one of them, you probably do not know what is going on. However, the local communications are such that news travels fast and perhaps not accurately. The mobile phone network has become completely clogged up and it is difficult to contact people to find out if (a) they are OK and (b) if anything is happening in their general area.

The bicycle shall remain parked where it is for the forseeable future.

Dili Unrest #2

Latest news from an acquaintance who works in the main government buildings (Palacio de Governu) is that windows have been smashed and cars set on fire in the carpark. I don’t know the number of cars involved but my contact thinks around 3 or 4. This news came from a colleague who told my contact to avoid going back to work after lunch.

Having smashed windows and torched cars, there was no suggestion of entering the building or stealing anything.

However, other reports suggest that one of the supermarkets used frequently by foreigners (the Lita supermarket) has closed following trouble and there is a suggestion of looting or at least fear of looting.

At the moment, I am not moving but I may go for a little reccy in an hour or so. At 4pm, there is meant to be some form of deadline, so I shall wait until then.

The mobile phone network remains fully clogged up most of the time. The streets are quiet.

Dili Unrest #1

Firstly, I have no first-hand knowledge of events described in the international press as riots in Dili. I just get a few tit-bits from Timorese, other foreigners and from what I have seen myself.

As for what I have seen, I do know that the locals are a bit nervous. They remember a time not so long ago when a group of demonstrators roaming the streets meant death and destruction. So even if the groups doing this now are mostly well-meaning demonstrators with a labour dispute, you can understand the nervousness. No-one wants their house trashed or to visit a relative in hospital.

I have cycled past the government buildings where most of the more formal demonstration action is taking place and the entire area has been barricaded off. The orange cones do not stop the loopy foreigner on his bicycle so I have gone a bit further than any car driver. In the zone, there are a lot of young men in civilian clothes (but a lot wearing army shirts) who one must assume are sacked soldiers.

They pretty much ignored me but did not ignore any other Timorese entering the zone. When I got to the picket line, I chose to withdraw. But in this central area of town, there are a number of military and police types with automatic weapons strapped to their sides so not much has gone wrong here, although I did see signs of window breakage and a trashed street vendor’s wagon.

Most of the violent stuff has been occurring further out in the suburbs mostly to the south and south-east. The Taibesse market area seems to be the current melting point and there have been reports of a shooting and stabbings.

There was a key meeting last night between the President, Prime Minister and some demonstration leaders. Reports indicate that no ground was gained and things are said to be very tense today. There are no mini-buses (microlets) running and it is generally pretty quiet.

The following BBC report tells a bit more about things I don’t directly know :
E Timor troops riot over sacking

One point which it seems to miss is that the violent part of the unrest appears to have little to do with the military labour dispute itself. My understanding is that the main issue is the tensions between Timor-Leste westerners and easterners (monu versus lorosae). The violent bits at this stage, appear to be westerners picking on easterners who now reside in Dili (Dili being on the west of the divide).

If you draw a north-south line through Manatuto (President Xanana Gusmao’s birthplace), you have the border separating these two groups, but I must point out that it is only a minority who go along with this east-west divide.

More trouble is expected this afternoon. And Monday is the Labour Day holiday – a fine day to make a point for a labour dispute.

I can feel another cycle coming on …

The Mosquito Terrorist

Now who would have thought ?

Most people I know here have equipped themselves with the near ubiquitous mosquito bat and I have several mates in other places envious of these essential anti-malarial and anti-dengue devices. (Refer a previous post Tennis anyone ?)

One of my long (but never lost) mates from Central Victoria expressed a desire to acquire one of these murderous weapons. I recall many moons ago working in that very place with both hands fully occupied with task at hand and 10,000,000 flies determined to tip me over the edge of sanity.

So on my recent visit to Darwin, I thought it a good opportunity to carry such a device for subsequent mailing through the OZ postal system.

“Excuse me sir. I am making you aware that you have stated that you are not carrying any weapons or other items in contravention of the customs act”. (Or words to that effect.)

“Wot?” I replied in my best strine.

“Can you move over here and open your suitcase?”

“Yes … don’t tell me it is the mosquito bat ?”

As he grabs it, “Yep … come this way sir”.

Twenty minutes later with feverish sweat on brow, the customs boys hand me my “Seizure Notice” as follows :

1 hand-held electronic device designed to administer electric shock on contact

I left a beaten man.

The Trip to Darwin

I had better get accustomed to return trips to Darwin as I have another 2 dental maintenance trips to do over the next 3 months.

The usual way to Darwin is via AirNorth flights in a 30-seater Embrauer Brasilia turboprop aircraft which takes around 1.5 hours.

On the way to the airport, I mentioned to the other half “I wonder how many people we will know at the airport ?”. Answer : about half a dozen. Yep, Dili is a small place.

The flight also included a small group of Timorese WW2 veterans heading off to Melbourne for Anzac Day. I had read all about them already. Check out the following link at the Melbourne Age – The Age 25 April 2006

Anyway, having copped the raw prawn * courtesy of my rear molar, it only seemed fitting that I arrive in Darwin a day before a cyclone warning. It was looking like the biggest cyclone to hit the north coast on record and bigger than Cyclone Tracy which obliterated Darwin in 1975.

Fortunately, it drifted south and missed Darwin and I only spent one extra day in Darwin while the city went into lockdown. I was told not to bother going to the airport to get my scheduled flight out as all other airlines had cancelled flights and someone even told me the army had taken over the airport for emergency measures.

I couldn’t contact AirNorth or the airport which was closed, so I didn’t bother going to the airport for my original return flight.

Now tell me why all the other airlines cancelled flights and little old AirNorth actually flew out at my scheduled time ?

* cop the raw prawn – receive something disagreeable, often hot and steaming