To the press

In the last 10 days, I have received numerous requests to speak to press outside of Timor-Leste. I am happy to speak to press here as (after a couple of days) they begin to understand. I have spoken to a couple of press guys but not in the context of an interview.

I am not saying I understand. In fact, I don’t know any expat who really understands just why things here have gone the way they have. Its insane. It is outside the logic that we normally assume in the developed western world.

I replied to the first press request with a long-winded explanation and I appreciated the response I received (thanks JN). I declined. I don’t want to have to repeat that same explanation.

I am not doing this blog for any money and I have no agendas apart from trying as hard as I can to say things as they are. I have been annoyed at times with some quite inaccurate reporting coming from the commercial press. Rather than single out anybody, I have tried to sneak in some of the reality. I am sure I have said it before but I only know what I know.

Some of the commercial press reporting is good. But some of the headlines to stories give the wrong impression. I know that even reporters stories here are cosmetically editted out of the country to obtain maximum effect.

So no, I do not want to be quoted out of context or mis-quoted. I don’t need to be the human face behind the story. I’ll just keep doing what I am doing and if it is not enough, find somewhere else.

I know its the gin talking but I must stick to my guns or what I am doing is compromised just too much.

One day, this will not be a front page story or even a page five story and I will be back to talking about just why the Beach Cafe restaurant closed. At the moment they have a really good excuse.

Slowly slowly

Lets face it, there is not much to do here any more if you are not a military or medical type. You would have thought that the OZ soldiers would have everything under control by now wouldn’t you ?

I had hoped it would be the case, but the situation on the ground is pathetic. There are no police any more – zip, nada. The streets are empty and as far as I can tell, not one single shop open. I know it is Sunday but there is nothing.

I had been told that the only supermarket open was the Cool Storage, so I grabbed the vehicle and headed there. There was no-one on the streets and apart from the large contingent of OZ soldiers around the dock area, I saw no more. The Cool Storage appeared closed but a local ran across the road and indicated that it was open. I knocked on the metal external gate and eventually someone peeked through the hole (presumably to check for face colour) and let me in. I felt like I was sneaking in through the back door of a knock shop.

I assumed the area would be OK as the ANZ bank is just across the road. I intended to buy drinking water but it was all gone. They still had most of the usual items but some shelves were thinning, particularly breakfast cereal (not on my list). The till was not operating and there was a degree of nervousness from the owner/manager.

I did my stuff and high-tailed it home. No problems but it sent a few shivers up my spine. When I got home, I got a swift reality check. Being almost out of bogroll, it was high on the list. It appears I came back with a 6-pack of paper towels.

It now seems clear it is time to seek higher ground in Australia and I will be taking steps to get there once I sort out a few things here. I have been told that the prisons have lost their guards and most likely lead to the release of prisoners. I am not sure what that means but it doesn’t sound any better. Some of the hardier people I know took the Hercules to OZ today. Not too many people to call any more.

I can’t see things improving greatly for a number of days except if you are journalist. For them, this is what they get up in the morning for.

Another bad day

Sorry guys. Been a bit buzy protecting butt for a day and a bit. Was forced (by generally deteriorating situation rather than direct machete threat) to vacate Chez Squatter and seek a safer location.

Left computer running and packed small bag (plus can of baked beans) but returned later when military presence became more visible (minus can of baked beans).

Yesterday morning, I heard a few shots in the distance but otherwise the night was quiet (or I slept through it). However, by 9am dark clouds of smoke appeared in the mid-distance. It think it was somewhere near Vila Verde. The locals in my vicinity were extremely unsettled and some who had held out at home, decided it was also time to go. I received word that it might now be a good idea to move somewhere safer.

Then things started to get rough. It seemed that gangs of machete wielding youths were causing trouble in many places through town. I think the fear in the Timorese was the worst I had seen so far. It appeared to be complete and total lawlessness. By late morning, there were a number of smoke chimneys from houses that had been torched in the Vila Verde/Bairo Pite area.

On the streets, there was no sign of OZ troop vehicles and it was clear that although the C130 transports had shipped in many troops, they were a bit short on vehicles which were on the supply ships.

At lunchtime, the first sign of OZ army vehicles appeared and like magic, there was a huge reduction in fear levels. Many people went home. But until every 2nd street corner has a military vehicle on it, it is unlikely that full confidence will be restored.

Despite the mass evacuation of foreigners, there are still reasonable numbers of foreigners left. One acquaintance dropped around yesterday morning in his vehicle wondering what all the fuss was about. For lunch, another went down and bought pizzas – shorts, sandals, quick trip down to the Castaway Bar. No problem.

You just have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many people are emailing or texting all sorts of people to inform them whether they are staying or going. I already have numerous “I am in Darwin (or Bali)” emails. And also the email to meet up at a bar for a few beers tonight last night with those I know who have stayed and carried on as usual. I declined as the other half just couldn’t see the point.

I had a coffee at the Hotel Timor cafe yesterday afternoon with a few acquaintances prior to sticking my nose in on Prime Minister Alkatiri’s press conference. I thought I might be about to witness something significant, but no. It appears the government is in full control.

As I walk out past numerous gun-toting foreign troops, I don’t think so.

PS Running out of toilet paper so will be trying a supermarket trip today.

The cavalry arrives

Although the first of the Hercules planes touched down late yesterday afternoon followed soon after by an Australian frigate, last night remained a difficult night.

It is purely a logistical thing. Until the vehicles hit the ground and all the accommodation stuff, it is difficult for the boys to go far in safety, but I guess the first points to protect were the airport and OZ embassy.

This morning, planes were cutting the air for the the first hour or two after dawn. I didn’t hear much until the first reports came in after lunch about the death of a mother and 5 children in a rather gruesome fashion. Those reports had hit the web sites within 2 hours of the bodies being confirmed by 2 Kiwi defence guys. I knew the press were now going to be onto anything that smelt of a story.

I have heard anecdotal evidence that there is probably a fair bit more of this sort of stuff. The Taibesse/Becora area has been the scene of gunfights almost continually for a couple of days. And I heard yesterday that Tibar may have a few problems but with no-one there to report it.

I didn’t know when would be a good time to get out and about again, but I was assured tonight that OZ troops were indeed patroling in central Dili. I playfully thought that they would also protect the supermarkets and a few key bars around town. So yes, I will be getting out tomorrow during daylight, but central Dili only and well clear of the UN Obrigado Barracks.

Basically, the closer you are to the sea, the safer you are likely to be.

Later in the afternoon, UN choppers streaked low over town several times. They sure make a racket when flying low. I was told they were shipping police who had sought refuge there. There was said to be a group of FDTL (army) outside wanting to cause trouble so the UN decided to move the trouble.

Later, the first sign of OZ choppers appeared in the skies. Meanwhile, all day the OZ naval presence was wandering up and down the coast. This evening, there is the rather unusual sound in Dili of aircraft after dark. It appears to be planes coming in and leaving at regular intervals. I suppose this is how one delivers 1300 troops in a hurry.

So I expect tomorrow to be a key positive day from a security point of view. From a political point of view, what a schemozzle.

News coverage

I thought I should make a comment on the sources of reports. Initially, when the problems started, the hotels experienced a departure of guests, but over the last few days, the foreign press have really wound up their presence. Some of these will be seasoned veterans and some Dili old hands, but some will be green reporters looking for some action.

They will be doing their best. The Hotel Timor coffee shop will probably be the centre of a lot of activity. Perhaps the Hotel Dili and Turismo as well. During the day, the boys will be able to get around the central area near the seafront and I presume there will be a bit of story swapping.

As far as official statements go, I only know of UN statements. I know someone who works in the government information office but I also know this acquaintance has left the country and that many government departments are closed or at least not functioning too well at the moment.

The politicians themselves will decide when and where they will make statements.

Now when we are talking about yesterday’s police vs. FDTL stoush, that is only about 1 km from the Hotel Timor. And as it involved UN police (UNPOL), it was subject to an official UN statement with quite respectable detail.

But the other conflicts really do not have any official mouthpieces to report on them. The local TV did not report on any conflict yesterday, but the Portuguese TV news was full of it. That is, the news from Portugal that is re-broadcast on the local TV station.

The Portuguese (LUSA) press have a long standing presence here and will have many long-standing contacts and I expect it to be the most comprehensive for that reason. If you know someone who can understand Portuguese, this is a good start.

A lot of the rest comes from the informal network that is just so strong here. Inevitably, someone close to a particular event will spread the word or more often, hear from a local about something that has happened near their home etc. The embassies have their contacts and usually defence personnel whose job is to find out what is going on. A lot of this information is fed back through regular contact by email or phone network text message.

In the end, if you are interested and read, listen and ask appropriate questions, things start falling into place. Now that the OZ force is on the ground and a large contingent of press, I expect a fair bit of “embedded” stuff and a lot more details than I could ever bring.

I listened to OZ ABC’s PM program tonight and the Asia Pacific current affairs program after it and I thought the coverage pretty good. The analysis seems well up there now. There are still many small scale tragedies that have happened but alas, will remain unreported.

Another bad day

Got only 4 hours sleep last night. I wouldn’t be the only one pretty tired around here. Nervous energy being consumed in large quantities by everyone.

This morning from first light, has been marked by the sound of propellor-driven aircraft, presumably Hercules C130s as the press have reported. There is either a lot of them or a lot of circling going on.

One notices this as as the only normal air traffic is the regular AirNorth flights to Darwin and Merpati flights to Bali. So I assume it is all Australian and perhaps one Malaysian aircraft.

The UN released details of the casualties from an encounter between FDTL soldiers and the police after army soldiers attacked the police headquarters :

“As the unarmed police were being escorted out, army soldiers opened fire on them killing nine and wounding 27 others, including two UN police advisers,” Dujarric said.

This is just after the UN police attached to the local police had brokered a deal to lay down weapons and leave the building. Now, where I come from the army don’t usually gun down unarmed police. If anyone needed an excuse for foreign intervention, this sort of thing could be it.

But so far, the foreign press are missing out on the general lawlessness. I believe the casualty count from smaller scale conflict involving neither army, police or rebels will turn out to be a lot higher than this.

The katana (ie machete) has been given a good workout all over Dili over the last 36 hours. The general fear level is probably the highest it has been, only tempered by being more accustomed to it after a few weeks.

No matter how this all started, the problem is more than a dispute between a rebel army group. Not only is there a fractured army, but also a fractured police, ethnic disputes related to the east/west (lorosae/loromonu) divide and uncontrollable gangs of young men all mixed together.

The local TV news last night and this morning restricted coverage to reporting that the Australians had arrived and that the President had taken control of the military. No word on the conflicts during the day. The Portuguese TV had a quite long coverage and apart from showing a clip of the Portuguese Prime Minister promising 120 personnel, also had Prime Minister Alkatiri disagreeing with the President for not seeking parliamentary approval for the foreign intervention. You don’t need to be Einstein to work out their are also problems in governance.

The weather is absolutely magnificent and it belies the conflict that is taking place. There are people down the seafront, foreigners on their morning walk and an Australian frigate doing a continuous loop along a 5 to 10km stretch of water off Dili.

I have not heard a single word indicating that trouble has been anywhere else but Dili and its surroundings.

Euphoria minus one

I do hope the Australian news has not spent too much time applauding the very effective arrival of the first OZ contingent who arrived at dusk. Even if the OZ embassy is now surrounded by well-trained armed soldiers with night goggles etc., the rest of Dili appears not to have changed an awful lot.

I believe fighting is still going on and there is a lot of general lawlessness. I came across a guy who has fled his home because there were (in his words) people everywhere around his home, machete-ing each other. This was around 7:30pm. I hear the occasional gunfire in the distance and there has been the odd one much closer.

The euphoria before dark has evaporated fairly quickly.

The power is still on (in my part of town) and the phone lines and mobile phone network still work (and the internet).

I slept OK last night but tonight feels tenser than ever, particularly without the benefit of armed soldiers with night goggles outside.

Euphoria Part One

Pathetic facade of humour now lifted. OZ Hercules arrived 4:30pm – everyone in town seemed to know. At 4:50pm, an OZ frigate came steaming in from the east past Christo Rei statue (a smaller version of the large Rio de Janeiro Jesus statue).

A local told me (how do they know these things so fast ?) so I rushed down to the seaside and watched as it approached. People slowly moved out to the waterfront, the cars appeared again, faces were happy. I must admit I choked a bit as not an hour earlier, I was applying some serious skidmarks to my underwear. The powers of stress and subsequent release.

The sense of euphoria was amazing. I walked down to the Motael church where hundreds had been camped out and noted that if you stand at the front steps and look out to sea, you see the Christ Rei statue in the distance and at one point, an Australian frigate (?) steaming in.

Full points for a superb Hollywood entrance for maximum effect. The ship steamed in and did a sweep down to the west and looped back for a sweep to the east before preparing to make the entrance into the narrow navigation channel to take pride of place as the only vessel parked at the dock.

I left before that as it was starting to get dark and also it was raining and I was drenched and still with a 1 km walk home. I’ll try to take the flash picture tomorrow morning.

Now back to pre-euphoria. Again the locals seemed to know this quite quickly but things really went to custard around lunchtime. Some of the loyal military and some of the police were involved in a battle with each other.

Possibly around the same time, something close to anarchy must have been going on in parts of town with civilians (neither military, police or rebels) all having a good old fashioned stoush but using knives and machetes.

More houses have been burned, more lives ruined. What a shambles.

I will leave it until tomorrow to see what the casualty count will be from today but it may not be pretty. No doubt the usual foreign press will be on to this by the morning with more details.

And why “euphoria part one” ? For many Timorese, the decision still has to be made where to stay tonight. One would imagine it will take the foreign military force 24 hours to get into real shape. It is raining real hard now. The conditions at some of the catholic refuges must be fairly dire by now with no food, water and sanitation services. And we are still talking well over 15,000 displaced people in Dili alone.

Euphoria part two could be a return to a house burnt to the ground, looted or smashed to bits. Or in the case of one friend of mine, her landlady’s parents were both killed overnight.

Euphoria part three might be a long haul while the country gets itself back into shape from an infrastructure, security and political point of view. Isn’t that why many expats were here in the first place ?

It just has to be gin and tonic time !!

Custard Anyone

Just try being here when you don’t really know what is going on and someone tells you there has been a major incident near the FDTL headquarters.

I am sure some gun reporter will be there but I hope not.

Yet, an acquaintance dropped by to say the conference he was attending, had been halted because of trouble, so he dropped in.

I have always hated door slammers but never more so than right now. I nearly hit the roof.

PS I am hiding genuine fear behind a pathetic facade of humour so bear with me.

Lunchtime Thursday 25 May

I have taken my government’s advice and stayed in today. Both the OZ and NZ governments have instructed all non-essential public servants and families to leave and I know one departure flight was scheduled for 2pm.

I met up with some volunteers prior to their departure on that flight and the info they provided convinced me today was no day to be going anywhere without cast-iron underwear. Not 5 minutes after they left, I was told there was trouble between there and the airport.

I believe gunfire is now creeping into the city proper. I do not know if it is the so-called “rebels” or the street gangs are causing all the trouble.

I am revising my little departure bag but hope like hell I never have to use it. Maybe some of the reporters holed up in some of the central city hotels can fill in on this. It is the tensest I have been but the main problem is I don’t know what is going on.