The night, in Dili, East Timor, can be desperately garish or darkly lonely. Groups of expats move in insecure squads like college freshman around the city, frequenting just a handful of acceptable bars with European beers. Those without a UN or NGO crew, without cars, and without heaps of disposable income to waste on Red Label and two-dollar cans of Heneiken, stay at home, often without power, writing on laptop batteries, or reading by candle-light. Or just lying in bed early at night wondering whether we should just give in to the carnivalesque bar scene and sex-driven nightlife outside.
The darkness at home draws ex-pats closer to the feelings of East Timorese neighbors, people for whom darkness provides cover for evil. During the day, East Timorese renovate, adapt and use the same spaces that were the sites of massacres, torture-chambers and personal prisons. But at night, these places become off-limits. Children refuse to pass by the Liquiça church at night, the site of the shooting and macheteing of over 50 men in April 1999 by the local militia Besi Merah Putih. The church in Suai, where over 250 women and children, and 2 priests were butchered by hand on September 6, 1999, is used everyday for services. By nightfall, the compound is absolutely deserted. At night, the black soot marks in still roof-less buildings lick upwards like dark unextinguishable flames.
The toll of these recent experiences, layered on top of 25 years of brutal Indonesian occupation, is not limited to the night-time hours. Walking down the street, compare who look physically the same age. Similar lines on the face, similar middle-age gait. But even a superficial glance, and there are certain people who wear years of hardship, years of struggle for survival on their face. Call it trauma, call it stoicism, call it experience. Here there is physical age and there is mental age.