Dili was stripped of wild flowers, bouganvilleas, palms, ferns and other decorative leafy plants today. For the Dia dos Difuntos, or Day of the Dead, children and women are swept up in a frenzy of cutting and arranging, there is a solemn but life-affirming sense of purpose and regularity. The streets, for the whole day were as empty as the bougainvillea trees, devoid of the bunches of UN cars and taxis. There was a palpable sense of calm, a siesta-like or sonambulous feeling to the day, much like one imagines island life in the Caribbean or South Pacific to be like. The ocean was this deep azure color, flat, expansive and buoying a number of sail boats in the harbor.
We sat drinking beer slowly watching the water and truly savoring the totality of the holiday. The UN, as my friend so correctly observed, had relocated for the weekend to Darwin for some kind of insider’s party. Their Range Rovers and Tatas were mercifully parked in their driveways. The city felt lighter without these multi-tonne vehicles, and without their drivers, the bosses. Timorese people were not out and about in the usual numbers. The streets were so quiet, there was a feeling of calm unlikely felt in a long time and unlikely to be felt until the UN really downsizes. But this feeling of lightness, this feeling of emptiness was certainly a premonition of times to come.
By about 4.30 in the afternoon, the red of the dry hills were bounded by purple, and it seemed that families streaming towards the Santa Cruz cemetary might expect to be rained on. We flagged down the first cab we could find in the empty streets and made our way to the cemetary when it had cooled down about an hour later and the threat of rain had passed. We soon realized we were headed for a Timorese traffic jam, a phenonmenon known only on FRETILIN rally days and religious festivals. The sides of the street were jammed with families and women and children bearing plastic baskets brimming with cut flowers, fern and palm fronds covered by thick, white cotton dollies. Large IOM buses full of children were also approaching the cemetary. The Timorese police who wear navy t-shirts, who are normally much bigger than the avergage Timorese traffic cop, were directing traffic as we approached the cemetary.
We hopped out a couple of hundred meters before the gates. The throngs of people would often inspire a sense of frightening volatility in East Timor. But this was a scene that had replayed itself every year for decades in Dili, it was about family, tradition and respect. Carson and I squished our way fhrough one of the three gates to the Cemetary, gaining a new appreciation for how horrifying the Massacre in 1991 must have been, how impossible escape from Indonesian riot police armed with M16s would have been. Even a peaceful crowd on this day lent itself to pushing and shoving.
Graves were built to literally abutt the radius of the swinging gates. My first step was on top of a child’s grave. There were no clear paths to walk. Spaces that appeared to be just earth were often circled by stones and covered with flower cuttings, as if the families could not afford to maintain even a wooden or stone head stones. Every step was on top of somebody’s resting place. Candles were burning everywhere, and oil was burning in the dirt at the foot of many graves. There were flowers on every grave. Everywhere. There was a constant flow of people going every direction. At one point a lost child started screaming for her mother. Her mouth full of uncooked Ramen noodles, she wailed, confused and pleading for her mother. A moment of true fright. People looked on her sympathetically, but nobody took it upon themselves to lead her out of the labyrinth to find her family.
As we traversed the cemetary, observing sections full of graves of nuns and priests, babies, and Chinese merchants, we saw a huge column of black smoke rising from the far corner of the cemetary. A crowd of people appeared to be crowding around the opening that the black smoke was coming from. As we approched, we saw people were throwing things into the fire. There was this extremely sinister, pagan feel to the scene, and we soon realized that people were throwing leftover candles into the flaming heap. Something about the scene hardly fitted the Catholic decorum of the day.