Waiting in Baucau

I guess I should be excited or buzzing from the conflict, but I’m actually just thoroughly chateada. I am bored and annoyed with this continuing civil strife, this continual shouting, shoving, macheteing, extortion and bullying by a couple of groups in this country. One of the main north-south corridors of the country has been in effect shut down by an angry group of “veterans” and youth in the village, who seem hell-bent on stealing and extorting money from cars passing to the south. They began robbing buses at night (full of people with no money to spare), then moved to chopping down trees to block the road and charging a toll to remove them. The pathetic, new Timorese police force (known by the same nickname as in Indonesian times –– lekrauk, monkeys) arrived to put an end to this shady business on the road, which is the only connection to one of Timor’s most fertile districts. They were quickly surrounded by angry people from the community, obviously egged on by a couple of trouble-makers. One person from the crowd was bold enough and quick enough to steal a police officer’s handgun. He was immediately shot through the chest by the policeman’s partner. The police subsequently fired nearly 70 rounds into the air as warning shots and threats to the rabid crowd. Yet alone, and elsewhere in the village, another police officer was making his way back to the center of town. He was attacked with a machete chop through his head, and was evacuated to Dili, where he died two days later.

Apparently the family of the said, shot, gun-stealer went to visit him in the Baucau hospital and was harrassed or told to go home by the police. Upon their return to the troubled town, a former Falintil commander/professional troublemaker called a meeting and demanded that the community defend itself against the police, just as it would have done against the Indonesians. Predictably, early the next day, the village and assembled other discontents showed up at the Riot Police headquarters in Baucau and began scaling the fence. It’s not known how or why they gave up and moved on to the main civilian police HQ, but soon they were scaling the fence there. Police fired on the crowd. The crowd fired back at the police with reportedly at least one stolen handgun and a couple of rifles. Gunfire continued for a couple of minutes. Some say an NGO car was caught in the middle, and somebody inside injured. Word in the ‘old town’ below was that four policeman were injured. Later that one ‘protester’ was killed. Word came from a minister in Dili via a friend of mine that the Riot police compound had been burned to the ground.

I am, during all of this, sitting on the nice, clean, cool porch of the Catholic Relief Services guesthouse, where I slept alone the night before watching VCDs  of Tom Hanks movies and eating Indonesian oreos because I was too lazy to go out and buy an egg to fry. I am getting information via text message and phone conversations across town from the NGO that I expected to get a ride to my final destination from. Soon I realize that there will be no reliable information, and that fear of the worst possible outcome will decide travel plans that day and probably the next day. We head to Dili, me leaving all of my things besides absolute essentials, in the guesthouse. “We’ll be back tomorrow,” I tell myself. We start up the cliffside, on the only “safe” escape route –– past the airport, missing the violent “new town” area –– and two police cars full of nervous East Timorese police whiz past. Worrying, I agree with the driver. But it would be very unlikely that the rioters could block all exits out of town. So we press on, with high-powered radio communications to Dili and two mobile phones. Halfway up, we pass a convoy of NGO and church vehicles paused on the side of the road, headed down into the old town. We explain that IRC, my ride-giving NGO, has given the order to evacuate international staff and move the vehicles to other locations, but to “keep the office open.” They nod, and start off down the hill. Last, we pass an American policeman named Stacey from Detroit. A guy who would be used to riots at least. He says, “It is going to get worse. You’re right to go now.” All the confirmation I need that listening to that “mom” voice paid off, why the hell would I want to stay in that town alone and wait it out with no good information or way of getting out. So we blast back to Dili listening to the new Coldplay album I bought in Bangkok, trying to make NGO-ish small talk about troublespots, the international lifestyle, and homeleave.

Before I know it, I’m back at home. Sleeping on the same sweaty bed, the only difference being the mosquitos have multiplied in my absence. The day after, word that the UN has strongly discouraged travel to the whole eastern half of the country, and there is little chance that I can go even the next day.

There is a political backdrop to this violence, which seems to be sponsored or encouraged by a dissenting group of former independence fighters who refused to acknowledge the UN presence here, and currently refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of the independent government. They have become the ultimate spoil-sports, deciding that if it isn’t good for them, then they will attempt to disrupt transport, security and development in the areas they inhabit. They have promised a big rally in Dili on the anniversary of the original declaration of independence, only two days from now, November 28. Rumors, most likely originating from this group of violent incompetents, warn that they have bombs and will attempt to bring anarchy in the Hobbesian sense of the word.

Such is life I guess, in an unconsolidated, third-world state, where there is no rule of law in the outer regions, and the politicians in the capital march on, unphased, as long as their wealth and privilege are protected. All I would ask is that they create a political travel report here, in addition to the meteorological report on rain and the condition of the roads: “Expect delays due to riots, bombings. 90% chance of extortion on the road from Baucau to Viqueque.”

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