Dili day one

From the air, compared to its neighbors, Timor is hard to miss the island, because of its size and the costal highway clinging along the dry, barren coast line, small fishing villages along the Tasi Feto. I was checking to see how much car traffic there was in the West, the troubled loromonu. Not much.

The tide was way out and the mangroves of Tibar were extremely muddy and brown, the water coming in bright swaths of green and blue green. There were white jeeps at the shooting range past Taci Tolu, I guess Police training has already started, or the international police were bored. No smoke over Dili – thankfully — just people burning the fields in the hills around the city, cleaning in preparation for the rains next month.

Airport (President Nicolau Lobato Airport): Strange commercial jet on the tarmac, then tons of uniformed Australian soldiers marching towards it, I realize it’s a charter. I guess they are going home. Passport control, no smiles, but no hassles either. The UN folks (half the flight) cruise right through, showing only their card IDs. I notice the Timorese “VIPs” — a member of the opposition Democratic Party, and a former Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – appear to have their own exclusive entrance. Chinese Timorese, Indonesians, Timorese, Filippinos, Americans (North and South), Africans, all milling around the puny luggage carrosel that is so familiar to me. Now there is a Duty Free store, with red, yellow and black bags. Portuguese and Australian wines compete on the shelves. But mostly Chinese and Timorese were there loading up on whisky.

I begin to read as we wait for our bags. Finally we see an open topped truck drive up to the carrosel. Guys hanging off the sides like the streetcar in Alfama. Slowly we begin to recover our luggage.

The baggage carts are hand-me-downs from TAP Portugal, from the island of Madeira, with ads for the lovely Madeiran Coral Beer. How appropriate — from an island with really bad politics — I can’t help but see the sad humor.

I pass through the outer doors of the airport (the door jam is all cracked and broken and the trolley barely passes over). Docogirl and Professor are there hanging about, they barely recognized me with my tropical mullet. Professor is there for work, gives me his phone number. Docogirl helps me grab my stuff and we head towards the lovely Dili taxi waiting in the lot.

“Refugee” kids – technically IDP kids – who live a stone’s throw away in UNHCR tents swarm the vehicle, “helping” us put the bags in the trunk. None are over 8 years old. I’m in for a shock. Dili is living in camps, not the Dili I knew. Two GNR approach the poor taxi which is pulling out at the typical Dili rate about 5 miles per hour. “M BORA!!” they shout impatiently at our taxi driver, who probably speaks bad Tetum as a second language and definitely does not know what M BORA means. I laugh.

We had towards the first twee Indonesian-style roundabout outside the airport, and the UNHCR tent city comes up on the right side. Stylish, and ironically probably better than the shacks the IDPs lived in before, points out Docogirl, and the nicest of all of the camps in Dili. But it was the site of clashes and rubber bullets from the GNR only days ago. No wonder the GNR’s impatience. Docogirl says the refugee camp actually sprung up in the middle of the roundabout initially. They are all over town, close to the encampments of foreign soldiers.

To explain what has happened in Dili basically defies the imagination.

Locals spew a litany of dates, events, a kind of bizarre timeline of the conflict, which for outsiders seems to have sprung up out of nowhere. “They went to the camps, then we went to the camps, then they went to the camps. Now we occupy the neighborhood.” Nobody here can see middle ground. Nobody is impartial. You can tell immediately what “side” people are on. Interestingly, I’ve mostly run into Westerners today. I think people from the East are licking their wounds and keeping a low profile. Alfredo (he doesn’t go by Reinado here) is the defacto leader of the Westerners. Since he escaped a couple of weeks ago, the Westerners are feeling more and more confident in Dili. (The East/West line is subject to some discussion, as it used to be at about Manatuto, now it seems to be creeping west towards Dili.)

I told one Westerner today that I am a “mixed” person, half English, half American. I said what happens to people in Dili who are half Western and half Eastern? He made it sound like identity can be pretty plastic, but you’d better be saying the right thing at the right moment.

Dili seems empty during the day. First, I drop my stuff at my very generous digs in Lecidere, which is entirely peaceful, and seemingly the new commercial center of gravity of downtown. The man in charge is out to lunch. With Docogirl, I head to Audian, a formerly bustling neighborhood, seems dead in comparison. Have vegetarian fried rice at a Chinese Timorese café. Docogirl attempts to order banana fritters and ice cream at 2:40pm and there “are none.” We are the only people in the café. There are no bananas, we ask ourselves? Or is the deep fry chef out?

We walk towards Docogirl’s house in Caicoli, past the Central market. There is a crowd, mostly youngsters, and lots of little ones and girls, so not to be too scared of, at the top of the market. They are looking into the burned down neighborhood of Quintal Ki’ik. Docogirl explains that this was the site of the machete battle that led to the latest death reported in the international media, three days ago now. The body had just been taken to Santa Cruz cemetery up the road, reported an old Loromonu man. Nothing to see here, he said, in order to get us to move on.

Docogirl said there are a couple of Lorosa’e people huddled together staying in Quintal Ki’ik even after the neighborhood has been almost entirely torched. A very tense situation, although walking through, seems like nothing.

We have delicious coffee in the backyard of Docogirl’s landlady, friend and protagonist, a Member of Parliament who was complaining about the amount of dirty laundry she had to wash after a morning in Parliament. Her youngest daughter, in middle school, tells us that orientation begins tomorrow.

Walking in the late afternoon in Lecidere, I realize how much time has passed. Cafés and nightclubs have long come and gone. A restaurant I used to have “brunch” at with UN folks is now an ANZ Bank office. I approach the water front, to check out Xavier do Amaral’s compound.

Men are playing cards in the front yard. Back in the distance, on the front porch, I can make out Xavier’s small figure, in a white tank top. The few times I went by the house, he would receive guests on the porch. Often just like that, in white tank top.

I found it strangely soothing to see him there. I have compared him to Yoda in the past, and I’m standing by this analogy. (I imagine his position on all of this rancor and conflict is kind of passive, he doesn’t want to promote conflict, and yet his party stands to benefit as a decidedly “regional” loromonu alternative to Fretilin. His power base is in Mambai central mountain Timor, which is considered the heart of loromonu.)

After loading up on supplies at the Chinese grocery around the corner, I had beer and cereal for dinner. Couldn’t find matches to light the stove here, and I couldn’t be bothered on my first day to venture out in the dark. Watched RTTL news interview Ramos Horta with Gonçalo the security guard, who is for the record loromonu. RH is a good communicator, but he alone cannot be expected to bring Timor out of this mess.

Then RTP International came on, as it does from 8pm til morning, and the party ended. It was a show on organic agriculture in southern Portugal.

All night choppers were buzzing overhead. I asked Gonçalo about this, he said, naaawww, it’s normal. But they seemed to be really close by and circling. I figured, well, I’m safe here, there’s nothing to worry about.

Except ghosts of course. I’m staying in the house that was the site of the biggest single massacre in Dili in 1999. Docogirl had tried to reassure me, saying that the violence happened on the opposite side of the compound from my room.

Gonçalo asked me before dinner if I was scared to be here. Before I even brought the topic up. What do you mean? I asked. He said, you know… 1999. I said, well, what about you guys? Are you guys scared?

He said when they first started working in the compound they were frightened. After all, people were killed inside the house, the militia burst in and killed 13 people, including politician Manuel Carrascalão’s adopted son. The Timorese are scared of sites where people have died a “bad” death.

But when they inaugurated a memorial to 1999 on the site, priests came and brought peace to the place. I told him I thought a shaman (matan dook) might be a better solution. He said that is all hocus pocus.

Then he proceeded to tell me something that gave me the chills. A Portuguese lady who was staying here last year reported to have seen a ghost, a person in white floating above the ground. Its feet didn’t touch the ground. She had never been told about 1999 here, and I doubt she knew.

So I spent the night a little jittery, listening to the sounds made by the lizards, and the creaking of the windows and furniture, trying to focus on happier things.

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