Three years is enough for a “new” generation of kids on the street. One of my tasks here last time, in my second contract with UN Agency, was to mentor an NGO that works with these kids. I knew the situation then, most kids were on the street begging during the day, not sleeping there. They had poor families to return to. Sometimes I would see men “tios” standing behind them, seemingly running the begging operation.
The situation doesn’t seem like it has changed much. In Lecidere, near the out-of-fashion City Café, a group of about 6 labarik, none over the age of 8, approached me. They began bothering me. One had tried to pinch my ass earlier. This time I decided to talk to them. I started with the classic, “Where is your mother?” and they were evasive saying “We are hungry and poor.”
Then I got the information out of them. The mothers were at home, just two blocks down the road. They go home whenever then want. They claimed that they were too poor to pay the $5 school fees. I told them, if they want money from me, they would have to bring their mother and I would talk with her. They did not seem interested in that program.
The real problem is, tons of UN staff and police give these kids money. Mostly people from cities where there are children on the street. They do not seem to understand the dynamic in Dili. Their “donations” are just keeping these kids running around barefoot on the street all day, putting a value to them, which can easily be exploited.
A man wearing a shiny watch made eye contact with me and began to walk off after I sent the kids on their way. I couldn’t tell whether he was “protecting” me from them, or keeping tabs on them, verifying his profit.
Last night ventured out with Professor from his Vila Verde home (near the Cathedral) to get takeaway from the famous Tropical Bakery, which moved in 2003 from the Comoro road strategically to the foot of Obrigado Barracks. The place, my malai colleages will recall, has always been an expat favorite. A Chinese-Timorese family with connections to Indonesia is behind the operation, and they have a real flare for presentation, service and quality baked goods and meals.
As we approached in the dark, in Professor’s insane rusting Landcruiser, I saw this bizarre “Close Encounters”-ey glow on the horizon. This was the light being projected onto the UNMIT mission headquarters (Obrigado Barraks), and, more importantly, on the refugee camp across the street. It looked like a ballpark, or a football stadium. A crazy amount of ambient light at night. (I wondered if Soweto used to be lit up like that during apartheid times.)
Professor had explained that one could call Tropical for takeaway at night, but they didn’t keep the café-restaurant open out of fear surrounding the IDPs and recent violence at the gates of camp. At one point there were choppers on both sides of the city, and it seemed like one was circling, which had me pragmatically nervous, after all, I’m new in town, not immune to this stuff!
Professor does not seem overly worried about the recent clashes, if anything, he believes that the good malais have more to offer than ever in terms of trying to shed some “objective” light on the situation. I find that view a little optimistic. Seems like foreigners have interfered in the situation substantially for the worse, including horrible reporting from Australia, inflammatory blogs by Portuguese Fretilin hacks.
During my ride back to Lecidere, the streets were particularly empty. I can see why expats have curtailed nighttime activity. It’s just spooky.
I went to post my first two blog entries from here this morning, at “Sugar Internet Café”. The people who run it are, I believe, mainland Chinese who have done business in Indonesia before. They are very precise about billing, to the minute (with some rounding up). Here is the scheme: $6/hr for a computer and internet, and a mere $5/hr to connect a laptop. No internet telephony is allowed. The connection is a 256 MBS broadband which the manager buys from a reseller, who is dividing larger bandwidth. I hope I’m not divulging trade secrets here, but he told me he pays $1200/mo. to get this connection, and if he went straight to Timor Telcom, he would be paying $1600.
All for a connection that would cost $15 in China or $30 in Europe.
Ouch. Now, is it clearer why the blogosphere is so dead in Timor? Only UN desk-jockeys have good opportunity. (I would know!!) Also clear why the Timorese papers cannot maintain presences online.
I packed up after 36 minutes ($3), I went across the street to an old hang out, Café Timor. It’s where I first lived in 2001. In fact I was there on 9-11. It was where I saw the twin towers go down, at 11:45pm at the bar. I got talking to Leni, the woman/girl in charge, she remembered me. I believe she said, “YOU still here?” I told her I had been in Portugal for the past 3 years, and she said “Me too.” She’s back for holidays to take care of the place while her parents take some time off in Jakarta.
They are gearing up for the big UN mission, they are at 80% capacity, most UN Agency people. It’s $20/night with A/C. The bar did not look the hangout it once was, I remembered it used to be where Africans, Brazilians and Portuguese would hang out. One time a UNPOL left a pistol on top of the men’s toilet.
Getting back home, I had a chat with Carlos, the security guard, who looked quite nervous. He said, “The situation is no good.” I asked what he meant. He said there was shooting in Taibesse last night, the southern reaches of town. I asked where he lives. “Taibesse,” the response I was expecting. He said they heard gunshots around 4am. He assumes it was the GNR shooting rubber bullets.
I used to live up near the Chinese cemetery in Taibesse. I always got the feeling that the neighborhood, continuing above us near the market, was kind of a powderkeg. It was the site of violence in WWII and during the civil conflict in 1975. Carlos claims that the problem in Quintal Ki’ik seems to have spread, that youth groups are “joining forces” across neighborhoods.
Carlos’ take on the situation was heartening. He said, look, it’s not a matter of running away, or fighting. What is needed is dialogue. He said the politicians have been debating the budget for months, then the needs of the “refugees”, but never the violence itself, its causes and consequences. He said, when the little people fight each other, they are losing the plot. What is to be gained with the little people killing each other? It was kind of implied that the little people should target their anger at the big people who have let this situation spiral out of control.