UN Trailer park

The smoke we saw on the Comoro Road on Sunday was probably linked to disturbances there that afternoon. From AFP:

VIOLENCE erupted on the streets of the East Timorese capital today as two groups pelted each other with stones, forcing residents in the area to flee their homes. The disturbance occurred between two groups of youths from different regions of East Timor near the Comoro market at about 2pm local time, witnesses said. They said the incident appeared to follow the beating of a man the previous day…Meanwhile, the civil registry office next to the Fatuhada police post in Dili was burned by unidentified men today, witnesses said.

Today I woke up what to me is bright and early, but only seemed to make it to the UN Agency Compound by about 9:30am. I remember biking across town at about 8am so I wouldn’t show up at the office all hot and sweaty. Nine am is already a sweating hour.

I was surprised when the taxi driver stopped short, just in front of the Palácio das Cinzas, Xanana’s shell of an office. On the other side of the street, there was a large gate, security check point and tons of ugly UNTAET-style pre-fab trailers. He explained that the agencies had migrated over to this trailer park a couple of months before the crisis.

Interesting, I thought. Does this not seem like a step backwards? Or maybe psychologically, working in trailers makes the UN feel less institutionalized here, like they could leave any year now?

I went in to talk to my old Boss at UN Agency. She was just heading out for a meeting with “partners”, which I took to be an epic meeting in 3 languages that would take up the whole morning. She introduced me to the person who was working on the Theater project they asked me to try to start up, which apparently has had a thriving life with the help of a couple of strong local NGOs. They told me that they were going to put on a theater presentation in “the camps” this week.

Yet the overall feeling I got there was that they were busy with the same old shit, planning and reporting.

My former boss clarified that it was actually the Timorese government who asked the UN Agencies to leave the old building up the street, and that shortly after they left, it was occupied by Petitioners and looted during the violence. Everything was torn out, even tiles in the bathroom. Now, she says, ironically, the new emergency UN mission has occupied the building (presumably with the government’s consent).

I talked to the drivers, including the Number One driver who, by the look of it, gets to sit around and shoot the shit.

They said a lot of the younger Timorese staff left to study abroad, this is true of my good friend and colleague there. But also of the young man who used to work as a sort of “office boy” doing random tasks and making coffee. Off in Jogjakarta studying.

I guess three years is enough to see even the “local staff” bail out and try something new, especially when there is little hope of promotion. The life of these institutions is quite incredible if you think about it. How do they create permanence, besides branding? Often one International staff has very little time, or no opportunity to handover to the next. There is a fair amount of reinventing the wheel. And what should the permanence of the UN in these places be, especially if it creates such a distorted economic situation?

Walking down through Caicoli, towards the University, I saw more and more pre-fab trailers. The Kiwis or Australian forces are camped out there as well, with these huge concrete barricades and sandbag installations. I got to thinking about the life of a city, the geography of “emergency”. It would be quite fascinating to map (1) The camps (2) The UN/Aid agencies installations and lastly, and more difficult (3) the residential map of “internationals” paying exorbitant rents.

Past World Vision, which at one point had shrunk down to quite a modest size, and is now a gigantic operation again.

Then I saw these big grease stains on the ground from wax with burn marks and bougainvillea flowers. A moment to recent dead I thought. Then I realized, this is where the 8 Timorese police were shot, on May 25. There must have been a candle vigil here last night. People on the street confirmed this to me, it’s been exactly four months since that heinous blood letting on a major Dili street.


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