War profiteers and cigarette thieves

Yesterday, after having a soup at the Pousada in Baucau ($2), I was noticing a crowd of people at the house below the empty dining room. I asked the bored waitress what was going on. She launched into, with no encouragement on my part (I promise), a tirade about the pengunsi.

These people all they do is line up for free food. Many are registered in more than one place and merely commute between places, selling the excess. None are interested in working, she said. 

They want the crisis to continue. For them the crisis is a way of life.

She told me because of the pengunsi the price of rice actually went up. I thought to myself, this makes absolutely no sense. You would think the NGOs dumping free rice would lower the cost of rice. 

But it’s not actually because of the pengunsi, it’s because of the conflict in Dili. Vendors in the East jack the prices up, justifying the increases based on the increased risk they run in going to and from markets in Dili. 

Later in the evening after conversing with a number of people in Baucau, I came to the solid realization that there are many people — not only people in Dili — who will continue to profit from the situation. In the East, even the price of cigarettes fluctuates dramatically whenever kids start beating each other up in Dili. 

The Aid community has institutionalized its distribution to the point that people will resist, possibly even violently, any cut-backs to Aid.

All these things were on my mind as I headed out of Baucau this morning. I left Fawlty Towers at 6am, bought 10c worth of hot paun straight out of the oven, in the old market. Delicious. No butter needed. After a 20 minute sullen microlet ride, with reggae blasting my eardrums apart, I waited 35 minutes for the bus to leave, which is quite possibly a speed record. 

Just past Manatuto, so half way, before the part where the road rises to cut along the “fractal mountains,” the young man next to me, who had been competing for space with me on the miniscule bench, jumped up violently.

“Stop the bus!” He shouted. “Stop the bus NOW.” 

The bus pulled over. He begins to shout about missing cigarettes. I had seen the kid buy three cartons of LA cigarettes in the Market. Now he only had two in his hand.

He began searching around the bench for the missing carton. He hopped down the steps onto the roadside. And began shouting at this pathetic kid inside the bus with a huge scab on his arm. “Get down here now or I will kick your ass!” My bench-mate shaking with anger and the kid was scared. He was also scared because he was a pathetic thief.

The carton was probably worth $10. 

After about 10 seconds of shouting, the kid came down the back steps, or was pushed or pulled I didn’t see. My bench mate slammed him against the bus. He said “Tell me where you put them. Did you give them to somebody?!” The kid said nothing. My bench-mate began to punch him pretty hard in the thorax. His one dream-catcher earring was dangling lamely, his fist up ready to slam the kid’s eye socket, Nobody on the bus was intervening. But there was no laughter either.

After about 10 long seconds of abuse, the old lady in the back found an open carton of cigarettes on the floor. 

The kid scrambled up the embankment with tears in his eyes. Even before this incident, I had noticed he had the furtive eyes of a stray dog. Not to mention the big, 15cm scab on his forearm.

The bus driver shouted to the thief, “Get back on the bus.” 

The kid came back on, and we were off.

I told my bench-mate that in America, the kid quite probably would have been left by the side of the road. The highway system is a little like the ocean, the drivers like ship captains. And there are some real bad folks on American buses, I said.

My bench-mate turned back to the kid, and said, “you stupid idiot. All you had to do was ask me for a cigarette.” He opened the first box of LA, and gave the thief the first one. He handed him the lighter, and waited for him to smoke to light his own.

You could look at this moment in two ways. Either the cigarette was intended to further humiliate the thief and elevate his victim, or that this was a sincere offering, a gesture that these things can be let go.

It is amazing to see how quickly people can react out of anger, but conversely how quickly they can also come back from the “brink.”

Back in Dili, and after All Souls Day, and Ramos Horta’s return from the Vatican and subsequent meetings with Fretilin and gang leaders, all is quiet on the Western Front. Can Dili also be brought back from the brink?


One thought on “War profiteers and cigarette thieves

  1. Pingback: The brink « Return to Rai Ketak

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