Dili under the PIDE

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The 25th of April, anniversary of Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution is fast approaching. This day brought the sudden end to fascism in Portugal. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Dili was the home to the Policia Internacional de Defesa do Estado, AKA the PIDE, Salazar’s “secret” police. This for almost two decades prior to the Indonesian occupation.

Osmar White, a well-known Australian foreign correspondent of his day, describes the impact of the PIDE in his riotous Time Now, Time Before. I believe he visited [update: in the early 60s], and he may have altered the PIDE agent’s name. Shortly after arrival, having a brandy with Roger Flett [update: based on James Dunn], the Australian consul at the time, “Flett” tells him:

“You’re going to see quite a bit of Alvaro. He’s the most un-secret secret policeman this side of the iron stump. But don’t underestimate him because of that. He employs a dozen pimps and they’re much harder to spot.”

In my sinful pride, I did not at first take Alvaro very seriously. During the next few days he became part of the decor of an innocent tourist’s life in Dili… Alvaro became to build up a personality. I learnt all sorts of details about him. He had hands with fur of black hair on their backs and he manicured his long yellow fingernails. He wore his linen for three days and his silk jackets for a week, but the black-and-white buckskin shoes were immaculately kept. He was afflicted with blackheads and offensive breath. He was an untidy eater and his front was always spotted with spilled food. He was so gross, phlegmatic and sinister that even his mother couldn’t have loved him in this adult form.

I made a few acquaintances at the club to which the Indian consul introduced me, but Alvaro appeared and they dropped me. I tried to hire a car for a run in the country, but mysteriously all the available vehicles had to be garaged for major repairs. Even the Chinese shopkeepers and the hotel staff could not be tempted to tarry and gossip.

Then I discovered that Alvaro’s activities extended far beyond sending unwelcome visitors to Coventry. My room at the hotel was being searched periodically and the contents of my dispatch case examined.

For a time, the knowledge provided me with a good deal of malicious diversion. Alvaro must have something to get his teeth into, so I filled out a number of quarto sheets with meaningless five-letter combinations, made inked ‘corrections’ here and there as if I had checked the text for errors, then tore the sheets into small piece and dropped them with fruit peelings and cigarette butts into the wastepaper basket. […]

Dili as I remembered it had been a picturesque, raffish place full of characters and colour. But the war charged all that. During the Japanese occuption, Allied bombers had flattened the old town. In the interests of progress, the Administration had made the Chinese shopkeepers replace their ramshackle shanties with over-solid concrete structures in which the paucity of goods for sale looked absurd… The only monuments to the old days were a few buildings with stone and plaster work dating back to the early nineteenth century, the sea-wall and marine drive on which were set ancient cannon, yawning over the bay with rusty black mouths, and the air of shabby frustration which broods over all places inhabited by generation after generation of subservient and unhappy people.

Clearly, no amount of furious observation could produce newspaper copy out of this thwarting place and situation. I must face the fact that Alvaro had me on the mat, and the referee was making the count! […]

During the night I woke up and remembered the man Alvaro reminded me of. He had been prisoner in Buchenwald concentration camp, and I’d talked to him on the day of liberation. He was a prisoner who had somehow managed to remain well-fleshed after two years of captivity. Next morning he had been discovered hanging by the neck on piano wire in the cellar where the SS men had carried out executions by strangling.

The crowd began to gather in the market place soon after dawn — straggly files of laden ponies and people bent double under crates and matting-wrapped bundles. Here and there among them were hand-carts and dilapidated bicycles. […]

The men and animals moved listlessly. There no suggestion of eagerness or bustle, no cries of vendors, only a low murmur of voices and the noises made by tethered or crated animals. Substantial suppliers were evidently allocated fixed space under cover in a large, concrete-floored building with an iron roof and timbered frame. The bush farmers packed their produce on mats outside and settled down on their haunches to await trade.

The first customers were Chinese storekeepers in town who were bulk buyers of fruit, vegetables, pigs, poultry and eggs displayed in the covered market. There was remarkably little bargaining. Prices seemed virtually fixed and business was transacted rapidly. Chaffering began only when the small buyers came — curt, arrogant servants from European households, Eurasian and Timorese wage earners seeking the week’s domestic rations. Even so, the bargaining was never spirited or rancorous by Oriental standards. I began to realize that this was entirely a buyer’s market. Except for a proportion of reasonably good-quality produce snapped up early by the Chinese traders, it was hopelessly over-supplied with the stale, pitiable rubbish which is surplus to rural poverty.

By eight o’clock, all ‘serious’ business was finished. Even in the big shed, I doubted any transaction had involved more than a few hundred escudos. Attention now focused on the centavo market outside.

The sellers sat in irregular, dejected lines brooding over their mats, on which were displayed hands of tiny green bananas, papaws, betel nuts and pepa leaves, little mounds of slaked lime, bunches of shrived greenstuff, peppers and medicinal herbs, bundles of tindery dry fish fillets, sea shells, hand-whittled clothes pegs and stack of palm frond mats.

As the sun climbed and the clouds rose from the hilltops, market-day entered its second phase — the phase of carnival. The men joined in argumentative groups, the children in restless gangs hurried about make-believe business, the young bucks strutted for the girls, and the older women who were left to guard the miserable piles of unsold produce gossiped with their neighbours and cried questions and answers to those further away.

A crowd collected around a musician with a one-stringed fiddle and a thin, black boy who sang in a thin, nasal treble and beat a lizard-skin drum with the palms of his hands. An Arab medicine-seller with an assortment of strange substances and metal bowls and bottles in front of him began calling his wares — the only ‘stallholder’ in the whole market that day to do so.

The volume of mob-noise gradually increased. It was an ominous noise because it had no ingredient of laughter. The children shouted and squabbled and chase one another, yipping. But they did not laugh. No one laughed, or even smiled. It was an odd and almost frightening experience to move among several thousand people gathered together for commerce and gossip and the meeting of friends, and yet to hear no sound of mirth or harmony.

Could it be that all the unsmiling people were asleep — or were they just dreaming?

Alvaro was at the airport bright and early in the morning, standing behind the man who checked the passports of arriving passengers. I marched over to Alvaro and lifted my hat and said, ‘Good morning, Senhor Marques.’

‘I’ve had a most successful visit,’ I went on blandly, ‘thanks for your concentrating my attention to the useful material.

He spoke to me. Alvaro actually spoke to me!

He said: ‘What is that?’

‘I shall be writing serveral articles about my visit, Senhor Marques — and I shall make a point of seeing that your name is used.’

For a fraction of a second, fear showed in the eyes of Alvaro Manuel Mendes e Marques.

I highly recommend a read through the full chapter, which describes Baucau, Aileu, and an interview with two Portuguese dissidents, a Doctor and his wife who are about to be sent to prison in Portugal.

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One thought on “Dili under the PIDE

  1. From east-timorlists.riseup.net:

    Subject: Re: Dili under the PIDE
    Date: Mon, 23 Apr 2007 07:32:45 -0400

    I have to admit that Flett was based on my role at the time, according to Osmar White himself, though I drank much less that White’s consul. Pide was active in Dili but it was only a small unit, a presence that had been established only two years earlier in reaction to the 1959 affair. After Salazar’s death its name was change to DGS, but it disappeared in the aftermath of the April coup in 1974. James Dunn

    Subject: Re Dili under th e Pide
    Date: Tue, 24 Apr 2007 17:51:36 +1000

    Just one other point re this item. The PIDE character in Osmar White’s book was of course Pide Inspector Rego, who commanded the unit in Portuguese Timor in the early sixties. James Dunn

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