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What it feels like to have to run


What it feels like to have to runAt the time, it seemed unbelievable that the unrest which began in April had continued for so long. And so last year, we were waiting for, hoping for, a resolution to the problems which had erupted in a matter of weeks and surely, therefore, could be contained in a few months. We waited for law and order to be re-established in the bairos (suburbs) of the capital Dili, for the refugees to go home, for peace, for normality to return.

Now, ten months on, I don’t think anyone is waiting for a single resolution. It feels as though Timor has entered a new phase of its post-independence history and the instability, the lawlessness, the dirty politicking and manipulation will continue until a new order, a new rule has been established to replace the vacuum left when the state imploded.

So if April, May and June of last year were funu (war) and krize (crisis), then July to the present has been situasaun, a situation, a state of daily unrest. The worst of the arson, the looting, the gunbattles from the height of the crisis have been contained, while low-level conflicts continue with almost monotonous regularity.

Groups of boys from rival gangs pick fights with each other and for a few days or a week, Bairo Pite or Bebonuk or Ai-mutin is off bounds. Women and children pack up and leave and the boys are left to sort things out among themselves. They brawl in the streets, or on makeshift soccer fields with steel stakes, homemade arrows, slingshots, machetes, swords, Molotov cocktails, pipebombs, tyre braces.

Sometimes they have guns, sometimes grenades. They lay into each other and they stone people’s houses and then burn them. They brawl to settle old scores, or because they are from rival martial arts groups, or because their bosses are aligned to different politicians, different interests. Or they brawl because they can – because they have no money, no jobs, no studies to think about, no future to plan for – and when they are brawling, they feel that there is something at stake. They are trying to win some small victory for themselves, their group, their friends, their area.

Portuguese national guardsmen, Malaysian and Australian cops, Kiwi, Australian and Bangladeshi soldiers patrol the streets. Choppers buzz over trouble spots. People avoid going out at night. And tens of thousands of Timorese are still refugees in their own country.

April 2006 – the first week

After the riot came the rumours. We knew what had happened on April 28 – the final day of a protest by 600 sacked soldiers turned ugly. Cars in the centre of the city were torched, the windows of the main government building, the Palacio do Governo were smashed, five people were shot dead and dozens injured.

But the rumours which followed were much worse. Most Timorese don’t discriminate between fact and conjecture. Just because something is documented to have happened does not give it more weight than something which is being talked about. In fact, what people talk about often has an urgency, a currency, a license which the official version of events lacks. The rumours then were an indication that people feared the worst was yet to come. The rumours seemed to say April 28 was bad, but we can imagine more. We have seen worse, many times before. Why should this be any different?

What it feels like to have to runSo in the days following April 28 we heard about a mass grave, and 60 or more civilians buried somewhere on the outskirts of the city. We heard of soldiers committing necrophilia on the bodies of girls left lying near the Virgin’s grotto in Taci Tolu. We heard that dogs had begun feasting on corpses, which were left lying where they fell. People said the authorities didn’t want to bring them in, because this would mean readjusting the official death toll; and a higher death toll was an admission of a graver problem than they had admitted to so far.

A week later on the morning of May 4, 50,000 people fled Dili on a whisper. Rumours of a bloodbath had started the night before. They were coming. Coming from where? From the foho, the boondocks, the mountains, coming down to the city. Who, who was coming? The police, the military, the military police. Men with guns. Coming to do what? To shoot, to kill, to take the city, to wipe people out. It would be worse than 1999. There would be no one left. Better to run now than stay and wait for them to roar into the city.

And so they left in trucks, cars and vans, on motorbikes and on buses so full that one overturned near Venilale, plunging 20 metres down a ravine.

We stayed. I couldn’t bear the thought of being on the road with baby, in the midst of all that panic. But our bairo, our little suburb, was deserted. Out of 20 houses around us, 17 were empty.

Late the next day, B and I drove across to Audian for some noodles. The food was good and I ate with gusto – staving off panic with noodle soup. When we’d finished eating, we walked out into the dusty dusk, the soft, downy time of the day and stood on the steps of the restaurant as a yellow cattle truck roared passed, heading east, packed with women, babies, children and young boys. Sitting on the back tailgates were two soldiers, two F-FDTL men. They held the tailgate with one hand, and steadied their rifles with the other. Something dropped down in the pit of my stomach then and I felt sick all over again, watching soldiers escorting their families back east because they believed it, this rumour of a bloodbath.

We drove home. On the way past the Indonesian embassy, we saw a group of refugees huddled in the ruins of a house burnt out in the post-referendum violence of 1999.

The congress, the gunfight at the market

What it feels like to have to runMay 18, the second day of the Fretilin party national congress. B was in town, eating dinner with friends. Baby had a cough and took ages to settle. When she was finally asleep, I went to bed too and was woken, around midnight, by gunfire. Or was it fireworks? I tried to tell myself it was fireworks, to celebrate the end of the congress. But it kept going. Every few minutes, there’d be a spurt of gunfire and it was all one way. There were no answering shots. Someone is being hammered, I thought. People are being shot and killed. This is what I’m hearing.

I texted B: Are you OK where are you?

On the way, lock the door.

B came back and we stayed up talking, late into the night. He said Mari Alkatiri, then Prime Minister and party Secretary, had won the day at the Congress. He had won on the issue of having an open ballot, a show of hands, for him to be re-elected Secretary General, the position which secured his role as PM, even though he had first been elected to the post on secret ballot.

Why have they done this? I asked

He shrugged. It’s the way of terror, of intimidation.

The delegates were mostly public servants. Who among them would dare put their hand up and vote against him, and against their bosses, in front of all the other delegates, with their goons standing on the sidelines and the gates to the gymnasium locked, so that no one could get away?

I woke to feed babe at dawn. More gunfire.

Massacre at the quartel

On May 25, eight Timorese police officers were shot and another 27 wounded as they were about to surrender to the F-FDTL. Who killed them? Who gunned them down? At the time, on that day, no one knew. It was all whitenoise, rumours, gossip. There were gunfights all over Dili. The phone lines were down. The city had dissolved. The state had disappeared.

Mate, said Mana Kika. Ema hotu mate. Everyone’s dead.

What it feels like to have to runWe ran to Hotel Esplanade with Mana Kika and her kids. We booked two rooms and plied the kids with nasi goreng, juice, Smiths chicken chips. I fed babe, I clung to her. I put my cheek up against the skin of her cheek. When she fell asleep, I put her on the couch and kept trying my phone. For every 20 attempts, one message would get through.

By 11pm that night, there were 23 of us crowded into two rooms. We put the mattresses on the floor and slept fitfully, side by side. At 4am, we woke to the sight of pink Australian military flares drifting down over the water across the road from the hotel.

At 7am the next morning, we drove into town. A journalist friend wanted to have a look around and out of a strange sort of nervous tension, I agreed. J, who had kipped on the lounge of the Esplanade, came along to take photos. We got into our beat up old sedan and drove down the beach road. What a morning! Cool, a little wind rustling the fronds of the coconut palms, the water was calm, the sun still gentle.

We pulled up outside the quartel where the police had been shot. We could still hear gunfire above the city, in Lahane. And everything, bar the bodies, was still there on the road – a woman’s black court shoe, shreds of clothing, bloody stains on the tarmac, bits of flesh, red and meaty looking.

What… what is that? asked J.

Brains, said the journalist

She took a call on her mobile and started doing a phoner for a breakfast program in Melbourne.

June, in the bairo

We changed the curtains in the front room. We took down the see-through gold patterned ones and put up the thick calico curtains. It was never said, but the implication was that the calico curtains would give us more protection, if anyone did come to shoot us.

And this seemed entirely possible. The city was fragile, impermanent, not so much a city as a settlement, a camp, from which everyone could disappear again, just like they had on May 4. People hid in their bairos. Or stayed with relatives. Or ran to churches, schools, the offices of international organizations, hotels. Those who could go, did, were evacuated in Hercules or charter flights to Townsville and Denpasar. The rest of us sat tight and waited.

We lived in our bairo, ran out to get food when we could. Came back. Closed the doors at nightfall and slept early – we three in our bedroom, Mana Kika, Mingas and the kids in the living room. We slept early and sometimes woke to the sound of gunfire up at Comoro, or the eerie, warning-bell sound of boys from neighbouring bairos striking telephone poles with sticks to signal trouble.

We came to know that this road was safe and this road was not. And this area was safe in the day but not at night. The city shrank to the parts of it we could negotiate. Shopping was furtive, quick, calculated. To find a bunch of greens, a freshly-caught fish, warm bread rolls, a small pile of onions was extraordinary, a feat. The bank manager had fled, the ATMs were shut, there was no cash. There was no petrol. Those with government cars took the licence plates off and drove while they could. There was no milk. By the first week of June, there were 70,000 refugees in camps dotted around the city. Feeding mothers dried up. They had no milk for their babies. They asked the nuns to give them formula and the nuns asked the aid workers and the aid workers said no. It’s against protocol. For optimal health, babies should be breastfed exclusively for six months. And stress does not affect a mother’s ability to feed. We know so. We’ve done studies.

So the mothers fed their babies watery rice porridge and knowing the nuns to be softer than the aid workers, asked again. And waited. And when the children were sick, they waited for the ambulance. Which didn’t come. Which came sometimes. And waited for water. Which came in trucks, which wasn’t enough.

What it feels like to have to runAnd a woman gave birth in a camp without running water. You can imagine, can’t you, what it would be like to give birth in a camp? Picture a tent with a tarpaulin floor, dirty, dusty, not swept, not cleaned. Who has a broom here? Who can clean? Maybe it’s not even a tent, just a tarp on poles. And on the floor is a mat, if they had time to grab it before they ran. And cardboard boxes if not. And there’s the woman, giving birth on the floor, on the ground, with ten people around her, some family and some neighbours from surrounding tents. And are they happy at the birth of the baby? Do they celebrate? Or do they curse the woman for her bad timing? And when the baby is born, he’s washed in the hands of those who hold him, because there is no water. The whole of your insides turned out to deliver this baby into the world and afterwards, there is no water.

In early June, I spent a few days volunteering on a UN project in the camps. The UN wanted information boards erected in all the camps, so that the refugees could be improved – so that they could be told how to look after their children and how to wash their hands after they’d been to the toilet.

Late in the afternoon, we drove up the Comoro River to the village of Casnafar. I sat on the verandah of the village chief’s house and asked how the refugees in his village were faring. He said they needed rice.

“We shared out the rice that [the Ministry of Labour] gave us. Then we shared out the rice that Rotary gave us. Now we’ll have to share out our rice. Then there’ll be nothing left,” he said.

I took down his name – Agapito Malimau. I wrote down the number of refugees he had in his aldeia – 400 people. I wrote that he had asked for rice. I promised to do what I could. Then I got back into the agency’s white 4WD and drove away, feeling ashamed. All I could do was send people back to his village who would erect a notice board and this week a speech by Kofi Annan would be stapled to the board, next week a handout on domestic abuse.

One day the tables will be turned, I thought. One day, we’ll all be stuck in some squalid refugee camp and people like Agapito will drive past in an immaculate white Landcruiser. And wave.


In daylight hours, city traffic in Dili is back to normal. All the roads are open again – except for the road outside the quartel, where the policemen were shot. The part of the road where they fell has become a memorial – on the blackened tarmac there are the waxy remains of hundreds of candles, burnt by the widows and families of the men shot there; and sometimes at dusk, relatives gather to place flowers, to light more candles. Other times, you can see passers-by glancing at the spot – curious, wary. It still seems incredible, that in the broad daylight, in the middle of the city, outside the Ministry of Justice, under escort from UN police, eight policemen were gunned down.

I think back to this time last year, before all the troubles began, and it seems as though Dili was a different city, Timor, a different country. And what an innocent I was. To have lived 36 years on this earth in these times, and not have known what gunfire sounds like; what a refugee camps looks like; what it feels like to have to run.

Author’s Note: I wrote the essay below in October of last year, when East Timor’s crisis was dragging into its sixth month.



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Existing comments

Having been in T.L.in 1999 and leaving only on September 10th I know of the people's suffering.It breaks my heart to see what is happening now. Who profits from this unrest? I think this a question worth investigating. The second thing I wonder is why a town the size of Warrnambool can't be brought to order when there are so many troops, Australian, Portuguese,etc.there.

Anne Forbes R.S. M. | 24 January 2007  

to mana chris -who has written it like it was- from her neighbour in the hood. her words ring so true that as i read i felt the churning feeling in my stomach. that is my response to baku-besi -banging metal, the local boys' way of warning their neighbours when trouble is coming...
parabens mana, congratulations, husi kolega diak, emma

Emma | 11 July 2007