Camp City, Dili


OUR MAN IN TIMOR Reports by Derwin Pereira.

The ruins of Dili stand as mute witnesses to the acts of violence committed in past weeks. As some uprooted East Timorese head home and multinational forces comb areas for militiamen, the capital’s sights and smells offer clues to the abject misery of the people amid the devastation.

FROM the airplane over East Timor’s capital, the swathes of destroyed houses look like crude blueprints, their missing roofs throwing every bedroom into plain view, some even with beds intact.

The hideous reality of the damage done after three weeks of violence becomes even more apparent at ground level. Dili and its surrounding areas lie in ruins, reduced in some areas to knee-deep rubble.

The houses, shops and hotels stand mute, their second-storey windows taking on the appearance of glazed eyes. Out of the thousands of buildings on the island, only 100 – mostly of Portuguese colonial heritage – survive the vicious scorched-earth policy.

In the eastern section of Bimori, known as a pro-independence bastion, house after house down every street in every direction is a vacant shell, broken-walled and covered in soot.

The only sounds come from the scurrying of stray dogs and the drip, drip, drip of broken water pipes, as well as the pounding rhythm of the Superpuma helicopters swirling above the city.

There is also an occasional burst of gunfire from militias – and the military out to get them.

The pungent smell from these gunshots hang in the air with the smoke which still billows over some parts of Dili. Some people say the militias are torching villages.

If there is barely a soul left in the houses, the roads on the outskirts of the city are beginning to swell with masses of people.

Uprooted East Timorese who fled to the mountains for refuge from the slaughter are creeping back through the brownish and undulating slopes, homeward-bound.

Many, however, still unsure whether it is safe to return, are idling by the roadsides, saddled with bedding and babes in arms.

They are distinguished mostly by their Melanesian features – curly hair and dark skin – and the language they speak, Tetum, which is the most widely used indigenous language.

They camp out in the open, still too frightened to remove the T-shirts and bandanas in militia colours that they have been wearing for their safety.

A few remain at Dili harbour where weeks ago, at least 2,000 refugees crowded to board navy ships to take them to Kupang, the main city in neighbouring West Timor.

Wherever they go, the rough and weather-beaten men, women and children are watched eagle-eyed by gun-toting soldiers of the Indonesian military and the United Nations multinational force who fan out into different parts of the city in their camouflage uniforms, sweeping areas for militia members.

The fanatical militias are still in hiding in the jungles, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the security forces. Their presence has dwindled significantly, most conspicuously reflected in their absence at road intersections in the highway linking Dili and West Timor.

But some are still in the woods, waiting to ambush foreign journalists and others in cars making their way by road into or out of the city.

They demand as much as five million rupiah (S$1,000) from each passenger for “safe passageway”.

To undermine this extortion business, UN and Indonesian soldiers, working in groups of 10, man several roadblocks through the pitch-dark nights and keep an eye out for the militias in the hills.

The soldiers also check all vehicles for guns and other weapons.

The Dili of today is virtually a war zone. It has been transformed into a large scale military camp.

“Tent cities” have sprouted in different locations to house the UN soldiers and their Indonesian counterparts.

Barren tracts of land as big as soccer fields have been turned overnight into bases for the 8,000 peacekeepers.

White vans and Land Rovers bearing the UN logo, khaki-coloured military trucks, armoured vehicles and at least 15 Superpumas and helicopters are now there to nurse this blighted territory back into normalcy.

Until peace returns, Dili will continue to remain a devastated land.

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