East Timor is an ill-starred land that has endured more than its share of violence, neglect and deprivation.

In 2006, only four years after it gained independence, violent clashes erupted yet again on the streets of Dili, East Timor’s capital. The troubles began in February with a small-scale mutiny in the military over pay and promotion grievances. That ignited a simmering feud between President Xanana Gusmao and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

After the prime minister dismissed the mutineers, violence flared between military units and subsequently the police. The clashes were linked to the political conflict at the top, but were also driven by ethnic tensions between easterners and westerners.

By June, amid the gathering chaos, roaming gangs had torched and looted their way around most of Dili and driven many easterners out of their homes into the refugee camps where many still remain.

At that time the loss of life was relatively small, 37 — but the toll of the violence was far greater, undermining the fragile sense of stability that had slowly emerged in the wake of the Indonesian military’s bloody farewell in 1999. This is a society that still bears the scars of losing nearly 200,000 people to the famines and killing caused by Indonesia’s 24-year occupation.

In June 2006, Australian security forces arrived and restored calm. The unpopular Prime Minister Alkatiri was forced to resign over allegations that he and Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato had distributed weapons to a hit squad targeting political opponents.

In July, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jose Ramos-Horta — founder of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, who was the spokesman in exile for resistance to the 1975-99 Indonesian occupation, and has just announced he will run for president in April 9’s elections — became prime minister after serving as foreign minister under Prime Minister Alkatiri. Then, in the following month, Japan sponsored a resolution establishing UNMIT (United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor Leste [East Timor]).

The resumption of the UN presence in East Timor reflects widespread recognition that the world body declared “mission accomplished” too soon back in 2002, and prematurely left East Timor to its own devices. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged the UN’s responsibility, and UNMIT reflects the desire to get on with the unfinished business of nation-building.

Meanwhile, East Timor’s moribund justice system creaks under the backlog of cases from the crimes of 1999, and now faces elevated public expectations demanding accountability for high-ranking perpetrators involved in the fresh crimes of 2006.

Escalating gang violence adds to this disturbing portrait of a nation on the brink. With elections approaching in April, many observers fear a downward spiral.


At the close of 2006, there were ominous signs that East Timor was facing continued crisis.

An ongoing drought, for one, heightened already unhappy spirits and led to more hunger.

People were also anxious about the birth of a one-eyed pig with an elephantlike snout. In a country where troubles pile one upon another, nobody took it as a good sign. Then, when a lake outside Dili suddenly turned blood red, many saw it as a harbinger of violence.

These omens reflect and feed anxieties in a society with good cause for fear; 2006 was the year that the dreams launched with independence in 2002 were shattered by widespread violence. The promise and hope of self-determination that had buoyed sentiments through four lean years suddenly went up in smoke — along with more than 2,000 homes. Small confrontations escalated out of control, unleashing a pent-up malevolence fed by bitter disappointment over post-independence realities.

As things went from very bad to far worse, neighborhoods were “cleansed” and ransacked, driving an estimated 150,000 people into refugee camps across the island — a staggering 15 percent of the entire population. With all that, the delicate work of restoring trust and stability lay amid the ashes left behind by those fortunate enough to flee to safety.


Despair peered at me through the chain-link fence separating the airport from a refugee camp of nearly 8,000 internally displaced people (IDP). And from behind this forlorn facade of despair, angrier IDPs threw rocks at security personnel and their vehicles guarding the air terminal. This was an intriguing welcome for visitors just walking off the tarmac, but forced to dash to the safety of taxis with shattered windscreens and scarred bodywork amid a cacophony of projectiles pinging off metal.

My taxi driver explained that the government had declared the next day the deadline for the IDPs to leave the airport refugee camp.

It is a sign of the desperation in Dili that this miserable, flood-prone tent encampment along the bleak fringe of the runway is deemed worth fighting for. And it’s further telling that those being asked to leave had nowhere to go.

The internally displaced were being encouraged to return to their homes or extended families, as the government worried that having settled in, the IDPs were becoming far too comfortable, with running water and regular meals.

Luiz Viera of the International Organization of Migration (IOM) told me that the government did not want to build alternative IDP sites because it feared sending the wrong message. The camps have become a tangible symbol of the government’s failure to protect the public, and its inability to ease fears that violence will erupt again. Building new camps would make it seem that the government was also resigned to this situation.

Viera pointed out, however, that returning to their homes was not an option for people who had been driven from them, often by neighbors and gangs of young toughs. Some of their houses have been burned down, others have been occupied, and fear remains a formidable obstacle to resuming life as it was.

Although the number of refugees has declined to around 100,000 or so, Viera said his organization is braced for an influx this year, reflecting widespread pessimism about election-related violence.

Kerry Clarke from Oxfam said that the “fear factor” that prevails among IDPs, many of whom have lost everything, has become part of East Timor’s social fabric. In her view, the east-west divide was “whipped up out of the blue” for political purposes, but now it has become reality because most of the IDPs are easterners, and dealing with their situation has become a divisive political issue.

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