Timorese politics turned nasty a couple weeks back when counter-demonstrators crashed a rally in Dili for presidential frontrunner Jose Ramos-Horta. Today there’s another rally … and the U.N. force working to stabilize East Timor are taking no chances. Australian troops in trucks and M-113 personnel carriers spread throughout the city. A New Zealander infantry squad arrive early at the stadium to check things out then set out on foot to patrol the area. U.N. cops from Nigeria, the Philippines and Sri Lanka set up checkpoints to make sure only seemingly peaceful demonstrators got through. An Aussie helicopter keeps a lookout overhead.
It appears to be working. After five hours at the rally, I call it quits and retreat to my hostel to nurse a serious sunburn and to work on this post. I’m sitting at a picnic table sipping a Coke, typing a sentence that begins, “In stark contrast to last month’s violent demonstrations … ” when there are loud sounds outside and the hostel’s resident mutt whimpers and crawls under the table.
“Fighting!” the manager shrieks and runs to padlock the gate. I slip on my flip-flops, grab my camera and escape out the front door of an adjacent Indian restaurant. There is stuff happening in both directions down the dusty street, so I pick a random direction and start shuffling, which is what you end up doing if you try running in flip-flops. For some reason there’s a U.S. Army officer talking on a cell phone on the corner. What the Hell? I shuffle right past him. Someone is playing Dido on their stereo. “Just to be with you, is giving me the best day – of – my – liiife!”
There are a couple hundred demonstrators in trucks and on motorcycles, all around this barren park. They look, I dunno, happy. Too happy.
Around here, bikers mean trouble. After all, who rides motorcycles? That’s right: young guys with too much free time and too much energy. Just the type to go rampaging in support of their favorite presidential candidate. I ease into the crowd, snapping photos and trying to look inconspicuous despite my strawberry sunburn and the fact that I’m at least a foot taller than everyone.
A squad of Australian soldiers, with a dog, pulls up in two trucks. They stand around watching the bikers scatter. The dog tries to bite me, twice. “Local politics are fun,” I say.
“Fun for who?” counters one young soldier.
The bikers are headed past my hostel and towards the other end of the street, so I follow. At a roundabout they converge, yell at each other some then scatter again. I’m starting to get a feel for what’s happening. This is mechanized political violence. Both sides have armies of dudes on bikes itching to fight. Only the U.N. is keeping them apart.
A hundred guys come sprinting around a soft corner. I head against the flow and turn onto a stretch of road littered with burning motorcycles. U.N. cops have tackled some dude. He’s hurt. He’s screaming. There are rocks all over the road. Looks like I missed this battle by just a couple minutes.
More cops arrive. That Aussie Kiowa chopper flutters overhead. An ambulance comes for the injured combatant. Witnesses say no one else was hurt, but I find a pool of blood hastily covered with leaves.
There’s an Al Jazeera documentarian roaming the street. She points further down the road to a small refugee camp and says that is a likely source of trouble. We walk that way and find a couple hundred refugees staring down a rather confused squad of New Zealander infantry, one of whom is taking pictures, pissing off one refugee whose face is painted like an exposed skull. “This doesn’t look good,” says the documentarian, pointing at the Kiwis’ rifles. “Guns during an election.”
Guns, rocks, burning motorcycles, pools of blood … and now more U.N. cops, shoving into the crowd of refugees, ordering them to get off the street, go home – and take off that mask, you!
Things slowly return to normal. Ha, normal. I walk back to the hostel, limping from a stubbed toe, itching where ants have bitten my feet.