Dili tense amid a fresh outbreak of looting, shooting and arson

News Stories, 28 June 2006

© UNHCR/N.Ng
A fresh wave of violence and arson has swept through districts of the Timor-Leste capital Dili. But despite difficulty in accessing some areas, UNHCR continues to help the displaced.

DILI, Timor-Leste, June 28 (UNHCR) Tensions were high in Dili today as gangs continued to throw stones, burn and loot houses and intimidate the population, including some of those sheltering in makeshift camps around the Timor-Leste capital.

Overnight, there were arson attacks and shootings in at least five neighbourhoods, while Australian peace-keeping troops arrested at least 19 people. But UNHCR's emergency operations were continuing, even though some areas were inaccessible for part of the day.

More than 50 tents were distributed to internally displaced people (IDPs) at a number of sites, including the crowded national pharmacy where staff struggle to dispense medicine while some 800 people seek refuge on its grounds.

Meanwhile, UNHCR protection officers visited IDP settlements in the five districts hit by the latest wave of violence and arson attacks. Vanno Noupech, leader of the agency's emergency team in Dili, expressed deep concern at the escalation in violence.

"Whenever there are incidents such as looting or burning in a particular bairro [or neighbourhood], there is usually some impact on the nearby IDP sites," he said.

"In some sites, it was gangs throwing stones at the gate, calling out insults to particular groups. In others, there was simply an increase in people jumping over walls or entering the sites seeking refuge from nearby areas affected by the escalation of violence."

On Tuesday night, shooting, looting and house burning in the bairro of Beto prompted the movement of some 500 people from the neighbouring IDP camp at the meteorological bureau to the newly constructed camp at the airport. There was still tension at the site today, even though people had returned to their camp following meetings with IDP representatives, UNHCR officials and foreign troops.

Meanwhile, Catholic nuns at the Colégio de São José in the Lahane Timur area reported an escalation of stone throwing into their compound temporary home to some 800 IDPs over the past three nights. A teacher at the settlement said he was attacked by youths when he tried to return home on Tuesday night and had to be rescued by a priest from the college.

The young man, who gave his name as Teo, cradled his one-month-old baby in his arms as he told UNHCR of his ordeal. "Just after the evening television news, the gangs came to my house and started to throw stones. They shouted 'lorosae, lorosae,'" he said, using the local term for people from the east of the country. Tensions between rival groups from the west and the east of Timor-Leste was partly responsible for the violence that first flared in late April.

Staff at the Hospital National Guido Valadas said 80 people had climbed over the walls to seek refuge as overnight violence devastated the nearby bairro. Six houses were burned, including one next to an orphanage.

Sister Malou, a Dominican nun who runs the centre, said the gangs threw stones and made noises with iron bars. Last week, the orphanage's computer training centre was torched. The orphanage is normally home to 37 orphans and a handful of young girls who want to become nuns. Today, its crowded dormitories host some 960 people under pieces of plastic sheeting.

On the other side of town, in Pite Bairro, priests at the Fatumeta Seminario Maior said there had been more incidences of gangs gathering at the seminary gates and shouting threats and insults to the IDPs inside. The seminary usually hosts 53 seminarians and six priests, but today it shelters more than 2,500 people who have fled the violence in several waves since late April.

"People are particularly afraid," said Brother Hannibel. "We have a very large area here and people can jump over the back fence. We are waiting for more barbed wire to be installed, but it is an emergency situation."

UNHCR's Noupech said the agency was continuing a daily dialogue with the Australian Defence Force, which is responding to incidents. "Because incidents in a particular bairro impact on the nearby IDP sites, we are asking the troops to also include a visit to any of the IDP sites nearby when they investigate violence in the suburbs," said Noupech.

"While the foreign troops are responding very quickly to incidents, UNHCR welcomes the pending arrival of additional contingents of police forces including from Malaysia," added Noupech. He said this deployment would boost the international police presence to 500 officers and hopefully ease problems in the barrios at night.

By Ariane Rummery in Dili, Timor-Leste

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Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.4: UNHCR Sets Up Camps

With the first wave of UNHCR's air and sea operation to rush relief supplies to Timor-Leste completed, the focus is now on improving the living conditions of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) living in crowded, unsanitary makeshift camps around Dili.

Many of the 69,000 displaced in Dili have told UNHCR they prefer to stay near the makeshift sites where they feel safe. In response, UNHCR has begun searching for additional sites around these areas to clear ground, pitch tents and decongest the existing makeshift shelters. Not all makeshift sites are suitable for expansion, so UNHCR is moving ahead with the establishment and planning of new sites.

UNHCR has sent an assessment team to the countryside where some 78,000 Timorese have sought refuge. Many displaced are staying with relatives, while others are sheltering in huts, offices, church building and spontaneous camp sites. We are now delivering assistance to some of these people.

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.4: UNHCR Sets Up Camps

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.3: UNHCR's Air and Sea Relief Delivery Operation

Rushing emergency relief supplies to tens of thousands of displaced people in the strife-hit Timor-Leste has been a top priority for the UN refugee agency.

On Monday, the first phase of the air and sea operation ferrying in 200 metric tonnes of tents, blankets, plastic sheeting and kitchen sets, was completed.

Last week four Antonov-12 flights flew in 56 tonnes of supplies, and on Monday 12 June, a freighter crossed the Timor Sea from Darwin, loaded with 150 tonnes of supplies, flown in earlier from UNHCR's regional Middle East stockpiles in Jordan to the northern Australian city. There are now shelter supplies on the ground for some 17,000 people.

Working closely with partners on the ground, UNHCR's emergency team is already improving living conditions at the crowded, unsanitary makeshift camps around the capital Dili, and starting to establish planned camps.

Security is still a major concern for the displaced, traumatised by the house burning, looting and violence. UNHCR urgently needs US$4.8 million for its Timor-Leste emergency operation.

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.3: UNHCR's Air and Sea Relief Delivery Operation

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.1: Recent Violence

June 2006

Recent violence in Timor-Leste has displaced about 100,000 people, with 65,000 sheltering in 40 squalid encampments in the capital, Dili, and a further 35,000 taking refuge in the countryside. A UNHCR assessment team visited the makeshift camps in Dili end May and reported the most critical humanitarian needs, aside from security, were food, clean water and shelter.

In a phased response to the crisis and as part of a joint UN effort, UNHCR deployed an emergency team to reinforce staff on the ground and is now airlifting in urgently needed supplies for some 30,000 displaced. The first flight, which arrived in Dili on June 5, brought 14 tonnes of lightweight family tents, plastic sheets and jerry cans from UNHCR stockpiles in Jordan.

UNHCR and its partners will use these items to establish new, planned camps for the displaced, where they can live in better conditions and assistance will be easier to deliver, until the security situation improves and they can return to their homes.

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.1: Recent Violence