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