By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 28, 2006
DILI, East Timor, May 27 -- Thousands of people in East Timor's capital fled Saturday to churches, schools and other sanctuaries after surging violence between factions inside the security forces this week ignited a wider feud between residents from the east of this tiny country and those from the west.
Plumes of smoke rose over Dili's southern neighborhoods as gangs set fire to homes belonging to their rivals. Newly formed self-defense militias began patrolling streets, armed with sticks, knives, machetes and, in some cases, guns.
Timorese and longtime foreign residents said the formation of these vigilante groups in the last two days had instilled a sense of terror among Dili residents unparalleled since the widespread militia killings in 1999 that followed East Timor's vote for independence from Indonesia.
But even as fear gripped this port city, the ferocious gun battles that accounted for most of the two dozen deaths recorded this week began to ebb. Doctors at Dili's main hospital reported no new fatalities, saying the majority of injuries treated in the emergency room were from small arrows.
The unrest is rooted in a drive by nearly 600 members of the armed forces to seek redress for what they say is discrimination against soldiers from the west. During East Timor's long fight for independence, leaders of the rebellion were primarily easterners, and they later became the senior brass in the new country's armed forces. Instead of addressing the concerns of the westerners, who complained of poor pay and living conditions, the military commander dismissed them.
The clash later drew in the national police, whose ranking officers are more closely identified with the west. After several soldiers opened fire on unarmed police in Dili on Thursday, killing 10 as they were being escorted from their headquarters by U.N. officers, the traumatized force melted away. Frightened officers fled for the surrounding hills. On Saturday, no one patrolled the largely abandoned streets but the vigilantes.
Among the homes targeted by the gangs was that belonging to opposition leader Fernando Lasamma. In an emotional interview, his wife, Jacquelina Siapano, described hearing from a neighbor that the house had been set ablaze after it was ransacked on two earlier occasions this week.
"In 1999, I was here and became a refugee. We understood the violence then because it was the price of independence," she said by telephone from the west of the country where she had fled. "Now there are so many conflicts: ethnic conflicts, political conflicts. Now it seems they feel violence is the only way they can solve things."
The government estimated that 60,000 Timorese had been displaced by clashes and fear since tensions first erupted early this year.
Hundreds of refugees, terrified by the sudden anarchy in Dili, crowded in front of the gates of the main U.N. compound and outside the beachfront U.S. Embassy. Hundreds more packed onto the grounds of the small international airport, where Australian military forces had taken up positions after starting to arrive two days ago at the request of the desperate East Timor government.
Though the Australian-led peacekeeping force is expected to reach nearly 2,000 soldiers in the coming days, few foreign troops were in evidence on the capital's streets. Stores remained shuttered on what is usually a busy shopping day, and gas stations were closed out of fear they could be targeted. Public transportation mostly came to a halt.
As scores of foreigners fled the country, Australian troops in combat gear at the airport helped unload luggage, baby carriages and other belongings from cars and buses.
Hours after the United Nations announced it was also evacuating nonessential personnel from the country, dozens of employees trickled into the U.N. compound carrying suitcases and backpacks. Some were distraught over leaving their Timorese colleagues behind and abruptly suspending services to the country's impoverished population.