East Timor's devastated capital is showing signs of shaking off its recent, violent past and taking the first steps toward recovery.
Small-scale commerce is returning--fish is being sold at the port, along with cigarettes, tomatoes, some mangoes and a little garlic and coffee beans. Some of the battered old blue taxis have returned, too, and the motorcyclists who make a living shuttling stranded journalists around the city.
The streets are full of endless movement--refugees coming in from the hills, moving with wheelbarrows and bicycles and motorcycles, packed atop trucks, or on foot.
Dili's streets still show the destruction of last month's army and militia rampage, which began after East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. Since international peacekeepers arrived nearly two weeks ago, people have been moving ahead with the rebuilding of their city and their lives--even though they still voice quiet fears that pro-Indonesian militias lurk in the shadows waiting and are capable of more violence.
At Dili's port, Maria Olivera Martins, a strong-framed woman in her forties, sells dried fish, bags of sugar, batteries and old army ration packs left by Indonesian soldiers. She works at a table next to a park where she pitched her tent, after returning from the hills to discover her house had been burned to the ground.
She said the money she now makes is not much, but it's enough to buy rice for her five children.
The market area at the port extends around the charred remnants of the Mahkota hotel, where just over a month ago the results of East Timor's independence vote were announced, prompting tears and hugs in the hotel's ballroom. The hotel is just a shell now, and among the best-selling items at the makeshift market are Mahkota hotel plastic laundry bags going for 1,000 Indonesian rupiah, or about 12 cents. Plastic combs and other items are on sale, too. It isn't much, but in a city with nothing, it seems like everything.
The monumental cleanup job is also beginning. The palatial white mansion of the Indonesian-appointed governor of East Timor is deserted, its rooms filled with scattered files and photographs, metal safes and filing cabinets that have been torn apart by scavengers. But inside the colonial-era compound, workers are busy sweeping up the debris, removing all remnants of its most recent occupant, Abilio Jose Soares, who apparently left in a hurry and now frequents a hotel in Kupang, in western Timor.
"We don't want him to ever come back," said one cleaner. "If he comes back. . .," he said, completing the sentence by drawing a forefinger menacingly across his throat.
Down the road from the old library building that is now the headquarters for the Australian-led intervention force, scavengers pick through a huge garbage heap where the U.N. mission dumps its trash. What U.N. staff members throw away, Esmeralda da Silva and other destitute East Timorese retrieve and use.
"This is my first time coming here," she said shyly, clutching the empty plastic water bottle she had picked up from the pile. The bottle will come in handy, she said, for collecting water that is still a precious commodity in much of the city.
Da Silva, 25, and her husband, Silvino Salsina, 35, returned to Dili only last week, after hiding in the hills with their 1-year-old son. They found later they had nothing to return to.
"The militia set fire to our house," she said. "We lost everything."
Returning residents carry an odd array of items that might be useful in their building--a door frame here and a metal pipe there, tin roofing balanced atop heads and mattresses balanced over shoulders, whatever was salvaged from an old home destroyed and whatever can be used to build a new one.
There is some organization to the efforts here. Aid agencies distributing food have relied on the Roman Catholic Church's parish network and the still-intact neighborhood cell structure of the main pro-independence group, the National Council for Timorese Resistance. At the site of a former jail, in the Becora section of Dili, council members in berets and badges maintained the lists and helped check the names, as World Vision handed out sacks of rice and blue tarps.
There is little time for play in this frenzied process of rebuilding. One of the only diversions came at the port, where dozens of East Timorese pressed against the metal fence to watch Australian soldiers in a volleyball match.
Meanwhile, at a sports stadium where hundreds line up for daily rice distribution, Aussie "diggers," as the soldiers are known, were teaching giggling East Timorese children to say "G'day, mate," the Australian national greeting. They were also teaching the waiting refugees an Australian sports chant: "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, Oi, Oi!"
Along with the rebuilding comes the even more difficult job of putting shattered families back together--and for many in Dili, that means trying to account for missing relatives believed to have been herded by the militia to refugee camps in Atambua, across the border in western Timor, a longstanding part of Indonesia that shares the island with East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that Indonesia invaded in 1975 and annexed a year later.
Herminia Gama, 29, has seen her family scattered by the violence; two brothers were forcibly taken to western Timor, and she has not heard from them. Another brother and his wife were evacuated to Darwin, Australia, after taking refuge in the besieged U.N. compound. Her parents fled east, to the city of Baukau, which was left relatively unscathed by the army and militia rampage.
"The militia came with guns and said all East Timorese people must go there," to western Timor, Gama said. "They said they would bomb East Timor, and all the people must go."
She and several others were huddled at a military barracks, then taken together to a park near the port, waiting for the truck or ship to take them away. Her brothers were loaded onto one of the first trucks. She waited four days, maybe five, and then the first troops of the international rescue force arrived.
"I hope one day my brothers will come back," she said.