One of the interesting things about living in Dili is hearing about the ‘old days’ from other expats.
The ‘old days’ typically refers to the period 2006-2009, after which nearly all people agree things have markedly improved… there’s only a handful of expat people who were here earlier than that, and they are usually even more interesting.
The typical ‘old days’ story seems to involve guns or military personnel – something which there are thankfully far less of in Dili these days compared to the past. Hopefully a sign of long-lasting peace.
The old days story usually starts when someone stares into the distance for a while and then says something like:
“Remember when the ISF (international stabilisation force) guys used to come to get hamburgers at the Dili Beach Hotel and they’d just dump those huge automatic weapons on the floor while they ate?”
The other old timers will nod and the newbies will laugh and say ‘really?’ or roll their eyes a bit in a ‘oh Timor!’ kind of way, that look that silently acknowledges the inherent strangeness of life here.
Someone else will pipe up.
“Yes! And they used to walk around Lita (supermarket) with them too, in those narrow aisles, with a shopping cart!”
Something like this may cue a few witty jokes like “wouldn’t want to get into a fight with them over the last box of museli” etc. You can replace museli with any other item prone to random shortages in Dili (cheese, UHT milk, tinned tomatoes, gluten free soy sauce… the list goes on).
Sometimes a newbie (in this case, me) will try to chime in with a gun story too.
“I was walking by Xanana (the Prime Minister)’s house the other day and his guard had a gun that was almost bigger than him. This huge automatic weapon, that he was using to lean on like a walking stick while he smoked and talked to his friends.”
This might invoke a few tsk tsks about professionalism.
Then someone else will bring out the best story of the night.
“I was in the internet café near ANZ bank back in 2008 and a whole van full of ADF (Australian soldiers) pulled up and this guy jumps out holding up a huge automatic weapon. I think ‘oh my God, something is about to happen’, completely terrified. It was when there was still a curfew in Dili and everything. The soldiers dart off quickly in a group while the one guy stays by the van with the gun… Five minutes later they return with icecream cones. Someone else then holds the weapon by the van so the last guy can go and get his.’
It’s one of the strange things about Dili. As I mentioned, there are far less international military/peacekeepers/international police here now than in the past, but they are still all around town (not carrying automatic weapons on them these days – the police usually have shotguns in the holsters though, like at home). All the ones I’ve met so far are friendly and they are always just doing everyday things like grabbing lunch or going to the supermarket or getting takeaways for dinner or getting dropped off at Atauro in a chopper for a weekend of R&R. From conversations, their work is mainly focused on capacity building with the local forces, or setting up protocols and processes.
But does their presence imply safety or does it hint at the still existing potential for unsafety amongst this everyday traquility?
That’s the paradox here in Dili. It seems so peaceful and so normal nearly every day, but if things were really as normal as they seem on the surface, would the peacekeepers still be here?
Hopefully by the end of the year, once the elections are done, the new normal will be to see even fewer foreigners in uniforms around town (and even fewer automatic weapons).