The dust swirls around my feet in the Comoro district of Dili, East Timor. It was but two days ago that I arrived, a newly minted freelance photographer visiting the world's newest country. My previous life as a newspaper photographer in Kansas City seem like a dream and as time goes on that life begins to fade away as a figment of my imagination. Dili and Kansas City cannot be any further away. The shortest distance between them is straight through the earth's molten core.
My journey to East Timor has been on my own dime. My editor from OnAsia Images in Bangkok had said that there might be some work with UNHCR but no promises. I push thoughts of my precarious financial situation to the back of my mind and focus on the task at hand.
"Let's go look for some action today," I told my driver, Manny. It did not take us long to find it.
It began with taunts and obscene gestures out of rock-throwing range. A member of the Loro Mono steps ahead of his comrades and fans his hand, beckoning the enemy over. He flips them the bird. Insults them. Another plucks up his courage and steps forward. He pulls back his catapult and fires it in a high arc at maximum range. I hear the stone plink harmlessly off the road asphalt in front of the Loro Sae. More rocks follow; adrenaline takes its effect. They are ready for a fight. Watching this challenge from across the street, the Loro Sae are protective of their territory, especially of a street market which in more peaceful times will provide for the people.
I began to realize that the advance of the Loro Sae is taking them to my hitherto safe position. Rocks aimed at the retreating Loro Mono rain down around me. None of them intentionally targeting me but an errant hit will hurt just as much. Now I beat a hasty retreat, my two cameras bouncing from my shoulders like jingle bells, and crouch behind a low wall out of the line of fire. In the distance, a row rumble grows louder. The ground shakes. The Australians in their armored personnel carriers have arrived. With their .50 caliber-mounted machine guns, scoped assault rifles and imposing physiques, the Australian soldiers present an impressive sight. Like an ink drop in water, the gangs melt way into the back alleys and narrow side streets. Those caught on the main road have already long dropped their rocks and ambled off with upturned palms in mock innocence. The soldiers do what they can, searching bodies and maintaining a menacing presence. "Aww, fuck you, you are not going to burn down another house!" screamed a soldier who found a lighter on a gang member. A boy in red defies the Australians' order to stop and bolted. Three soldiers give chase. I give chase.
"Oi you, stop there!"
"Ada orang pakai baju merah lari masuh sini?" (Is there someone wearing red who just ran in here?) one of the Australian soldiers asked a dumbfounded family who have come out to investigate the fracas.
Back on the main Comoro road things are quiet. The Australians will maintain a presence before speeding off again to the next hotspot. But like a game of Smack-a-Mole, the taunting and chest-thumping will began again minutes after they leave. Each side labeling each other as evil. Each side maintaining the need for weapons for self -defense. And so goes the circle of violence.
I pause and wait for the Australians to leave. Any minute now. I light a cigarette and notice that my hands are shaking.
© Norman Ng
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