The news update in my team meeting is tense. The president has declared a state of emergency and essentially imposed martial law. One candidate for the presidency has said that the election should be cancelled because of the security problems (though maybe he’s just afraid of losing, a staff member jokes). The Timorese soldiers are patrolling, doing random house checks, alongside some 1,500 UN troops and 1,300 Australian and New Zealand soldiers and an unknown number of additional outside forces that arrived this week.
Our deputy director’s house was attacked by stone-throwing teenagers for no reason other than that the assailants had been thwarted when they tried to attack a rival’s house next door. One teammate, who’s Indonesian, had to move over the weekend after just a week in a new place, because there were gangs shooting outside his house. Another teammate, American, had stones thrown at him while he was taking a friend home on his motorbike Friday night. The third team member, who’s Australian, is worried about whether we’ll cover her evacuation if she stays now, because all the other Australians are being evacuated today and tomorrow.
We all think the Australian evacuation is a terrible overreaction, especially with several thousand police and soldiers bolstering the security from now to elections April 9. In Afghanistan, when the rocket attacks increased and the random grenades started, we tightened security and kept working. Here, people are jumpy, the UN mission is disorganized, and the rumors are running wild. We hear that the fugitive Alfredo has lined up hundreds of the sacked soldiers (known as the “petitioners”) who were the source of last year’s crisis, and that on his word they will burn down the city. We hear that criminals are setting traps to ambush cars: boards with nails on the road, or sending children to run out into traffic. When I tried to order pizza Sunday night from the one place in town that delivers, the young man at the other end of the line said in a shaky voice that they were closed because they’d been shot at.
Meanwhile, we are still working on getting fire extinguishers and Internet for our office, which has taken longer than scheduled to set up (the reasons too many to list here). Tom is still trying to get the staff in the habit of keeping fuel stocked for the generator and keeping credits stocked on the phone line and the city power. In the midst of this, I am relaxed.
It seems that the more extreme the situation grows, the more peaceful I feel. It reminds me of what happens when I’m very very angry: Everything slows down, and I speak One. Word. At. A. Time. I don’t recall actually learning to control my temper this way; it’s something that happened to me as I got older, and faced more extreme situations. It was a bodily reaction that synced with my acceptance of a risky life. Here, I see and hear the anxiety on my colleague’s faces and voices, and I reflexively want to make them slow down, too. I feel an immense patience with them and with the tension here. The bigger the problem gets, the further out my perspective goes, the longer view I have of the situation. It’s an instinctive counter-balance – as the seesaw falls heavily on the side of fear and anger, I am buoyed by a lightness and calm perspective.
I tell my teammates that, although it may seem preposterous to make detailed plans for a nationwide voter survey in the midst of all this, we have to go on. That the situation could stabilize, and we have to be ready to take the opportunity to help. That our planning and our belief in the future can be an important influence on the Timorese. They fall silent. We walk through the lesson plan for Friday and talk out the logistics of conducting the survey.
I send out waves of soothing energy in any way that I can. I watch my neighbors carefully from the second-story porch of our apartment, which has a tree-sheltered view of the main street and the corner (as well as three escape routes). Our block has been untouched in the past violence in Dili, and our neighbor says it’s because the house of a “founding father” of independence lived and was killed there, so it’s a kind of sacred space. I’m dubious that the rouges who roam these streets know their nation’s history that well, but nonetheless something or someone is clearly protecting these houses.
More likely, I think, it’s respect for Avo Du, our 90-something resident caretaker, a shrunken laughing little man who has lived in this house all his life. He stands at the gate morning and evening, and he is fed and cared for by all the neighborhood. I love Avo Du and try to evoke his mirth whenever possible, which is quite easy since he seems to find the mere sight of me and Tom quite funny. He thinks it is absolutely hilarious that I drive a car, his shoulders shaking with laughter whenever he sees me behind the wheel, as though he is saying, “Monkeys have wings! Never thought I’d see the day!!”
I take care to greet the neighbors, smile at them, wave, make jokes with the little girls walking home from school and give a thumbs-up to the teenage boys playing guitar on the wall.
Smiling is important. I don’t care if I look stupid or naïve. I’m 47, I’ve traveled in more than 40 countries, and I’ve never been hurt or robbed or attacked. Seems dumb to change my policy now. It is also strategic in a situation like this one. A sincere smile means “I am not a threat.” It is hard (though not impossible, I know) to make an enemy of someone who smiles and waves and greets you each day. As Tom says, “So what if they think I’m an idiot? Nobody’s going to bother to attack an idiot.” But when you stop smiling, neither side is sure. Neither side knows whether to trust, or whether the other is an enemy. When angry and mob mentality arise, it’s easier to lash out at the unsmiling stranger. So I smile and wave at the people who know where I live. It is not insurance. But it’s an investment that costs nothing. And it helps, I think, to keep the calm.
Ze’sopol Carlito Caminha/TiLPA
May your strength give us strength,
may your faith give us faith,
may your hope give us hope,
may your love give us love… – Bruce Springsteen