Subject: AFP: Dili, from a backwater provincial town to capital of new state

Received from Joyo Indonesian News

Agence France Presse April 13, 2002

Dili, from a backwater provincial town to capital of new state


DILI, East Timor

One month before it becomes the capital of the world's newest state, Dili remains much the same dusty, sleepy coastal town that was the hub of Indonesia's province of East Timor for decades until 1999.

Gutted buildings -- some boarded up, others with gaping holes in the walls -- remain as testimonies to the violent rampage across East Timor by militias backed the Indonesian army after the 1999 ballot in favour of independence.

But other buildings that survived the weeks of violence that followed the August 30, 1999 ballot have been given a new lease of life, having been restored or built anew.

The military barracks which for 24 years was the haunting headquarters of the Indonesian armed forces is undergoing a facelift expected to return its long lost 17th-century splendor, although the military coat of arms of the Indonesian Wiradharma command remains incongruously above the main entrance.

The bishop's seaside residence, burned down by rampaging militias in 1999, has been rebuilt according to its original plan, complete with pink walls.

And the Mahkota hotel, favoured by Indonesian officers to show off their singing prowess in karaoke sessions that extended deep into the night, is being completely reconstructed.

Nearby, the graceful former office of the governor has been left unchanged, but for the large blue sign of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) outside.

UNTAET has governed the tiny former province for about 31 months since it left 24 years of brutal Indonesia rule in 1999. On May 20 United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan will proclaim the impoverished territory of 738,000 people an independent state.

One of the newest hotels in Dili was once the headquarters of the much feared pro-Indonesian militia group, Aitarak.

But, despite the optimistic-looking "now open" sign in front of the establishment, lingering memories of the torture and deaths it witnessed during the last years of Indonesian rule appear to have kept business at bay.

Another change is in the formerly restive Audian area north of the main sports field, where violence involving pro- and anti-Indonesian groups was commonplace. Now it is a thriving business area where suspicious stares no longer greet visitors.

After catering to a mostly Indonesian clientele for decades, supermarkets are now full with foreign UN workers. A new one that arose from the ashes of a closed down Indonesian bank chapter optimistically calls itself "Hello Mister."

The ubiquitous beat-up blue taxis that used to crisscross the streets of Dili when it was still an Indonesian provincial capital are being increasingly replaced by gleaming new taxis.

And in place of the multitude of Indonesian army and police vehicles that once roamed the streets are the mostly white UNTAET cars and vans.

Idling youths and men now take shade under the large trees on the seaside esplanade that once were the favorite hang-out for plainclothes Indonesian security.

Many streets have kept their old names, but the avenue that greets newcomers arriving at the Comoro airport is no longer called after the wife of a former Indonesian dictator and has been rebaptised the avenue "of the Martyrs of the Homeland."

Despite the cosmetic changes, the notable difference in Dili lies in its atmosphere, says a returning Indonesian journalist.

"There is no longer this tension and fear gripping the city. One can now have a late night stroll, something I would not have dared to do when it was still part of Indonesia," she says, asking not to be identified.

But for Joao Goncalves, a 24-year-old man with a Rastafarian hairdo and a dirty Bart Simpson T-shirt, Dili is unchanged.

"There may be new buildings, more cars, but I had no job under Indonesia and still no job now. And everything is now so expensive," Goncalves says, emotionless behind his dark glasses.

However, things are different -- an old billboard promoting Jakarta's nine-year compulsory education system reminds passers-by that Indonesia was, for a long time, not just the neighbouring country it is today.

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