Subject: Timor firefighters defy mobs

Also ABC: The World Today - East Timor refugee numbers swell

AFP: Timor firefighters defy mobs By Neil Sands in Dili 05jun06

DILI'S firefighters are probably the world's busiest right now as arsonists torch homes across the East Timorese capital ­ yet there are only 10 of them facing daily threats from angry mobs.

Known locally as bombeiros, the firefighters have not been paid for two months, make do with only two fire engines and live permanently in their dilapidated central Dili headquarters alongside relatives and 250 refugees.

They have had knives held to their throats as they attempt to extinguish the handiwork of arsonists and must be escorted by armed international peacekeepers as they rush to stop the city burning.

Lacking a reliable water source in the slums that have become a battleground for rival gangs from the country's eastern and western districts, they are at times forced to bail ditchwater with their helmets to put out fires.

"It's a very difficult situation," the firefighters' Malaysian-trained national training co-ordinator, Alipio Jose Vieira, told AFP.

Arson has become a terror weapon in the fight between gangs of youths in the capital, leaving a permanent pall of smoke over the city where aid agencies estimate 70,000 have fled to the relative safety of refugee camps.

The international force's commander, Brigadier Mick Slater, was full of praise for the firefighters working alongside his troops.

"They couldn't do their job without our help and we couldn't do our job without theirs," the Australian who leads the 2250 international soldiers in Dili said.

"They take care of the fires and we take care of them and their families.

"These fellows are a hell of a lot braver than the fellows who are starting and lighting these fires."

Mr Vieira said the normal number of firefighters working in Dili with himself and his immediate commander Cosme Camilo Costa was more than 30 but most had fled the capital after the latest wave of violence began in late April.

He said the remaining firefighters had since attempted to ignore the lawlessness engulfing the city and carry on doing their job.

Mr Vieira said while the gangs respected what the firefighters were trying to do, they resented interference in their activities.

"They tell us to go because they don't want to hurt us but they don't want us to put out the fires," he said.

Mr Vieira is a former independence fighter who became a fireman after the East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999.

"I saw terrible scenes with my eyes and I thought now was the time to make a contribution to my people," he said.

Mr Vieira has no patience with the regional conflict that has split the nation he battled to create.

"There is no easterner or westerner here," he said, gesturing to refugee children playing football at the fire department's headquarters, where Australian troops are permanently based to prevent reprisal attacks on the firefighters.

Mr Vieira said he was confident the Government would eventually pay his colleagues' wages and stop the violence engulfing Dili.

"We're not looking for the money, not asking for the money," he said. "Our job is to protect peoples' lives and property."


ABC Online

The World Today - East Timor refugee numbers swell

[This is the print version of story]

The World Today - Monday, 5 June , 2006 12:18:00

Reporter: Mark Bowling

ELEANOR HALL: With violence continuing on the streets, people in East Timor are still fleeing to makeshift refugee camps, which now house more than 100,000 people.

International aid agencies say they're concerned that these crowded camps could become flashpoints, with people smuggling in weapons to seek revenge for attacks.

Mark Bowling spoke to Luiz Vieira, the Chief of Mission in East Timor for the International Organisation for Migration.

LUIZ VIEIRA: We estimate that there are 65,000 to 70,000 people in and around the Dili area, and we estimate that there are about another 30,000 people or so in the districts.

MARK BOWLING: Food and water, are people getting enough?

LUIZ VIEIRA: Yes, the immediate needs are being met. Yesterday about 118 litres of water were distributed to camps.

I don't want to minimise the conditions and say that they're anything but difficult, but in terms of the emergency and the crisis, we are doing a good job to respond.

MARK BOWLING: What's making it difficult in the camps?

LUIZ VIEIRA: Oh, I think overcrowding and sanitation conditions, and fear. People remain very scared, unfortunately.

We have reports that the situation outside the camps is more tense than it was, so the situation in the camp is certainly more tense and we get reports requesting assistance on a daily basis inside the camps.

MARK BOWLING: Are there weapons?

LUIZ VIEIRA: There are weapons in the camps.

MARK BOWLING: What sort of weapons are we talking about?

LUIZ VIEIRA: Mostly knives and things like that. I don't know to what extent there are any firearms in the camps.

MARK BOWLING: Now, these are people that have already lost their homes. Are you saying that there's a new risk that these people will once again be dislocated, there could be more fighting?

LUIZ VIEIRA: What I do know is that people remain fearful. One of the things that's happening is there are a lot of rumours, you know. Daily we hear rumours of people who fear there's an impending attack from here, an impending attack from there. So those are the type of things that drive camp dynamics and drive people's decisions to stay where they are or move back to their homes.

MARK BOWLING: Just how precarious is the situation?

LUIZ VIEIRA: I think one of the things that has to be avoided is an event, a security event in one of the camps. I think that would prove potentially very, very troubling, because that could start a chain reaction and drive a series of other events.

So I think, again, the security in the camps … and also one of the things that hasn't gotten so much coverage is the fact that yes you have nearly 100,000 people in the camps, but you also have a lot of people who've been displaced who remain in their communities, maybe not in their community of origins, or they're now in the districts with their families, their families didn't have many resources to begin with, and now they're stretched.

And the Government, you know, to their credit, knows this and they're doing the best that they can to start to do this.

ELEANOR HALL: And that's Luiz Vieira from the International Organisation for Migration, speaking to Mark Bowling in Dili.

© 2006 Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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