Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Snake in the bowl!

“.. I arrived to see a large python head peering out of the toilet bowl."

Australia's wild north is known for its weird and wonderful tales.

This story comes courtesy of police in Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory:

A seven foot carpet python was removed from a septic tank after it was found peering out of a toilet bowl this morning.

Parks and Wildlife Service wildlife officer Peter Phillips said he was called to the residence in Howard Springs (an outer suburb of Darwin) after a plumber fixing a blocked toilet found the python.

“The Howard Springs resident originally called a plumber because her toilet was blocked,” Mr Phillips said.

“I arrived to see a large python head peering out of the toilet bowl.

“The python was so long, the body was curled around the s-bend and we had to retrieve it from the septic tank, where we could remove it.

Mr Phillips said the largely nocturnal Carpet Python was probably temporarily living in the septic tank because it was a good place to wait for frogs or hide during the day and then emerge at night to go and look for other food.

“The tank was obviously a great home, because the snake was so fat and healthy it was it difficult to retrieve,” he said.

“We retrieved the snake without incident and it will be released tonight.

Mr Phillips said the Parks and Wildlife snake call out number would be operating as usual over the festive season.

“Someone will be on duty twenty four hours a day seven days a week,” he said.

“We advise that members of the public not to try and catch or kill snakes, this is how most people end up getting bitten.

“Even though most snake species around Darwin and rural areas are not poisonous, some such as King Browns and Western Browns are among the top 10 most deadly snakes in the world.

“A Parks and Wildlife Officer or a permitted volunteer will come and remove your snake if someone can keep an eye on it until we arrive.

“We will endeavour to catch the snake when we arrive, but cannot search for snakes that have gone.”

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Stunning vote heralds new era for Aceh

It appears a former rebel leader gaoled by Jakarta has won a surprise victory in the first democratic elections for governor of Indonesia's Aceh province. Irwandi Yusuf, a former spokesman for the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), has won 39 percent of the vote.

Irwandi Yusuf is hoping for co-operation with the Indonesian military.. not confrontation as in the past.

The director of the group which conducted a sample quick count, Denny Januar Ali of LSI (Indonesia Survey Institute) has told AFP: "I'm certain there will not be a second round because it's a win by a large amount. " A second sample by election monitors Jurdil Aceh projected Yusuf to win with 38.57 percent of the vote, and an estimated turnout of 85 percent. Yusuf said the result, if confirmed, was a dream come true for the Acehnese, who flocked to vote in elections they hope will cement the region's path to peace after three decades of war. "This is the dream of the Acehnese people being fulfilled. They want change in all aspects of life and governance," he told reporters. "It will be hard work for me, it is not easy to fulfil. Aceh in the future will be kind of a wild horse, because there are so many things to do. We need cooperation from all elements of Acehnese society, and most importantly with the Acehnese legislators," he said. Yusuf said cooperation with Jakarta would be "as normal" and did not think there would be a problem with the military. He was jailed in 2003 for rebellion, but escaped when the tsunami struck.

Read more about Aceh in my book Running Amok

Monday, December 11, 2006

A vote for peace... we hope so.

"The outside world knows very little about Aceh's rich past.. mainly because of the decades of fighting."

Today the people of the Indonesian province of Aceh go to the polls in historic local elections. It's a democratic breakthrough that follows the signing of a peace agreement last year between separatist rebels and the Indonesian government ending almost 30 years of bloodshed.
Aceh has endured a tumultuous history, with the separatist conflict which ended last year just the latest in a long line of violent upheavals. As a correspondent, I visited Aceh at the height of some of the worst fighting and saw the the terrible results of war. There are no winners.. but at least something positive is now happening in the form of elections. Ironically it took the worst of natural disasters to shape this latest chapter in Aceh's history - the peace accord which paved the way for the polls was spurred by the December 26, 2004 tsunami, which killed an estimated 169,000 people in the province.

ABC Cameraman Dave Anderson (left) and myself during a visit to Aceh's grand mosque in the capital Banda Aceh, 2000.

The outside world knows very little about Aceh's rich past.. mainly because of the decades of fighting. Journalists were either banned or restricted from entering Aceh for long periods of time. I was lucky enough to visit Aceh on many occasions soon after President Suharto was toppled in 1998. I met with rebel guerillas and civic leaders who were instrumental in shaping the events now going on. I have written about some of these exciting trips and close encounters in my book Running Amok

Shut your eyes and think of Aceh.. if it's a complete blank here are some facts courtesy of AFP:

POPULATION: About 4.5 million (before tsunami)
GEOGRAPHY: Aceh stretches over 55,390 square kilometers (21,390 square miles) on the westernmost tip of Sumatra island.
CAPITAL: Banda Aceh.
LANGUAGE: Indonesian, Acehnese.
RELIGION: Muslim (97.6 percent), Christian (1.7 percent), Hindu (0.08 percent), Buddhist (0.55 percent).
ECONOMY: Coconuts, coffee, timber, tobacco, oil and natural gas.
HISTORY: In the 16th century Aceh was an important trading center and seat of Islamic learning. Its power began to decline over the next century, but it remained independent of the Dutch who dominated the rest of the Indonesian archipelago.
In 1873 the Netherlands declared war on Aceh after negotiating a treaty in which Britain withdrew any objections to their occupation of the region.
The first Dutch force of 7,000 retreated when its commander, General Kohler, was killed. A new army contingent, twice as large, succeeded in taking the capital, the central mosque and the sultan's palace but the war dragged on for 35 years before the last sultan, Tuanku Muhammad Daud, surrendered.
Even then no Dutch area was safe from guerrilla attack from the Acehnese until the Dutch surrendered to Japan in 1942.
The Japanese were welcomed at first but resistance soon sprang up. This period saw the Islamic Party, which had been formed in 1939 under the leadership of Daud Beureuh, emerge as a political force.
With the proclamation of the Indonesian republic in 1945, Aceh was given special territory status but in 1951 Jakarta dissolved the province and incorporated it into the mainly Christian province of North Sumatra.
Angry at the move, Beureuh proclaimed Aceh an independent Islamic Republic in September 1953.
This lasted until 1961 when military and religious leaders fell out. The central government resolved the conflict by returning the status of special province to Aceh.
In 1976 a separatist group, the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh Movement) was established to fight for an independent Islamic state.
Aceh was declared a military operation area in 1988 and Indonesian troops were deployed to quash the separatist movement. Soldiers have since been accused by human rights groups of widespread violations.
Operations were stepped up in May 2003 after the collapse of a brief truce prompted the government to impose 12 months of martial law.
The Indian Ocean tsunami disaster on December 26, 2004 devastated the region, killing an estimated 169,000 people, destroying entire towns and pulverising its infrastructure and industry.
The catastrophe however encouraged both the rebels and the government to return to the negotiating table and in August 2005 they signed a peace deal in Helsinki.
The accord paved the way for Monday's elections, the first in Indonesia to allow the participation of candidates without links to Jakarta-based political parties.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Running Amok...again

It used to be militia gang members loyal to Jakarta that terrorised the capital Dili. That was seven years ago - 1998. Militia gangs like Aitarak (Thorn)fired homemade pipeguns as they battled on the streets against pro-independence neighbourhood gangs.

Now with independence won, the violence should have ended. But East Timorese youths are battling again. The streets of Dili have been a battleground for the last six months. Unemployment, perceived government corruption, bittere rivalries between police and the army, lack of opportunities for grassroots kids in the new democratic Timor Leste have turned Dili into a cauldron.

So here's the latest installment in the battle to just keep order (from AFP)..

Portuguese police fired rubber bullets to disperse rival football fans who were shooting arrows at each other during a match in the East Timor capital Saturday, witnesses said.
"We were fighting when the police came, closed the main gate then started shooting into the air, a witness from Dili's Bidau district who declined to give his name told AFP.
"Some of them were shooting towards us. My friend's brother got hit by a rubber bullet, I saw dozens injured," he said.
There were no reports of casualties taken to the hospital.
Portuguese paramilitary GNR police arrived at the football ground where fighting broke after rival supporters started throwing stones and shooting arrows at each other.
"We won the game, but the Virgo-kuluhan (rival team) were not happy and started to attack us," another witness said.
"Then the stone fight began and the two sides start shooting arrows and fought with blades," he said.
The police left after the fighting crowd dispersed.
UN police have arrested 26 people this week on suspicion of involvement in deadly clashes between martial arts gangs that have left two people dead and six badly wounded.
International peacekeepers and UN police were deployed to restore order after the tiny nation was rocked by violence which left 37 dead earlier this year.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Vibrant Art Scene

Across the Timor Sea from troubled Timor Leste there's a hugely vibrant art scene going on. Darwin is at the epicentre.. but a lot of the creative influences come from far-flung indigenous communities scattered across a huge area known as the Top END.. hence TOP END ARTS

Look out for regular posts about Australian indigenous arts and crafts, literature (including travel), contemporary dance and music which reflect the uniqueness of the serendipidous TOP END.

Violence in Dili

..the grim reality of East Timor's division on the streets continues daily..

In the midst of ongoing gang violence on the streets of Dili, a public appearance by East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao. He said the violence by martial art groups is making everybody sad. Sad indeed. Gusmao is a passionate speaker and perhaps there was a emotion in his words lost in translation. But to be honest there are few situations in the world as tragic as the situation in East Timor right now. So much was hoped for after independence in 2002.. and now so little gained.

President Gusmao was speaking during a ceremony held at Jardim Farol in Dili to put away sacred weapons – which were withdrawn from Sacred Houses in the past during times of invasion from outside. During his speech Gusmao appealed to East Timor's young people quoting Prime Minister Ramos-Horta’s words that “the future of Timor-Leste is in your hands and not ours, we are already old, and as leaders we have recognized our failures, big or small in a state that has just been established. Through these mistakes we are putting the efforts to better contribute to the country”. Gusmão also appealed for unity and for everybody to consciously stand up and claim that there is only one Timorese, one nation that is Timor and no such thing as lorosae and loromonu.

The division between the East and West of the country - so called lorosae and loromonu - has been at the centre of street violence in Dili during recent months. So is it true for gusmao to say there is no such thing as lorosae and loromonu?

I hope to post more on this issue soon.. but for now ..the grim reality of East Timor's division on the streets continues daily..

DILI, Dec 6, 2006 (AFP) - UN police have arrested 26 people on suspicion of involvement in deadly clashes between East Timor martial arts gangs that have left two people dead and six badly wounded, a spokeswoman said.
The UN police confirmed two people had been killed during ongoing clashes between rival martial arts groups which erupted on Sunday in the capital Dili.
"Until now, the police has made 26 detentions in the last 48 hours, so we have arrested 26 people. And last night 40 weapons were seized, namely darts and machetes," UNPOL spokeswoman Monica Rodrigues told reporters.
One man was hacked to death and another beaten to death in clashes between rival martial arts gangs in Dili on Sunday and Monday, a witness and hospital worker have said.
The resurgence of gang violence has already prompted Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta to warn that he would crackdown on some martial arts groups.
The tiny nation was rocked in April and May by clashes between security force factions which quickly degenerated into street violence involving youth gangs.
At least 37 people died in the bloodshed, which prompted the deployment of 3,200 Australian-led peacekeepers to restore calm.
Their numbers have since been reduced to around 1,100, bolstered by the presence of about 1,000 UN police.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Foreign Correspondent's Life

Juggling marriage, fatherhood and strict news deadlines while dodging bullets in a tumultuous country is no easy feat, Genevieve Swart writes.

DILI, August 1999: ABC foreign correspondent Mark Bowling runs the gauntlet of a militia gang, as men armed with pistols, rocks and pipes surround his car, smashing windows and shouting threats. The driver floors the accelerator, they escape and Bowling gives a breathless interview via his mobile phone to the PM radio program about the lead-up to East Timor's referendum. Then he calls his wife, Kim, (pictured right) at home in Jakarta to tell her he is safe.

"It was late in the day, I called her and said, 'Kim, I've got something to tell you', and she said, 'Yeah, well, look - I'm cooking the chicken nuggets and Joshua's climbing up the ladder . . . just call me back, all right?' Hang up.

"That," Bowling says, "was just a moment when you realise we're operating in two completely different worlds."

Running Amok: When News Deadlines, Family And Foreign Affairs Collide chronicles his four years in Indonesia as a foreign correspondent, covering events from the end of President Suharto's 30-year reign to the independence of East Timor.

Bowling - now in Darwin, where he is the ABC's director for the Northern Territory - found writing about Indonesia a cathartic exercise; one he hopes will throw some light on Australia's closest neighbour and the world's most populous Muslim nation.

"I believe we don't understand Indonesia . . . very well at all, we only just scratch the surface. It's an absolute cacophony of cultures.

"It's almost like the geography of the place - which is built on a tectonic plate and is the reason why there are tsunamis and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions - it's almost like the culture and the society of Indonesia has some kind of equivalent."

Born in Sydney in 1959, Bowling went to Turramurra High School, then did an arts and communications degree at Macquarie University. He started as a reporter at the ABC in 1985 and became the north Asia correspondent, based in Tokyo, in 1992.

"I'd seen riots and tear gas and police fighting students in South Korea, and I'd spent time in PNG and seen a different sort of scary, you know, unexpected 'rascal gangs' . . ."

Still, his first week in Jakarta in May 1998 came as a shock. "I arrived on the Tuesday, Suharto was forced out on the Thursday and it was just a roller-coaster of events after that . . . meeting Xanana Gusmao, going to East Timor and this whole Reformasi movement that just sprung up."

In June, Kim and the children arrived. The couple, who met in the early '90s at a Darwin barbecue, had survived a long-distance relationship while Bowling was in Japan, but their real test was to come. As Kim said before the move: "It's all right for you - you'll be the foreign correspondent, and I'll be the foreign object."

Bowling's new job was all-consuming, with unexpected dangers. That November, a report appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald: "An ABC TV crew was beaten with sticks by security forces. They were not seriously injured, but their cameras were smashed."

Bowling says the attack - which took place during demonstrations pressing the Habibie government for reform - was a wake-up call. "[It was] in the gardens just outside the [Atma Jaya] University, when the students were marching on Parliament . . ."

Troops suddenly stormed towards the students and the crew. "I remember the soldiers' clenched teeth, the look of hate in their eyes, their ninja-like body armour, and the muzzle flash from their weapons firing close to my head," he writes in the chapter "Black Friday".

"I had never expected troops would open fire on a journalist," he says. "I somehow felt immune. That was probably the first time I actually felt how the people who I was reporting on felt."

His new neighbourhood, the leafy central suburb of Menteng, had hazards, too. The Suharto family compounds were nearby and the former dictator's daughter kept a pet Sumatran tiger tethered by a thin rope in the driveway.

Kim discovered this on a walk when their son Joshua, a Winnie The Pooh fan, said: "Look, Mummy. There's Tigger!"

Indonesia was still a fledgling democracy and Bowling writes of having "a box seat to Asia's greatest show". It was a single ticket, however, not a family pass, as Kim and children were left behind to adjust to life in Jakarta. When reporting took him away from home or put him at risk, "the niggling feeling always was about my responsibility as a parent and a husband. That's the dilemma for a correspondent, maybe it's just a single person's game".

Working by the journalistic adage, "If it bleeds, it leads", Bowling reported on many lead stories, including religious violence in Ambon and separatist struggles in Papua and Aceh, where he was present at the uncovering of a mass grave. He was in Dili when the Timorese courageously voted against Indonesia's autonomy plan, despite intimidation by militia gangs. One memory stands out: "Just the look of anguish on the faces the day the vote was declared - people were leaving Dili with their bedrolls on their backs and their mattresses, just knowing that it was about to go off and the militia were going to inflict this reign of terror."

He never had counselling after reporting on violence. "My wife is a psychologist and she is a very good source of comfort and advice and helps me get through those situations." Nonetheless, the job was "a real strain" on their relationship. The couple suffered a tragedy when Kim had a miscarriage. Weeks later, Bowling did a story on East Timorese refugees: "There was a moment [when] I saw a baby in a coffin. It reminded me of our kids and the unborn child that we'd lost . . . I'd never felt emotions so strongly, so rawly."

The correspondent never carried a gun and his helmet and flak jacket lay under his desk. Often amid ethnic violence, he says, it was like being a white ghost. "You don't exist. People see you but you're not the enemy. You're just there. It's the weirdest, weirdest feeling."

When Bowling returned to Australia, he noticed changes. "Little things like public risk [have developed] . . . cliff faces have got to have fences on them so you don't fall off. We're becoming a very safe society . . . and yet we live on the edge of this absolute chaos."

Yet he believes there's hope even in the darkest times, citing the aftermath of the Bali bombing: "Somehow there was a strength of character of the Balinese . . . They are just such shining, lovely people and to see them being resilient in the face of a monumental struggle between dark and light, and to see them be able to come through it and cling onto this life . . . that gives you some hope.

The Bowlings have four children - Joshua, 10, Jessica, 8, Steffanie, 5, and Samuel, 2, born after they left Jakarta. "Our kids speak Indonesian and a smattering of Javanese - the sound of Indonesian words is pretty common around our house." Another post abroad is not out of the question, although Bowling says his priority this time around would be to ask, "Kim, what do you think?"

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Running Amok: An interesting read

Here's my new book which I hope you find interesting. It is receiving very good reviews. I will post these reviews as they come in. Meanwhile here's a link to my publisher's website with info about the book and my bio..

Today's local news from Darwin

News Roundup.

From the ABC;

An Indonesian fisherman who used a machete to threaten Navy and Army officers attempting to board his boat has been given an 18-month jail term by the Northern Territory Supreme Court.
The incident happened in waters off the coast of Arnhem Land.
Forty-seven-year-old Aceng was part of a 10-man Indonesian crew caught in July inside the Australian Fishing Zone, north-east of Cape Wessel.
He pleaded guilty to seven charges, including threatening serious harm and causing harm to public officers.
The court heard Aceng also threw concrete sinkers at the officers.