Fleeing the Jurisdiction

Where the sun rises
August 6, 2007, 6:17 pm
Filed under: Development, Government, Timor-Leste

Banking around over the palm-fringed coastline in the small prop plane, Dili seemed like some forgotten seaside resort. A millionaire’s folly, a lavish plaything tossed unwanted into the undergrowth. Though at a distance, its grand colonial buildings, statues and plazas appeared wracked only by time and nature, the violent truth became obvious once my feet touched ground. Continue reading


Adjourned sine die
July 30, 2007, 2:09 pm
Filed under: Government, Law, Timor-Leste

It seems the law has caught up with me again. This next few days will see me off at last to Dili, Timor-Leste, after many delays and postponements. It’s now a few months since I stepped, bewildered and sunburnt, off the plane connection from Sierra Leone. My plan to spend some few weeks indulging in the fruits of Western consumerism before plunging back into the developing world had evidently inspired a spiteful deity or deities to laugh. Continue reading

Checking out
February 23, 2007, 3:24 am
Filed under: Government, Sierra Leone

 The night before I’d said some farewells. I’d taken in the Atlantic sunrise over a cup of coffee from my balcony; smiled fondly, with premature nostalgia, at the hawkers and waved at the schoolchildren on the morning drive in. I was straightening things up at the office, filing some final reports, when the news came. Hinga Norman is dead.

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Meeting the devil in Monrovia
January 3, 2007, 9:30 pm
Filed under: Development, Government

A housemate here in Freetown had worked with the UN in Liberia, and travelled regularly back to visit her partner there. She seemed pretty well connected and had passed along some details, promising to make arrangements on my behalf when she visited for Christmas. Unfortunately, it appears illness intervened – she never made it. So it was with some trepidation, but nevertheless more determination, that I set off – to a country rarely described without the prefix ‘war-torn’ thanks to the ravages of Charles Taylor’s regime – and with no more than a phone number by way of planning. Having endured the short flight run by Slok Air, whose cabin crew helpfully suggested using the seat cushions as flotation devices in lieu of lifejackets, I managed to bluff and smile my way past the customs officials wanting their holiday season ‘dash’, or graft. I sat myself down next to the dried cow hoof vendors, hoping that my hasty and half-heard calls, trading on faint associations, had turned up a contact to meet me at the airport. I needn’t have worried.  I was greeted with broad smiles and was swiftly adopted by a circle of new Liberian, Nigerian and Guinean friends who quizzed me on Australia – how far was it? how easy to get a job? – on the long ride through blue-helmet checkpoints into Monrovia. A local convent offered cheap, clean rooms and simple food, so I dumped my bag and joined the gang at a roadside cafe for a political discussion, fueled by strong ‘atayeh’ tea, that ran late into the night and spanned English, French and (testing my ear) various creoles.

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Aloo gobi and armed resistance
December 22, 2006, 12:58 am
Filed under: Government, Sierra Leone

Late in the working day, a colleague, known for his ability to wheel and deal, suggested I join him that evening for dinner at the home of a business acquaintance. After dark, we rolled cautiously into the insalubrious downtown area known as PZ. Glancing warily about, we were ushered up a dull staircase and into an apartment crowded with brocaded sofas and a widescreen television topped with an icon of Ganesh. A woman in a saffron-coloured sari stared shyly from a doorway before disappearing. We were shortly swept into the lounge and introduced to our host, a local trader, of Indian heritage; his elegant wife; and his son, who sported a plummy English accent. I soon learned that our host had been born in Freetown and had remained throughout the conflict. Rather proudly, he displayed the bullet holes in the glass and railings of the balcony that had occurred as a result of a crossfire in the street below, between the rebels and the ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group) intervention forces. Speaking about the worst period of the civil war, he related how he and the 500 other Indians comprising their small community in Freetown, had hidden together in the Hindu temple, since the well-guarded hotel compounds had been commandeered by United Nations and diplomatic personnel. At horrendous expense, he had later chartered a helicopter for members of his family, flying them out to the only available destination, Liberia – then scarcely less dangerous than Sierra Leone – from where they were able to travel on to the UK. He noted, with obvious emotion, that the Sierra Leonean staff of his small general stores had all the while protected his goods, and their livelihoods, from looters. Continue reading

Security, and the lack of it
December 18, 2006, 8:32 pm
Filed under: Government, Law, Sierra Leone

Joining the already-swollen ranks of local expat victims of home invasion, I was awoken on Sunday morning by an understandably shaken housemate who quickly showed the strewn contents of our rooms relocated to the living area, whence they had evidently been taken while we slept for a more private, thorough search. A number of items were missing from each of us; all the more unsettling was the notion that someone had leaned over my sleeping body to snatch my phone. What would have happened had I awoken then does not bear reflection. Thankfully, no-one was harmed. The guards could shed no light on the situation, so we called Court security, who arrived to liaise with the local police. Bleary-eyed and stumbling on a Sunday morning, we trooped to the filthy warren of the Congo Cross police station, whereupon our guards, who had joined us to help explain the situation, were promptly arrested as suspects and detained –  despite our protests. Following another peering examination of our apartment and personal belongings by a throng of security personnel of various stripes, hand- and footprints were found (not by the police) on the balcony railings, revealing that the thieves had likely climbed the building to the second floor and managed to fiddle the locked door to gain entry. The police wanted to take crime scene photos, but had no camera, so asked to borrow one – a futile gesture since we had reported it stolen. Likewise their demand for a mobile phone contact from me.  Statements were taken by yet another set of police, as we struggled to locate the passport of another housemate, who had been in hospital. Fortunately this turned up at the office. Court security, on our expressing concern for our guards, who might yet be held for days during whatever investigation ensues, simply advised us to let the police do their job their way. What that means, I don’t know. As many have mentioned, we cannot, after all, rule them out. Ironically, one of few things of value not stolen were envelopes containing Christmas bonuses for our compound staff, including the guards.

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Casting off the cardigan
November 23, 2006, 11:04 am
Filed under: Development, Government, Law, Sierra Leone

I’m writing this first entry as my last act in the employ of government. Appalling waste of public resources. As a taxpayer, I too am outraged. Nonetheless, this is necessary catharsis. Tomorrow I leave for Sierra Leone, to take up a legal role with a local human rights NGO. In part, I’ll be working on a war crimes case being heard in the United Nations-sponsored Special Court.

It’s a long way from the suit-and-tie, ivory tower law I’ve lately been practicing. Whilst the legislative reform for which I’ve had responsibility goes undoubtedly to the social good, the abstract and often detached nature of the process has increasingly chafed. Work in Cambodia, on a community justice project completed earlier this year, confirmed for me the appeal of a more engaged, albeit less assured, path.

For all its risk-averse, reactionary, rule-bound and rationalising ways, government has been an intellectually satisfying context in which to apply my skills to an end not driven by profit. I know I leave behind many colleagues whose integrity and commitment to principle helps maintain the creaky machinery of democracy. Time, though, for me to back myself in pursuing a different mode of service.

For all those to whom it all sounds ludicrously idealistic and naive, please feel free to assume this simply veils a desperate and quixotic attempt to garner female attention. Regardless of this transparent duplicity, I’ll do my best when commenting in this forum to project the image of a conscientious observer of and sometime contributor to the thorny and problematic process of development.