Sunday, September 6, 2009

Portrait #94: GNR: Guarda Nacional Republicana, or The Portuguese Duuuudes

I've been told quite a few stories about them by my new Brazilian friends in Timor Leste. Before I share those stories I should point out that Brazilians don't have a track record for speaking very highly of Portuguese in general. Portuguese are to Brazilians what Polocks are to Americans.

Nonetheless, what I've seemed to confirm the stories, so maybe they're true: They think everyone is in awe of them. They rub each other's sunscreen whenever they go to the beach, which is often. They regularly do full body waxing. Most of them are gay. They are not very dignified drunks, and are actually the local troublemakers on Friday and Saturday nights (most recently at the hotel where I'm staying, as a matter of fact).

Sure enough, when they are not patrolling, you can see them jogging, stretching or sunbathing. They are immediately identifiable when not in uniform, because they're the topless guys who look like they've just come out of a two-year stint in a body building gym.

These are the Portuguese GNR, one of three police forces keeping the peace in Timor Leste. The other two forces are UNPOL, an international effort that falls under the umbrella of the United Nations, and the PNTL. PNTL are the actual Timorese police.

What with their fancy uniforms and fancy cars, and their role as the elite guards for the President and other such dignitaries, and their reputation for disrupting otherwise-peaceful partying on a weekend night... well, they are not held in very high esteem by most of the internationals I've met in Timor Leste. Are they really doing more good than harm, everyone seems to ask under his breath without actually voicing it.

Today, I sat on the beach with some friends facing a beautiful calm sea, when the two metres of space between us and the water were taken up by three GNR's. They were joined by two more, then a few more. Soon there were a dozen. They didn't seem to think we'd mind - after all, they are so beautiful to look at that that even the men in our group would rather observe them than the sea. Obviously. Well, if you go for the waxed, buzz-cut, upside-down triangle look, then you probably would agree with them. I won't reveal an opinion of my own here - but I will say that I was fascinated by the sociological phenomenon of this squad of 200 men who had managed to create an entire stereotype just for themselves, in such a little corner of the world at that.

As my friends and I joked about each new GNR arrival who started sunbathing in front of us, the sounds of chatting and passing cars behind us grew louder. Eventually our attention turned to the street behind us when we heard the distinct sound of shouting. We looked, and right behind us there were men and women shouting. A man sat behind the steering wheel of a silver jeep and was shouting at a man in the street who was close to blows. Meanwhile the woman in the passenger's seat received a few socks to the head from someone I couldn't see.

We stood up and joined the growing multitude of Timorese beachgoers who had come to watch the fight. It was getting bad. Someone pulled the woman out of the car, by her hair, and it became clear that she was the focus of the quarrel. There was another woman, and neither one was exempt from the violence that was erupting. But the worst was saved for the men who grabbed wooden posts off the street and started trying to hit each other and the car.

I started to shake when I realised that women were being targeted in a fight, in the middle of the street on the busiest beach strip in town. Then I looked around. Weren't there a dozen oversized cops here on the beach? Desperately, I wondered if I could do any good by going to help, and one of my friends almost jumped in to protect the women. But we knew it would do no good because emotions were clearly flaring stronger than our natural strength. I looked around again, desperately: what were the GNR for if not for this?

And then they came. They rose up from their sandy beds and ran in their speedos and shiny torsoes to the scene of the fight. They jumped right in between the quarreling parties and lockheld the men who were screaming and punching the most. Timorese are generally short and slim in general, and that includes the ones in this fight. So the tall and extremely muscular GNRs didn't need to use that much of their brute force to control the worst of the violence.

They got the perpetrators into a local café and the dozen of them split off. Half continued to restrain both men and women. The other half guarded the café so no one else could join in.

Meanwhile another little fight, seemingly unrelated, broke out 20 metres to the right. And I saw a group of people arguing loudly a bit to the left. I started shaking a bit more. This one domestic disturbance could rapidly escalate into a full-fledged venting of all beachgoers! But as the quasi-naked GNRs worked the crowd, the anger dissipated. Only the original quarrel went on, though at least now under control. Women were no longer being hit.

All of a sudden I was very grateful for their hobbies of jogging, weightlifting and sunbathing. All three of those hobbies meant that I was safe this afternoon, and, much more importantly, that one family's fight didn't unfold into another civil war.

GNRs in uniform soon showed up and took over, looking calm and powerful. Then some Malaysian UNPOLs. And a truckload of local PNTL. The GNRs managed to scare the crowd into dispersion, and, together, the three police forces tried to reason the fight to an end. After half an hour of trying, they gave up and arrested both the women and the men. And a middle-aged woman who had joined the fighting at the end with bloody-looking beetlenut (a local aphrodisiac) juice dripping down her chin.

I guess Timor isn't ready for cops its own size yet.

1 comment:

worthyoflove said...

Oh my goodness Katie, I'm not surprised you were shaking I would've been trembling and praying frantically in tongues I imagine! But as you rightly say. those guys' hobbies did come in useful so fair enough. It was good to see the back of your head, briefly, in church a few weeks ago. Sorry I didn't get to say Hi or hug you it's just manic at church.

I enjoy the newsletters and I frequently remember you in my prayers. You are very special.

Love
Amanda xx

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