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Bizarre Life In A Siege City

By Patrick Craddock © USP Journalism Programme

SUVA: It's an irony of this bizarre insurrection in Fiji, now in its fourth week, that the country has been "celebrating" two public holidays in two successive weeks: Today Fiji, which is on the verge of becoming a Commonwealth pariah, is celebrating the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, the Head of the Commonwealth.

The sun is shining and the temperature is up in the late twenties. An appropriate moment for a leisurely look around the ravaged central business area of Suva. It was burnt and looted on the same day that the first, and I suspect the last, Indo-Fijian Prime Minister was congratulating himself on the achievements of his Labour coalition government. A few hours later the same Prime Minister and most of his cabinet were being held at gunpoint and still are.

Today Suva is a siege city under army control with a nightly curfew and gun-toting soldiers at dozens of checkpoints. The common and well-loved Fiji commodity of smiling is getting harder to find.

Each day newspapers show us yet another picture of a soldier and stories about rape, arson another or different demand from the self-styled Parliament of the common man.

Last night a trade union leader had part of his house burned. Accelerants were found nearby.

Supporters of the terrorists burned a local restaurant to the ground. As I write the fire brigade have put out another fire in the city.

Suva has always been a port city, but today equipment associated with the wharf is taking over large areas of the central shopping area. Walked 400 metres and count over twenty huge bright red, blue and gray shipping containers straddled across shop fronts, to prevent anyone other than Hercules from entering the damaged shops that lie behind these new metal walls.

Ignore the burnt out rubbish of the Yatu Lau Arcade with sunlight shining through the sad black eyeholes of burnt and twisted metal. Walk over the

warped metal fan at the front of one shop that used to sell poorly made umbrellas and home handyman tools.

This used to be the scruffiest arcade in Suva full of bargain stores selling combs, condoms, cheap shoes, and baby clothes. Spend a dollar and the shopkeepers were pleased.

Between two containers is a passage with a sign asking customers to "enter here." It was a supermarket.

A hundred yards down the road is the elite "The Diamond Store," It had the reputation of being one of most attractively laid out shops in Suva with neat window displays and courteous shop assistants.

It looks like a second-hand store, covered with grime from the riots and

barricaded to keep out any new looters who might pass by. A small group of onlookers stand next to a rubbish truck listening to the sound of glass being swept up and carried to the waiting truck.

I thought to myself that was it over three weeks since the riots? Why was it only now that the shop was being cleaned up? I asked someone at the shop, why the delay? He refused to answer me by turning away.

A Fijian woman muttered to me, "You, why you take photographs of our country when it like this?" This time I didn't answer and turned away.

Further down the road there is chink of light between two containers. Inside is a half-empty shoe shop. The shelving is damaged. There is no glass in the shop window, but it isn't needed anyway. The shipping container offers solid protection.

This shopkeeper is more responsive than the despondent owner of the diamond shop was. He talks for several minutes about his losses and how it all happened so quickly.

He feels lucky as his shop was not burned and he thinks he might be able

to rebuild his business. "People need shoes as well as food, I will make a small living." I ask about the future of Suva - he shrugs his shoulders and does not want to say anything. I press him for a reply.

"I tell you ... about 20 percent of the shops that were destroyed were privately owned. The rest are leased. No-one wants want to pay for the damage - the insurance companies don't, the city council is quiet and the small shopkeepers can't pay. That is your answer."

+++niuswire

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