The Ghost of Timor – Part 5

Saturday night I was downtown,
Working for the FBI.
Sittin’ in a nest of bad men,
Whiskey bottles piling high.”

– The Hollies

When we landed at Dili harbour on that late September day in 1999, I had trouble comprehending what my eyes beheld. After being displaced twice in the last two years from the manicured and tame surroundings of Canberra to the modern and bustling Sydney I had had a little taste of culture shock. And knowing that I was heading to the third world I held my breath in anticipation of yet more. But Dili, in the aftermath of the violence was something that I hadn’t prepared for.

A later UN commission would establish that the Indonesian army (TNI) and their armed militias were complicit in the violence and destruction that took place following East Timor’s independence referendum in 1999. The commission concluded that the post referendum violence “took the form of vengeance” and included “executions, rape, destruction of 60 to 80 percent of both public and private property, disruption of up to 70 percent of the health services, and the displacement and forcible relocation of thousands of people to West Timor“.

When the UN returned to East Timor on 22 October, after being forced to leave for genuine fear for its members, they found the territory destroyed with a population largely missing or terrified. “An estimated 80 percent of schools and clinics were destroyed, less than a third of the population remained in or near their homes, markets had been destroyed and transportation either stolen and taken across the border, into Indonesia, or burned, while telephone communications were non-existent.” Most of the trained professionals in East Timor happened to be Indonesian or Indonesia sympathisers, and they had, quite understandably, largely left the territory after the results of the referendum.

When the international security force arrived to end the violence, it was our Special Forces went in first to secure what was left of Dili airport. They were followed by regular army units who expanded the bridgehead and secured the port. By the time that I landed in late September 1999, with the armour and heavier equipment, there was a secure base of operations and a functioning field headquarters. That was my home for the next six months.

My own little corner of paradise was a nondescript, olive drab shipping container that sat beneath a camouflage net in the back corner of the headquarters compound. The container doors were left open when I was inside but could be closed and locked if needed to preserve my anonymity and secure my equipment from prying eyes.

Beyond that there was a real door, locked with a combination and key, that led into my inner sanctum. Satisfied that all was as it should be, I set up my computers and printers; established a link back to Australia and most importantly; made sure the air-conditioning was working. That may seem like a trivial matter when you are sitting in the middle of a war zone but, believe me, when you are stuck in a shipping container for 20 hours a day in the tropics, air-conditioning is every bit as vital as body armour.

When I finished setting up my work area, I found that I had a dozen empty boxes that were just taking up space. As a man who likes his privacy, I hit on an idea to make my life in this war a little more comfortable. I piled the cases on top of each other in two vertical stacks and formed a chicane that sectioned off the back third of the shipping container. From the front it looked as though the entire back part of the container was filled with boxes and stores. Behind this barrier I set up my camp bed and personal items such that I was able to bring. I was nice and snug in air-conditioned comfort taking down tax-free income on top of every allowance the government saw fit to grant me.

My days were mostly filled with reporting back to Australia on my situation and ensuring that I was filling my reports by their arbitrary deadlines. In a crisis, governments like to pretend that they are fully in charge of the situation by meeting at 9am every day to get told what is happening on the other side of the world. In practice, this means that for every level you are below that top meeting -four in this instance- you have to be ready at least that many hours in advance. Luckly for me, Timor was two hours behind Canberra, so I had the luxury of sleeping in till 7am every day.

The threat from the local militia’s was very real but they weren’t a major concern for a well-armed professional army. Especially as they were ill-disciplined and largely unmotivated. What did worry everyone though was, what was happening back in Indonesia and, more importantly, the TNI. There were certainly elements within TNI who would have loved to have a hot war with Australia for what they saw as latter-day colonialism. Neither country was prepared for a war -which was a good thing- but any miscalculation by a hot head in the field on either side could have dire consequences. So, the question that was on most minds was, “what is Indonesia thinking?” We settled in for an uneasy experience of protecting the local population and rooting out the militias and fretting about what the massive army of the world’s most populous Muslim state was doing just a few miles away on the other end of the island.

Not that that fact deterred anyone remotely connected with the Australian Defence Force in 1999. As I have said before, by the time of the intervention, the Australian Army hadn’t fired a shot in anger in almost 25 years. That meant that some regular soldiers had spent their entire service training for a war that never came. Excellent result for Australia and our little neck of the woods. And the way the world seemed to be going in the last few years of the 20th century, World War Three was about as unlikely an event as the Buffalo Bills winning a Superbowl. But if you have spent your entire career training to do a job and your number is finally called you only had one thing on your mind: Get your ass to Timor.

Not knowing how long we would be required to maintain security in Timor, every man and his dog in the Australian Defence Force and others, -like New Zealand- now rushed in to get their elusive campaign ribbon and any cash they could from active overseas service. Some would find a way to fly in just long enough to qualify for the money and medals with nary a speck of Timor dust on them and then fly out again.

Long cool woman (in a black dress) – The Hollies

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