Timor in hearts and minds

Article originally published in the Townsville Bulletin 14 April, 2016 at 8.33am.

IN the years after World War II, Australian Sparrow Force veterans regularly returned to Dili in Timor to help locals who supported them in 1942.

It’s about 720km from Darwin, the same distance from Rockhampton to Townsville.

Mostly veterans of the 2/2nd Independent Commando Company, gunners, engineers, medics and Tasmania’s 2/40th Infantry Battalion, part of Australia’s tragically doomed 8th Division, these men took part in an annual pilgrimage to return to the gallant Timorese a little of the support given to them at great cost.

Around August each year they would gather at Darwin’s Larrakeyah Barracks to fly by RAAF aircraft to Dili airport which they had clandestinely observed from the hills to the south at Dare.

There the Timorese provided sanctuary while the Australian and Dutch soldiers reported on Japanese movements from the airstrip just kilometres away by line of sight.

It was dangerous for all concerned and in the post-war years the Australian veterans helped build a school with a swimming pool so the descendants of those who assisted them could receive a decent education.

For the old Diggers it gave some closure perhaps to their perceived failure to prevent Japan’s occupation and they maintained that connection until Indonesia’s 1975 brutal invasion closed Australian access to what was also a weekend destination for many of Darwin’s citizens who owned comfortable retreats on Dili’s tropical foreshore.

After the Australian-led INTERFET intervention in 1999, Dili was a sad shadow of the place it had once been.

The departing Indonesians deliberately destroyed property and lives as they abandoned East Timor, which would eventually struggle to rise from the ashes of that experience.

General Peter Cosgrove and his INTERFET troops encountered a charred wasteland which many felt would take years to recover, if ever.
That the brave Timorese have tried to do so is testament to their determination and leadership, though it has been a difficult road to follow.

It is a very different society and economy today, although there is still much to be done.

Like those old WWII Diggers, many ADF service personnel who have served in contemporary Timor L’Este have been left feeling less than fulfilled by their all too often brief service.

Many have been emotionally damaged by what they saw and experienced and need closure of sorts to their service.

There is now a window of opportunity for them to return to confront their demons and to engage with the Timorese who are, for all they have suffered, remarkably resilient.

Michael Stone graduated from Duntroon just in time to deploy with INTERFET.

He became an integral part of the ADF operation, becoming fluent in the local language and forging close relationships with Timorese leaders.

He was also influenced by his father Gary a respected former infantry officer and now Catholic deacon dedicated to serving veterans in need.

In July, with RSL support, the Stones will lead the first of several groups of returning Australian veterans to meet their Timorese counterparts. (for more information on the Timorese experience, click here)

It will be confronting for some but hopefully cathartic for all involved.

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