August 4, 2016
LAST week 27 Australian veterans returned from an emotional 10-day visit to the Republica Democratica de Timor L’Este.
Organised by Gary Stone and sponsored by the Queensland RSL branch, it was the first time many had returned since Australian-led INTERFET forces intervened as East Timor transitioned from Indonesian occupation in 1999.
What they discovered then was a nation in ruins, its precious but minimal infrastructure deliberately and wantonly destroyed as the bitter, vengeful Indonesians reluctantly withdrew.
What many had not seen nor properly understood was the equally bitter 25-year conflict between Timorese Falantil and Fretilin guerillas against the occupying Indonesians, who had in Timorese eyes simply replaced Portugal as the occupying power.
In late 1975, when Australia was itself racked by political upheaval and in the post-Vietnam environment, no government was prepared to commit to another Asian war, Indonesia was able to seize both East Timor and the Oeccussi enclave in a swift, brutal invasion.
Even the murder of five Australian journalists at Balibo on October 16, 1975 did not convince timid Australian politicians to intervene.
For many serving in the ADF at the time it was seen as a betrayal of the Timorese who, at great cost, had loyally supported Australian commandos during 1942 as Japan swept relentlessly south.
Perhaps if those same Australian politicians could have known that thousands of Timorese would be murdered, “disappeared” or relocated by the Indonesians over the next quarter century they might have acted, but the reality is they did not.
Estimates vary but approximately 200,000 Timorese died during Indonesia’s brutal occupation and, according to Timorese tradition, the nation is attempting to locate and recover the remains of the missing so their spirits can be at peace.
During their visit, Australian veterans were joined by Timorese veterans of the guerilla war against Indonesia, men and women who showed them battle sites where they had ambushed Indonesian forces, and the caves where they had hidden, many of them for years separated from families and communities.
Witnessing a repatriation ceremony at Natarbora for another 510 sets of remains, they could not hide their emotion as they compared that occasion with the recent repatriation of Australian war dead from Terendak cemetery in Malaysia.
Last week at Balibo they discovered a thriving, vibrant community in stark contrast to the silent, deserted, devastated ruins INTERFET forces witnessed on their arrival in 1999.
As the kindergarten choir from the Australian-sponsored Balibo Five primary school sang a welcoming song, some veterans were able to exorcise their personal demons that had haunted them since their own Timor service.
Timor and its people still have a long way to go but, despite their differences with Australia over the Timor Gap oil resources, they are grateful for what Australia has done for them since 1999. For the Diggers it finally made their sacrifices seem worthwhile.