20 years on: Commemorating peace in Timor29 January 2020
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of INTERFET, RSL Queensland hosted a delegation of six veterans on an eight-day tour of East Timor.
For many Australian Defence members involved in the peacekeeping mission to East Timor in 1999, the traumatic events they experienced would be forever burned in their memories. Many described the horror they felt at witnessing the chaos and destruction of a nation, and the deep, lasting ways it impacted them. The chance to visit Timor 20 years later to see the positive impact of their involvement was an emotionally charged and healing experience.
Twenty years ago, on 15 September 1999, Australian Forces led the deployment of a multinational peacekeeping force known as INTERFET to East Timor. About 5,500 of the 10,000-strong INTERFET were Australian military personnel and 22 countries participated in the operation.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of INTERFET, RSL Queensland hosted a delegation of six veterans on an eight- day tour of East Timor, now Timor-Leste. The tour culminated in a commemorative ceremony in Dili.
The tour was organised and delivered through RSL Queensland’s partner Veterans Care, which also runs the Timor Awakening (TA) program. TA is a rehabilitation and community engagement program that brings veterans to Timor-Leste to see firsthand the progress of its people and help bring veterans inner peace.
TA Program Director Mick Stone enlisted in the Army in 1996 and served for 20 years. During that time, he served on multiple peacekeeping missions in Timor and was an advisor to both the Timorese Army and the Timorese President.
Mick was also part of the recent trip to Timor-Leste and describes his vivid and upsetting recollections of his time serving in the war-torn country.
“Witnessing the total destruction of Timor and the widespread suffering of innocent people is something that has stuck with me to this day,” Mick says.
He established Timor Awakening as part of his journey of healing and wellness.
“I was desperate to come out of a dark place and deep illness, and I was reaching out for any type of treatment I could. I consider myself fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to both heal and contribute to the healing of other veterans,” Mick explains.
Rehabilitation and commemoration in Timor gives veterans a healthy perspective and helps them realise they’re not alone in suffering with physical or mental pain.
“A major lesson that comes out of this experience is the realisation of how important it is to start with yourself. To be able to forgive yourself, respect yourself and love yourself, before you will be useful to others,” Mick says.
“It’s very hard for us to heal by ourselves. We’re programmed to be part of a community, and Timor Awakening encourages and instils that it’s okay to get help. Indeed, we can continue to live lives with purpose, identity, honour and in service to our community as we did when in uniform.”
AN EMOTIONAL RETURN
By Katie Kilpatrick
I was privileged to be selected by RSL Queensland among seven delegates to return to East Timor for the INTERFET 20-year anniversary. As part of the trip, I travelled through the country with Veterans Care Association’s Timor Awakening program.
Twenty years ago, I was a young soldier in Townsville. I remember watching the news, waiting to find out if – or when – my unit would be deployed to East Timor. I experienced a range of emotions, from eagerness and curiosity to apprehension and nervousness.
I experienced those exact feelings in the weeks before returning to East Timor. The idea of returning to the country and sharing the experience with a group of strangers was quite overwhelming.
The trip and its full itinerary sounded amazing, but also loomed ahead of me in an intimidating way. I like to be in control and the idea that this journey was in someone else’s hands made me quite anxious. I almost changed my mind.
I am grateful that I didn’t change my mind, and very grateful for the support of the wonderful Veterans Care team. By the end of the trip, not being in control or having to ‘adult’ for a week was quite cathartic!
WE LEARNED THE HISTORY OF EAST TIMOR
Prior to the trip, I had limited knowledge of East Timor’s history. Through the TA program, I learnt about their struggles in WWII and Australia’s role in that conflict.
I learnt about the exit of Portugal, Indonesia’s occupation in 1975, and the tragic events that led to the death of the Australian Balibo Five journalists. I learnt of the Dili Massacre in 1991 and the events through 1999 that led to our arrival.
Through the program, we watched videos and documentaries to understand the history and turmoil of this country and then travelled to key areas of significance. We travelled by convoy to Betano Beach and saw the remains of the HMAS Voyager.
We watched a video featuring members of the 2/2nd Independent Company – a very moving experience. The following day, we walked along the same beach and with each step I recounted their stories in my mind.
WE WERE MET WITH OPEN ARMS
We travelled in a convoy of vehicles to Dare, Maliana and Balibo. Everywhere we travelled we were met with open arms and hearts by the Timorese.
My biggest takeaway from this trip was their ability to acknowledge and remember the pain and suffering of the past, but also move forward and forgive.
A long time ago, the Timorese recognised that the only way their country could truly be free and progress as a new country, was to forgive the Indonesians. This is a challenging concept for many of us to accept, yet they have achieved it.
FOR THE FIRST TIME, I COULD TRULY BE PROUD OF MYSELF
I never realised how important our role in East Timor was in 1999, nor how important a neighbour Australia has been to East Timor over many decades. The Timorese treat us like family, and it was wonderful to share this journey with the Timorese veterans who had fought for so long for their independence.
Probably for the first time, I could truly be proud of myself, my unit and the work we had done. Because now I understood just how significant this was to the people.
By the time Friday 20 September arrived, I looked at my role in INTERFET – and the role of INTERFET as a force – with a whole new perspective.
The anniversary was commemorated with a range of activities in Dili. I started the day with an appearance on live television alongside five other veterans being interviewed for a morning news program.
The Timorese wanted to hear how their country had changed in the 20 years since we first arrived.
In the afternoon, I cheered loudly in the grandstands at Dili Stadium for the FALANTIL Veterans vs INTERFET Veterans football (soccer) match.
Meeting former Governor-General of Australia Peter Cosgrove AK CVO MC and former President of East Timor Xanana Gusmão after the match was a fantastic way to end the day.
VETERANS SHARED THEIR EXPERIENCES
The highlight of the trip for me was listening to the stories of fellow veterans. The program included veterans from all three services in a wide range of corps. Along the way we visited significant sites and shared stories over the radios, which provided many opportunities for people to share recollections of their deployment in East Timor.
It was eye-opening to hear about their experiences and I am grateful to the veterans who were willing to share. I hadn’t realised how much I missed being around other like- minded veterans.
That is why programs such as Timor Awakening and the role of RSL Queensland is so important. I believe the connections we make with each other will help us through our life’s journey and give us the support we need, even when we don’t recognise it ourselves.
Tony Irwin joined the Army in 1979 and during his career was deployed to Bougainville, the first Gulf war in 1990, East Timor and the Solomon Islands.
“I have very bad memories of Timor. But on the positive side, we could learn a lot from the Timorese. They’re still so resilient and happy and they’re just getting on with life.
“Coming back here for myself, I wanted to find out if we had done the right thing by the country and I think we have.
“I believe we did what we could during INTERFET to help the people and there’s so many positive outcomes. That’s given me great satisfaction and I feel so welcomed and so privileged to be here in Timor.
“The Timor Awakening program gives you some tools to assist with some of the problems you may have, such as coping with anxiety, addiction, alcohol and just dealing with relationships. Coming to Timor really makes you appreciate what you have at home and how precious families are.”
PERSONAL AND CONFRONTING
Dannielle Brearley served in the Navy from 1997 to 2002.
“My memory of Timor 20 years ago was a place of destruction and darkness. Buildings were burned down, people were displaced, but children were still smiling on the sides of the road and very welcoming when we arrived.
“It was very personal and confronting because I was only 20 when we came over. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything of such mass destruction in my lifetime.
“My impression of the country now is that they’ve come around three-fold. They’ve gone through destruction, they’ve won freedom and they’ve won their natural resources back.
“It was an honour to be a part of the RSL delegation. You serve for your country and now we’re back here representing our country. I’ve met some amazing people, and they’ve had some traumatic experiences themselves.”
FINDING MY TRIBE
Scott McAndrew joined the Army in 1988, served with 3 RAR in East Timor for INTERFET and Operation Spitfire and in the Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan. In 2015, he crossed over to active reserves, before discharging in August 2019.
“Transitioning out of the military wasn’t an easy task. The biggest thing was losing your tribe. Things like attending this INTERFET commemoration have definitely helped me find my tribe again.
“I had a lot of guilt when I left East Timor. I felt like the mission wasn’t complete and I hadn’t done enough for the people.
“Coming back here has closed that door for me because I can see that the people have flourished. They’re growing stronger every day, they’ve managed to put behind the hardship, and they’re moving forward.
“I’ve seen more people dancing, a lot more Timor flags are flying and people have dental and health care. But the biggest thing I noticed was that people are now wearing prescription glasses, so they can actually see their beautiful country.
“The 20-year commemoration is a milestone for the people of East Timor.”