At some point during the party at the Australian Defence Residential Compound, an excellent plan was hatched: let’s drive to Balibo tomorrow!
The following morning, with varying degrees of hungoverness, the four of us set off on an adventure. Between us, we could pass as some sort of trans-tasman delegation: Army, Air Force, and an aid worker along for the ride.
We made slow progress towards the Indonesian border on the broken road, having time to soak in the coastline, ocean, and close close mountains. Recently sealed sections ripped up by the wet season, the aftermath of landslides, and slow-moving construction efforts. But goodness, this is a beautiful country.
One of our crew has served twice in Timor-Leste, immediately after the Indonesian occupation. Fighting in close combat against pro-Indonesian militia. As we journey, as things start to look familiar, he starts to talk and reveals himself to be complex, open, immediate.
His patrol was a group of eight, each member with a distinct function. He points out a precise point on a ridge above Balibo, ‘that’s where we had our tents, and that’s where we walked down to the village’.
Standing on the Portuguese fort, he can see the routes of his patrols through the village and bush. It’s a hard landscape – cruelly steep hills to the horizon, dense vegetation. He talks of the heavy packs, patrolling continuously for six months, seven days in the bush, two days back at camp. Then back out again.
He describes killing people in a calm, factual way: where in the body the bullets enter, how many. The militia was wired on what sounds like amphetamines – he talks of many incidents where his unit would shoot militia, attempt to locate the bodies, but only find pools of blood.
He was quiet at the beginning, but the memories seemed to come back, and as they did, he spoke unreservedly. The three of us were there to quietly catch the stories and bear witness for him. With him. Remembering, not forgetting.
He spoke with a tone of injustice and helplessness of not being able to do anything when militia killed civilian women and children; the militia didn’t follow the laws of war, but his battalion did.
I sat back and quietly ate my lunch as the professional soldiers discussed war things that went over or around my head. Or perhaps I wanted them to. Perhaps I don’t want to know how the guns work in unison, of the deathly efficiencies of these teams of eight. And why they absolutely had to be there, and how essential this bloody work was in stabilising this brave little country. Our neighbour.
This was extraordinary: It was intense as he processed out his experience. He hadn’t planned to come back here: the whole thing had caught him a bit by surprise. The four of us felt closer having shared his re-living. I’m grateful.
He didn’t know there was a memorial – he points out the two sets of dates and battalions that he had fought in. ‘My rotations.’
Australians often make the pilgrimage to Balibo to see the house where the Balibo Five were murdered. My memories of this place will forever be of listening to the personal personal stories of a brutal war, told with shocking honesty by a quiet man who came back to this place by accident. Because we hatched a drunken plan the night before.
Atrocities in Balibo reported 1999: http://etan.org/et99c/october/10-16/10death.htm
Rapes and horror: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C960553
Killing refugees from Balibo: http://www.humanist.de/osttimor/killings.html
Australian inaction regarding the murder of the Balibo Five and Roger East: https://www.unsw.adfa.edu.au/school-of-humanities-and-social-sciences/timor-companion/balibo
ADF in Timor-Leste: https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/article/other/57jqz2.htm
Australian and Timorese people in Balibo from 1999 – 2002. Photos from Australian War Memorial
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