Subject: Age: A hymn to Dili, and the diggers who died there

The Age April 27, 2000

A hymn to Dili, and the diggers who died there


NO ONE tells you just how beautiful Dili is. Viewed from the rainforest-clad mountains that frame the wide bay, with the port to the west and the monumental statue of Jesus looking out to sea from a promontory to the east, Dili seems still to be the small white-washed town it was, basking in the tropical sun.

The mountain backdrop to Dili is as spectacular a setting as any in the world, and the ridge-top villages and high-valley towns are a unique amalgam of elements of New Guinea, the Philippines and Portugal. And the road that twists through the hills north from Dili to the Falantil cantonment of Aileu, to Maubisse, and Ainaro - all shattered towns - is what a road made of the Kokoda Trail would be like.

Traditional houses cling to red-soil ridges in the swirling mist, scrubby eucalypt forests vie with she-oaks, acacias and hoop pines. Goats nibble at everything, little hairy guinea-pig type beasts scoot across the road, men on little Timorese ponies carry sacks and new building materials from truck stop to village, mothers wrap babies in bright swaddling weaves, and dressed in turbans and luminous shirts, trudge gracefully as the fog turns to rain, and to hot sun again.

The environment is similar to that in tropical Australia, as everyone who has been to Timor has remarked. Geologically speaking, Timor is part of Australia. And if you want to see what would have happened to Australia if the 16th and 17th-century Portuguese explorers had followed up their discoveries of Australia with colonies, look at Timor.

At 1am on February 20, 1942, the first Japanese shell hit Dili. Shelling continued for 45 minutes, concentrated on the port and the old airfield, defended by a section of the Australian 2/2nd Commandos. They seem to have landed on the beach at Comoro, site of the present airport where the Anzac Day dawn service was held on Tuesday.

The result of the shelling was less devastating on the small town of 1942 than was the militia and Indonesian army's sacking and pillaging of Dili last year. But from up in the mountains, you can't see the smoke-blackened public buildings, the piles of debris in the streets, the gutted houses, block after silent block.

The situation on the streets of Dili has improved immeasurably since last year. There are no shops, but the market flourishes. There is electricity, and both UNTAET (United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor) and Falantil radio stations. Roadside petrol vendors fill your tank through old stockings. A few cafes with brightly painted facades have sprung up, and UNTAET has occupied many bright white buildings.

But the overwhelming feeling driving around Dili is still of emptiness.

My view of Dili is from Fatunaba, where a memorial pool and resting place was originally paid for by the veterans of the 2/2nd and the Australian Government, and opened in April 1969.

It was reopened in time for Anzac Day 2000 after renovations by volunteers from the Australian Headquarters Force Logistic Support Group, and 17 Construction Squadron.

The memorial was originally dedicated to the "Portuguese people everywhere - from Minho to Timor ... in gratitude for the help you gave our soldiers during the Second World War". Recognising changed realities, the memorial and resting place is now dedicated to "All the peoples of East Timor".

The site was chosen because it has long been a resting place for people making the long walk from Dili through the mountains to villages near Aileu. The main road makes a hairpin turn here, and a smaller road heads to the village of Dare, about three kilometres further on.

On Anzac eve, 30 school children from Fatunaba school were busy weeding, cleaning and sweeping the pool surrounds.

I met Salvador Rodriguez, a 19-year-old grandson of a villager who helped Australians during the war. We had a long chat in fractured English and long mutters of Portuguese, from which I gathered that he wanted to be a teacher, wanted books and pens for their children, and that the people of Fatunaba had prepared dances and other festivities for Anzac Day, but that it had been explained that it was not that sort of a day. He was disappointed not to be able to celebrate.

Salvador took me up the narrow road to Dare, where Father Ricardo runs a seminary. A tiny, vibrant man in his 50s, Father Ricardo was tending the garden around a beautiful Marian grotto, dressed in a white smock.

He spoke very good English and when told where we'd been, said: "There is a lot of respect for Australians, in the war and today."

He was very proud that the only memorial to the Timorese sacrifice for the Australian cause was down the road. He said we should remember the war, back then, and make the connections.

Father Ricardo, looking out over Dili far below, said that it was emptied in 1999, many thousands of people fled the town, and came to these mountains. Some are still around here, he said. They were pursued by the Indonesian army, emphasising it - "by the Indonesian army". Two were killed here - his gesture taking in the mountains.

So there can be bad armies?

"Yes, and good men," he said.

I went down the mountain, to Dili and Anzac Day. For all the selflessness in recognising the Timorese contribution to the Australian fight against the Japanese, I felt that we were selling ourselves short.

Whatever the political niceties of East and West Timor during the war, the cruel fact of the matter is that there is no memorial to the dead of the 2/40th who were sacrificed in West Timor (and whose survivors went to the hell-on-Earth of the Burma-Thailand Railway) or the 40 dead of the 2/2nd and 2/4th commandos in East Timor, or to the 20 or so Z Special Force operatives sent to Timor after 1943.

Beautiful Timor has been part of the Australian conscience for more than 50 years. It is time the Australian part was honored with something permanent, not the temporary ceremonial Anzac Day cenotaph that was seen at dawn, then taken away after sunrise.

Garrie Hutchinson is researching a book on Australian soldiers who fought in New Guinea, Timor and Borneo.

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