Subject: DN NZ: Postcards from the edge . . . of war

Daily News NZ SUNDAY, 05 NOVEMBER 2000

Postcards from the edge . . . of war 04 NOVEMBER 2000 By LYN HUMPHREYS East Timor, once a tropical paradise full of bird song and the chatter of monkeys, is now a silent land.

The complex political struggles have left a decimated countryside where wildlife is practically absent, says New Plymouth orthopedic surgeon Simon Hadlow, who has recently returned from voluntary medical service with the Kiwi peacekeeping force.

"There are virtually no birds there," he says. "The land should be full of birds and monkeys, but I suspect they've all been eaten."

Following the comparative stability under the Australian-led United Nations force, the human population has mostly returned to their former homelands and are beginning to pick up the threads of their former existence.

An Air Force territorial medical officer, Hadlow is one of many New Zealanders who have answered the call to help restore some semblance of normalcy to the lives of shellshocked East Timorese.

Hadlow's stint in July and August was spent working in a New Zealand army "hospital", a modern version of the M.A.S.H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) set-ups made famous in the long-running TV comedy of the same name.

The field unit has been established near Suai on the coastal plain close to the border with West Timor where well-equipped insurgent militia often attempt crossings.

Even though Private Leonard Manning (24) was shot dead and mutilated just two days before Hadlow left New Zealand, the New Plymouth man felt in no real danger in the Kiwi battalion's headquarters, which were based in an old hospital.

The Battalion HQ is surrounded by fences and protected by armoured cars and a roving patrol. "We were very secure where we were."

The land has been devastated, he says.

"What little infrastructure there was was completely destroyed.

"There's hardly a building standing. The roads are unbelievably bad.

"There's no running water and no sewage. The whole area has just one diesel-powered electricity generator.

"Everything the army has is brought in, from shoes to toothpaste.

"The engineers have done a huge amount of work," he says.

Many of the soldiers have trade skills, which are put to good use.

Backing the military effort in piecing together the ravaged area are a number of humanitarian groups.

Medicine du Monde (MDM) treats the locals in the Kovalima district and Oxfam is busy capping wells, rebuilding shelters and re-roofing.

Washing water is taken from a five-metre deep bore, drinking water comes bottled from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

The Kiwis' Field Surgical Team, headed by Major Andy Dunn, performs its work in a fully transportable tent "field hospital", the envy of the Aussies.

It was trialed just 18 months ago in the Solomon Islands.

"It has the Australians impressed. It's easily transportable and has everything that's needed."

The compact T-shaped tent complex has a one-bed operating theatre on one wing along with a laboratory and a sterilising unit.

The central area holds a refrigerator, a spare bed and an X-ray unit. There is also a two-bed resuscitation unit and two wards (a high dependency unit and medium dependency unit).

A diesel-engine air-conditioning unit runs through the centre, giving a comfortable working temperature of 25?C. Outside, in the hot and humid climate, temperatures can soar to 50?C ­ 35?C in the shade.

"It's pleasant working conditions. We were a bit cramped, but you can do everything you needed to do."

In a separate tent is a seven to eight-bed low dependency unit to care for patients with conditions such as fevers.

The field unit's first priority is to look after the UN force and its broad range of nationalities. There are Kiwis, Irishmen, Fijians, Nepalese and a Pakistani detachment.

The second priority for the medical team is the United Nations workers.

For all, malaria is the biggest health risk.

"If you take drugs, you have just a 10% chance of getting it, but when I was there they hadn't had a single case of dengue fever or malaria in the first three months. But the Nepalese ran out of drugs and we had a constant stream of them coming through. It really knocks the stuffing out of them."

The only casualty Hadlow saw was a Nepalese soldier who suffered a leg injury.

"We operated on him and then sent him to Dili. He was winched out of the bush on an Australian Blackhawk helicopter."

The third and fourth priorities for the Kiwis was the non-government organisations (such as Oxfam) and the locals respectively, who are supposed to go to MDM for treatment.

But MDM had only drugs and no X-ray, surgery or blood testing, so those patients were regularly sent on to the Kiwis.

"We functioned as a major backstop for medical services. Most afternoons a landcruiser filled with locals would arrive for treatment."

While the battle-field never reached the compound, there were several alerts that got quite tense but came to nothing, Hadlow recalls.

"We slept every night with our flak jackets and helmets under the beds. It was safe enough to go to Suai during the day. But at night time we only went there in convoy."

Modern communications meant he could call his family by cellphone, most importantly keep in touch with his pregnant wife and young family in New Plymouth, and e-mail everyone with his laptop.

With the tension in the region easing, the locals have returned in numbers.

"The locals are lovely people. They are everywhere. They're walking along and wave to you." Friend or foe cannot be told apart.

"A lot are wearing Indonesian army gear you can buy in the market. And party politics are volatile. Many have machetes."

Because of this a fair amount of the medical workers' time is spent repairing accidental machete wounds, especially for the children.

Hadlow has deep respect for the lean, fit infantrymen patrolling the borders.

"They carry 70kg of gear each.

"Before Manning was killed the helicopters had their machineguns off. They had to put them back on and put the air-gunners back on point duty. This decreased the payload each Iroquois could carry to about four fully-quipped soldiers."

If they're lucky, they are dropped off in the big Russian helicopters, which can carry 30 soldiers a piece, into the mountainous bushclad hills.

"It's very stressful for the infantrymen."

There, in the cold temperatures of the mountains, the troops set up lookout posts to watch out for the militiamen attempting to cross over the border.

"It's for real for those guys."

Having seen the effect on the locals of relative peace and the gains being made, Hadlow is a strong supporter for the United Nations and New Zealand remaining in East Timor.

"It would be mayhem if we left. It would have all been a complete waste of time."

And in a climate of the complex politics of the area, it was essential for the peacekeeping force to stay on side with the Indonesian Government. The base was totally reliant on fuel from West Timor.

"We need the co-operation of the Indonesians. We have to be nice to these guys as we are totally vulnerable without fuel.

"The Kiwi effort would grind to a halt without that. I think it's a very complex situation and it's not going to be solved by military means. It's going to be solved by setting up an infrastructure so locals feel safe and want to protect what's there."

Elections are due next August and there is always the possibility the East Timorese will vote to return to Indonesia after rejecting going it alone. "Things are harder now, but at least they can do what they want."

Hadlow urges other trained medical volunteers from New Zealand to assist in the rebuilding exercise.

"The FST needs civilian surgeons, anaesthetists, anaesthetic technicians and nurses on short-term (six week) contracts to keep the service running."

Mark Richards, public relations officer for the joint HQ operation, says there are currently 750 New Zealand troops in East Timor from the 3rd NZ Battalion Group. They were currently undergoing a complete swap after a six-month deployment.

New Zealand is committed to remaining in East Timor until May.

The Government had yet to decide whether to continue, Mr Richards said.

Defence chiefs are said to be seeking $40 million to fund two further battalion rotations

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