Subject: In memory of Leonard Manning

Waikato Times


In memory of Leonard Manning 25 MAY 2002

The spirit of a young Waikato soldier lives on in East Timor. Kris McGehan reports.

Linda Manning picks up her son's souvenir Waikato rugby jersey from the coffee table and shakes it free of its folds.

The polo collar drops open as she runs pale fingers over the stained and well-worn cloth. The grime marks around the neck bear the yellowish-brown smudge of a loyal Waikato fan whose other favourite shirt was a green Waikato Draught t-shirt.

"See, it's so worn. It was his favourite shirt. His army shirt would come off and this would come straight on," the proud mother smiles.

Linda and Charlie Manning find it uncanny that their son's prized possession bears the same colours as the flag of the country where he died.

They unfurl an East Timor flag and compare it with the shirt, the deep red of the flag dominating the cream lounge walls of their Putaruru home. There is some connection between the two, they say ­ something spiritual or symbolic that maybe only the parent of a dead child can see. "He would have liked that," Linda Manning says.

Earlier this week the Mannings walked off an ancient air force Boeing 727 at Whenuapai air base straight into a stormy Auckland evening. The wind was lashing sheets of rain into their faces and the temperature was dropping. East Timor, 30-plus degrees and relentlessly humid was a world away from this wintry homeland where 26 years ago they brought their first child Leonard home to a Morrinsville farm.

Their trip this week to East Timor's independence celebrations was the couple's second visit since their son was killed there on July 24, 2000 while on UN peacekeeping duties with the New Zealand Army. Private Manning, 24, was shot and his body mutilated after his patrol came across pro-Indonesian militiamen near Suai. His killer has been sentenced to six years' jail.

The Mannings' first trip late last year was a goodwill gesture from the New Zealand Army, and they visited the place where their son died. This second trip was an invitation from the UN, eager to show the couple their son's death had not been in vain, that the peacekeeping work he had been involved in had done some good. They wanted to show that amid all the death, torture and destruction, something had been achieved.

There was a sight that moved Linda Manning to tears during the independence celebrations. After hundreds of years of foreign rule, latterly under the Indonesian Government, the tiny island nation had come of age.

"They had their brand new army battalion on parade. They've only got enough for one battalion. But marching behind them were the Freedom Fighters. They'd hidden out in the mountains for 24 years and had fought and fought for their country. There were women and old men ­ weary and hardened from years of struggle. But they were happy and smiling. It was a very moving sight."

The independence celebrations ended nearly three years of UN control, 25 years of Indonesian oppression and more than 400 years as a colony of Portugal. Three years ago the nation's fight for its rights of independence sparked widespread rioting by militia forces. The capital Dili was ransacked, thousands were killed and many fled into exile. The country is now undergoing a rebuilding programme to replace houses, schools, hospitals and other facilities destroyed in the conflict.

Linda says it was also significant that East Timor's new president and chief of defence forces, Xanana Gusmao, came from the Freedom Fighters. "We had just huge admiration for them. They are a very strong people."

The Mannings have seen first-hand the results of the struggle for independence. They say the nation is trying hard to claw its way back from despair and devastation that has seen almost every building on the island gutted, and basic infrastructure left in tatters.

"There are just concrete shells of buildings. Everything is burnt out," Charlie says. "They are so badly resourced and living in the most basic ways."

THERE WAS always going to be some sort of memorial to Private Leonard Manning.

It could have been a bronze plaque, a silver trophy or an award, perhaps, for the best army pistol shooter ­ something Leonard excelled at and got top scores in.

But buoyed by the new nation's desperate need for help, his parents chose to do something that would benefit the people. They have set up the East Timor School Trust that will contribute money and resources to schools. The first school to receive funding will be in a Suai village, near where Leonard died.

"It was horrific what the children had to suffer through," Linda says. "They had to witness terrible atrocities like rapes, torture and murders that even adults shouldn't have to see, let alone experience. There was just this grim reality that we couldn't even contemplate."

While the Mannings were in East Timor this week they attended the launch of a Unicef-sponsored book, Through the Eyes of the Children, a collection of stories and illustrations contributed by children who had experienced war. The images are graphic, they say.

One of the areas that gave the Mannings the most concern was education, or the lack of it. With buildings destroyed or badly damaged, children rarely went to school. "The majority of people over 30 are illiterate," Linda says. "There's a huge amount of work that has to be done there."

The Mannings regard the fund as a kind of living memorial to their son. They say he was a compassionate man who talked endlessly about the effects the conflict was having on villagers. "We wanted to do something for the kids, something that he would have wanted. He cared a lot about people."

LINDA MANNING remembers watching her son walk up the steps of the Air Force Hercules the day he left for East Timor. She watched his every movement, right up until he took his first step into the plane ­ "until his boots were gone".

Up at the viewing platform, she turned to her husband and said: "Do you realise this is the last time we'll see him?" Charlie Manning replied: "Don't worry. He'll be all right." Linda cried, inexplicably, for the next three days.

Linda Manning believes she had a premonition her son would die. In the days before his death she was on stress leave from her job as an ambulance officer, tied up in knots from days and days of anxiety and worry about Leonard.

"It had just built up... I don't know how it all started. I just got this overwhelming feeling of despair and uncertainty, that something was going to happen to him. I think I had a `knowledge' that he was in trouble ­ I had this terrible dread that wouldn't leave and I couldn't put my finger on anything."

Her strong Christian faith saw her through those trying times. "I remember one day walking up the stairs and having to reach out for the hand-rail. I was just so overcome with grief that I knelt down there and prayed for Leonard. It was as if I was handing him over to God to take care of him."

A few days later, an army officer knocked on her door with the news that Leonard had been reported missing while on a routine UN patrol in a rugged border area near Indonesian West Timor. The Mannings were optimistic though ­ Leonard was a skilled bushman, had belonged to a deerstalkers' club and knew how to look after himself.

But four hours later there was a phone call to tell them their son's body had been found.

"At first I thought `no, no, no, this can't be happening'. But looking back, I remember thinking at the time `I knew this'. It was a feeling of knowing, I think, deep down, that he was going to die. In my spirit I knew."

The Mannings have accepted that their dead son has acquired a kind of folk hero status. They know that his death was significant, partly because he was the first Kiwi soldier to be killed in action in 30 years. Two other New Zealand soldiers have died in Timor, but not in the same fashion.

They've become used to seeing Leonard's picture splashed across newspapers and television screens. They've also been thrown into the media spotlight, sometimes unwillingly.

"It has been hard for us to grasp why it has got so big. People ask us if we get upset at seeing him on TV or in the paper all the time but we don't, we're past that and we think it's good," Linda says. "He should be remembered. But what we don't like is politicians making mileage out of his death. There is one politician (Act MP Rodney Hide) who just wouldn't let up. He wanted to meet us, but we refused." Hide regularly referred to Leonard's death during political debates about defence spending.

The Mannings have previously been harsh critics of the Government's funding of the defence forces. They are staunch advocates of maintaining and improving New Zealand's armed forces and have publicly stated their views. But now, the passion is abating a bit.

"While we still hold the view that the armed forces need more money and upgrading, we realise that there is only so much money to go around. The Government is just trying to spread it evenly."

THERE IS now $7000 in the East Timor School Trust, $5000 of which is the proceeds of a charity concert in Putaruru last month put on by Kiwi music stalwarts Ritchie Pickett, Larry Morris and Suzanne Lynch. Pickett contacted the Mannings with the idea of putting on a concert after he saw a Times' story about the trust. The performers in the concert had all played in East Timor and Pickett saw a local fundraising concert as an appropriate gesture.

The Mannings hope the fund will be boosted by regular donations. Linda has already been asked to speak to community groups about East Timor and her family's experiences.

Charlie Manning says the memorial fund is a way of remembering his son, but not focusing totally on him. "It's part of the healing process I suppose. We're able to carry on where Leonard left off. He was a great humanitarian and we know he would have wanted us to do something like this. In a way, he's set it up for us."

The Mannings hope to make several trips to East Timor to personally gift money and resources to schools. They've made friends with UN personnel there, and with Ministry of Education officials in the new government.

Not a day goes by that the Mannings do not think of their son. Their other child, Laura, 24, is a nurse in Gisborne.

Linda says she believes in eternal life.

"I know when I get to heaven that there will be a young man waiting there for me. I have no doubt that we will see him again.

"But it's a long life without him."

* Donations can be made to the East Timor School Trust at any branch of the BNZ.

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