Subject: AGE: Australia honours Timorese comrades

The Age

Australia honours Timorese comrades

By Lindsay Murdoch, Dili April 21, 2006

SIXTY years after Australian commandos dropped leaflets to the East Timorese saying, "We will remember you", three of their Timorese companions ­ known as "criados" ­ are coming to Australia to be honoured on Anzac Day.

Rufino Alves Corriea, a frail 89, who was wounded by Japanese soldiers, cannot imagine what it will be like to be a focus of the march through Melbourne's streets on Tuesday.

But afterwards, at a reunion with the handful of the surviving "Sparrow Force" commandos from Victoria, Mr Corriea will reminisce about the hit-and-run tactics they used against 20,000 Japanese troops in one of World War II's most successful guerilla actions.

"The Japanese were coming to a place where the Australians were hiding," Mr Corriea recalls, his wrinkled face lighting up.

"I grabbed a rifle and opened fire on them. There were about 50. Then I ran down into a creek bed. But I was shot in the neck."

Somehow, the Australians helped Mr Corriea escape and survive.

But by the end of the war between 40,000 and 50,000 Timorese in a population of only 650,000 had been killed or starved to death, mostly for helping the Australians.

The commandos of the 2/2nd and 2/4th independent companies have complained bitterly since their withdrawal from Timor in December 1942 that the story of the heroism and bravery of their "criados" has never been properly acknowledged in Australia. John Jones, 86, of Hawthorn, says the presence of Mr Corriea, Armindo Monteiro, 86, and Manuel Ximenes, 75, in the Anzac Day march will help remedy that.

In the parade, look for the toothless old men wearing borrowed jackets, who will be in a Jeep at the back of the Australian commandos.

Mr Monteiro will be wearing a slouch hat given to him decades ago by commandos he helped.

"This will not be about glorifying what happened," says Mr Jones. "It will be an opportunity to say thanks to our friends. Our lives depended on the Timorese.

"They provided food and shelter, spied on the Japanese and acted as our porters and guides.

"Our members have been writing letters to Australian governments for years, trying to obtain recognition for what the Timorese did for us, particularly when the Indonesians invaded them in 1975."

The Australians landed in Portuguese-run Timor just days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, in December 1941.

Portugal was officially maintaining its neutrality. The arrival of the Australians committed the people of the half-island territory to unimaginable suffering at the hands of the Japanese, who attacked Dili with a force of 4000 on February 19, 1942.

About 300 Australians in East Timor were taken by surprise. Singapore had fallen just three days earlier.

Eighty per cent of the Australians were already suffering from malaria.

Almost half the 40 Australians who died in East Timor were killed in the first hours of the Japanese landing.

Then, helped by the Timorese with whom they struck remarkable friendships, the commandos became the only Australian force still in action in enemy territory after the Japanese conquest of South-East Asia.

Speaking in Dili this week after the Australian embassy had issued him a visa to travel to Australia, Mr Correia rattles off the names of the commandos he remembers.

"They never came back to help us after the war," he says.

"But it's better late than never. I am pleased to be going to Australia.

"It's important for our sons and grandsons to know what happened."

Despite a harsh life, which included three of his children being killed in the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, Mr Correia has outlived many of the Australians he helped.

Mr Jones says that of the about 550 Sparrow Force commandos, only between 50 and 60 are still alive.

"In the Melbourne parade there will be half a dozen of us, if that," Mr Jones says.

To the few surviving "criados" in East Timor, the Australians are remembered as ghost-like legends who were kind to the villagers, always giving some gift in return for food or shelter.

Mr Monteiro says the Australians, who travelled in small groups in the hills, were so wily the Timorese came to believe that they possessed some sort of "magic" that protected them from bullets or shrapnel.

Many of the Australians carried a superstitious root called "biru", which it was believed gave them some spiritual force.

Virgilio Dos Anjos, a commander in East Timor's military, is the son of Celestino Dos Anjos, the only East Timorese to receive an Australian decoration for bravery during the war.

"Many of the guerilla tactics that we used against the Indonesians after they invaded in 1975 we learnt from the Australians," says Virgilio, who fought as a guerilla for 20 years.

Of hundreds, perhaps thousands of the "criados", Celestino was the best known.

The only Timorese trained in Australia before the war, he made a daring parachute drop with the Sydney-based Australian war hero Arthur Stevenson into then enemy-occupied East Timor.

The two men formed a close bond in the Timor hills and stayed in contact for decades.

But Mr Stevenson could do nothing to help save his friend in 1983 during a brutal crackdown on anti-Indonesian Timorese villagers.

Indonesian soldiers made Celestino dig his own grave and then machine-gunned him into it.

They also shot dead Virgilio's pregnant wife, who had been detained with her father-in-law.

Later, Virgilio wrote a letter to Mr Stevenson, who as since died.

"My father told me many times of Australian guerilla tactics, and recommended to us, his children, that we should continue to fight until the end," he wrote.

Michael Stone, a major in the Australian army, who advises East Timor's military under a defence co-operation program, has researched the Sparrow Force campaign.

He says it is important, 60 years after the war, for Australians to understand what happened from an East Timorese perspective.

He says there were not enough Australians to protect the Timorese.

"The Timorese lost upwards of 40,000 people during that time ­ that's more than we lost in the whole war," he says.

"For a country that had nothing to gain, except for brotherhood, selflessness, a sense of unity against oppression, it was all value-driven, all from the heart.

"I think that's a really important message for Australia to say, 'come on, seriously, let's have a look at what these guys did here and sacrificed for us and pay tribute, not glorify it, but to somehow pay tribute and repay the sacrifice'."

Major Stone says that "criados" means "slave" when translated into English.

But he says the Australians treated the Timorese as mates and compatriots.

The men's trip to Australia has been largely arranged by Howard Williams, the chairman of Christian College, Geelong.

The City of Greater Geelong has a sister relationship with the East Timor town of Viqueque, where Christian College has opened two community houses.

Mr Williams, a Ballarat district diary farmer, says the college established its link to East Timor in 2000 when it sent a herd of Victorian cows to a poor rural area outside Dili to provide milk for 800 schoolchildren.

"After we became engaged in the Timorese community I decided to track down some of the Timorese who helped the Australian commandoes because I felt the story of their role was not widely known and appreciated in Australia," Mr Williams says.

"I got the few still alive to tell their stories on video and then, travelling back to Australia after one of my trips there, I thought what a wonderful thing it would be for them to take part in the Anzac Day parade."

With research by JESSICA ARDLEY

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