Troops Move Into East Timor

The two Huey helicopters carrying Maj. Alain Gauthier and platoon commanders from Canada's Royal 22nd Regiment drifted low over the coastal flats of southern East Timor. Below, the giant leaves of banana trees swayed gently in what passes for breeze in the torpid tropical heat.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 8, 1999

Troops Move Into East Timor

The two Huey helicopters carrying Maj. Alain Gauthier and platoon commanders from Canada's Royal 22nd Regiment drifted low over the coastal flats of southern East Timor. Below, the giant leaves of banana trees swayed gently in what passes for breeze in the torpid tropical heat. As Gauthier surveyed the territory assigned to his company of 250 soldiers as part of the international PEACEKEEPING force in East Timor, Capt. Steve Boivin, who leads the reconnaissance group, motioned to a bridge crossing a wide river valley - the water now just a trickle in advance of the looming rainy season that will turn the stream into a raging torrent. The two New Zealand air force Hueys, with flak-jacketed gunners manning machine-guns, banked low for a closer look at the bridge.

There wasn't much to see. The gunships were flying over a deserted and devastated land: empty villages, with square black patches of soot and cinder where houses once stood, fields devoid of farmers, roads with no traffic. Only as the choppers scouted the higher land, the ridges climbing to the high mountains of the interior, were there signs that East Timor remains a place of human habitation.

As Gauthier's 250 Van Doos made a splashy amphibious landing last week off the town of Suai, life was only gradually returning to normal under the spreading security umbrella of the UN-backed, Australian-led peacekeeping force known as Interfet, which now has about 10,000 troops from 16 countries. Canada, its military already strained by tight budgets and numerous peacekeeping roles, is contributing about 640. In addition to the Van Doos, based in Valcartier, Que., there are 280 personnel aboard the naval supply ship HMCS Protecteur off the north coast of Timor and 110 air crew delivering cargo in two Canadian Hercules planes out of Darwin, Australia.

In the capital, Dili, and larger towns like Suai, people have started to return to what little is left of their homes. Despite the near total destruction, many greet passing Interfet soldiers with wide grins and waves. Gauthier has nothing but admiration for their resilience. "Although they have nothing, they are still smiling," he said.

Today's smiles come in happy contrast to the terror that gripped East Timor in the wake of an Aug. 30 referendum under UN auspices that produced an 80-per-cent vote in favour of independence and against continued association with Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975. Pro-Indonesian militias, organized and directed by the Indonesian military, greeted the results with an orgy of bloodshed and destruction that forced more than half the population of 850,000 from their homes. Many fled or were forced to go to the neighbouring Indonesian province of West Timor. About 250,000 are in refugee camps there, and only now starting to return. Most of East Timor's buildings were looted and burned, crops were torched, cattle killed. "The destruction was systematic and methodical," said one Canadian military officer. "What they did to these people was a crime."

In Dili, where Interfet's advance guard landed on Sept. 20, the transition from war to peace is more advanced than in other centres. When Allison Tuffs, a Calgarian working for the aid agency CARE International, arrived on Sept. 22, the city, with a usual population of about 200,000, was deserted. "There was no one here - it was like a ghost town," she said. Now, people are on the streets and even a few buses and private vehicles have materialized. The city has been declared "green," meaning it is safe to move about, although Interfet soldiers must always carry their weapons with them. The market has reopened and is doing a booming business in scarce supplies. And while armoured personnel carriers still rumble down the streets on patrol, the open-air bar at the Hotel Dili has started up again, selling Australian beer and American cigarettes.

People are also on the streets in Suai, but local inhabitants told Maclean's that many people remain in the hills above the town. When Gauthier arrived a week before his troops, there were fewer than 50 people out of a population of about 10,000. Now, more are venturing down. "We are going to rebuild the city," said resident Alarico Gusmao as he walked near some burnt-out ruins. "We are going to rebuild it in our new country."

Suai, about 30 km from the border with West Timor, was the scene of some of the territory's bloodiest violence even before the independence vote. On a patrol through the town, Gauthier points out the Catholic church where about 200 people were reported to have been killed by militias and Indonesian soldiers soon after the independence vote result was announced. The local priest was also murdered. Mutilated bodies were discovered near the airport where the Canadians established their forward base camp last week. But initial reports of widespread mass killings so far remain unproven. Australian Col. Mark Kelly, Interfet's chief of staff, said last week that only 95 bodies have been found across East Timor.

The militias had greeted the deployment of international peacekeepers with promises that they would drink "white blood" and eat the hearts of foreign soldiers. But in skirmishes in the first weeks of Interfet's existence, seven militia members were killed while only two Australian soldiers were wounded. More recently, there has been no militia activity at all. "They are keeping a low profile," Kelly told Maclean's. Credit a robust response from the peacemakers, military officials say. The toughest troops available to Interfet, including the Canadian Van Doos, have been stationed along the border, and commanders say they are establishing peace with a muscular show of force.

At the Canadian camp at Suai, shared with troops from New Zealand and Malaysia, soldiers patrol constantly in full battle dress, weapons at the ready. In the half-hour before sunrise and after sunset - the traditional hours of enemy attack - troops are on stand-to, with foxholes manned, APCs blocking the roads, and no noise or movement allowed. The point: to show any remaining militia that an attack on Interfet would be costly. "What they like to go after are soft targets [unarmed civilians]," said Capt. Randy Maze, who commands the Protecteur. "We're not a soft target."

The Suai camp that the Van Doos called home last week is a makeshift affair on the edge of the airport runway, between some burnt-out buildings and a deserted bean field. The Canadians share the camp with New Zealand soldiers, a goat and malaria-infested mosquitoes. Suai has no electricity and the soldiers run their generator only during daylight hours due to the nighttime security restrictions on noise.

What the Canadians, serving a six-month mission, miss most are their families. "It's tough being away from my kids," says Kevin Millican of Trenton, Ont., the loadmaster on one of two Hercules transport planes that fly daily between Darwin and Dili. "We're on the road a lot but usually we don't go away for a long time." The tropical heat and humidity can be debilitating, even without the weight of a pack, rifle and bulletproof vest. One day last week, the late afternoon temperature, in the sun, reached 45° C.

Set in a land halfway round the world, Operation Toucan, as the Canadian mission is called, has exposed both the strengths and weaknesses of the Canadian Forces. The strength, commanders say with pride, is the dedication, skill and training of the men and women serving under them. Naval Capt. Roger Girouard of Montreal, who heads Toucan from headquarters in Dili, points to the fact that the aging Hercules aircraft, which became the butt of jokes for breakdowns they experienced in getting to East Timor, are carrying about 25 per cent of the cargo coming across the Darwin-Dili air bridge, although Canada has only about 10 per cent of the planes in the Interfet transport fleet. Capt. Greg Hill, one of the pilots, says his people can unload 13,500 kg of equipment, take on the return load, usually passengers, and allow him to get the plane in the air again, within 10 to 15 minutes of landing.

On Protecteur, carrying two old Sea King helicopters, senior pilot Maj. Mike Meraw says flight engineers do heroic work keeping the old birds in the air. It takes about 30 person-hours of maintenance to keep a Sea King aloft for an hour. If Canadians want to continue to send their troops around the world on peacekeeping missions, commanders say, they will have to increase military spending. "We do good work here but it is not free," says Girouard. "As the dollars have gone down, the missions have gone up."

Despite such grumbles, the Canadians are clearly anxious to start helping the reconstruction effort. Once the infantry establishes its permanent base in the nearby town of Zumalai, Maj. Pat Heffernan, an engineer with the Construction Engineering Unit based in Moncton, N.B., says the troops will try to restore power to the town.

Sailors from the Protecteur will play a big part in the effort. After all, says Maze, the ship is a floating hardware store and carries as part of its complement for the mission 30 plumbers and 20 electricians. The ship also brought along extra medical staff and medicines, including those used to treat childhood ailments, says Cpl. Sanya Hayter of Esquimalt, B.C. "This is what it is all about," she says.

Not all the Canadians trying to help build a new country are in the military. Steve Gwynne-Vaughan of Ottawa directs the East Timor program for CARE International. From a makeshift headquarters where drums of diesel share space with mosquito-netted cots and laundry, he is putting together an aid effort of about $5 million, with much of the money going to purchase seeds and help people restart agricultural production. "Even though I don't make much money, maybe what I do here makes a difference," he says.

With the decision by the new Indonesian parliament to formally cede control after nearly a quarter century of brutal occupation, the people of East Timor can begin to create a nation. Last week, the last Indonesian troops left the territory, seen off - with a smile - by formerly imprisoned guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao, who is likely to become the first president. The United Nations also set up a new agency that will help guide East Timor to independence and eventually take over the peacekeeping operation. But everything now must be created from scratch. The Timorese must decide what currency to use, what language they will teach in schools (probably Portuguese and Tetun, the local tongue). They must literally rebuild the foundations of a civilized country. And they must find a way to put the violence behind them.

To CARE's Tuffs, the Timorese display of resilience in the face of such wanton devastation will pull them through. "If my life had been ripped out from under me like theirs had, it would take me a heck of a lot longer to get back on my feet than they have," she said. With Canadian help, East Timor will soon take its first independent steps.

Staying in World Wide Touch

The Internet has gone to sea. On HMCS Protecteur, now stationed off faraway East Timor, e-mail and the World Wide Web have cut into the once-cherished domain of mail call as a way to keep in touch with home. "It's really good for the kids and it's a great morale booster," says Petty Officer 1st Class Paul Zalnieriunas.

Using a data link to the Inmarsat satellite, staff in the ship's communications control room send and receive about 150 e-mails a day and make regular updates to Protecteur's own Web site ( The 18,000-tonne naval supply ship, based in Victoria, has several computers. Each of the 280 people aboard has a diskette to compose messages and can drop off the missives, known as sugargrams, at the communications room for transmission once a day. Zalnieriunas uses the system to keep up with the progress of his daughter Rhea's field hockey team. "You get to know right away that she won her first game," he says. The Web site includes a diary of the ship's progress and pictures of crew members going about their jobs.

Protecteur is not the only Canadian Timor operation keeping in touch via the Internet. The crews running the two Hercules transport planes from Darwin, Australia, to Dili also maintain a site ( toucan) with pictures and news. It is a trim operation: Web master Capt. Nigel Edwards is also one of the pilots.

Maclean's November 8, 1999