Subject: Making a difference in East Timor

Bega District News

Making a difference in East Timor Tuesday, 3 August 2004

EAST Timor strikes a particular chord with Australians because of the support the East Timorese gave the Australian soldiers during the Second World War, Mr Alan Castle told a fundraising dinner for the Bega Advocates for the People of East Timor in the Central Hotel on Saturday night.

Mr Castle was commander of the 2nd Australian Federal Police contingent to go to East Timor in 1999.

He said that in World War 11 East Timor, as a Portugese colony, need not have been involved in the conflict as Portugal was neutral, but it did support the Australians against the Japanese and when the Australians retreated thousands of East Timorese were killed in the reprisals.

The figure is usually quoted at 40,000 killed but Mr Castle believes there were thousands more.

He said he had talked to old Diggers who spoke highly of the courage of the East Timorese.

Australia's involvement also helped East Timor to independence.

Mr Castle showed slides of the absolute devastation he saw when he went to East Timor alongside Interfed on September 21, 1999.

There was barely a building left standing after the militia had burnt and destroyed all they could find.

When he arrived in Dili there was nobody there, the people had fled to the hills.

When Interfed brought in a whole lot of army vehicles and paraded them through the streets, the news reached those hiding and they returned.

However, it was still a ghost town with no shops and 70 to 80 per cent of all buildings destroyed.

It was very hard to maintain law and order in a country when there was little left after the Indonesians withdrew on October 31 - no prisons, no courts, no lawyers, no prosecutors and only seven police.

Interfed was still securing the region which it had to do slowly and Mr Castle and his team were doing their best to investigate the many deaths that had occurred.

As there was no refrigeration, when they examined the bodies all they could do was take any material with which that person could later be identified, and then dispose of the body in a mass grave.

Mr Castle said he did quite a bit of digging up graves often hearing of burial sites from people who approached him when he was at church.

When he first arrived in East Timor there was only one other UN police officer, a Filipino, but by the time he left in December there were UN police from 27 different countries.

The people of East Timor were terrific, Mr Csstle said, but they did not have a lot going for them.

Unemployment was 70 to 80 per cent and the former freedom fighters were now agitating for a place in their country's future, but despite this, "I still feel that they will do well," he said

"We have an obligation to help them and these are people who are well worth helping."

Earlier in the evening Ms Liz Gardiner, representing the Bega Valley Advocates for the People of East Timor, welcomed the guests, especially Mr Castle and the mayor of the Bega Valley Shire, Cr David Hede.

She said East Timor was the newest nation on earth and also the world newest democracy, but if faced monumental challenges.

She emphasised the lack of skills in the country as the East Timorese, under Indonesian occupation, simply were not allowed to occupy positions of importance, so there were no senior public servants, no judges, no lawyers, and it was the same for the education and medical sectors.

East Timor was also very poor, with the UNDP Human Development Report finding that it was the poorest nation in Asia.

She said Bega Valley Advocates for the People of East Timor was formed in May this year with the purpose of hosting Sister Susan Connelly of the Mary MacKillop Institute for East Timorese Studies.

Subsequently the group adopted a charter to advocate for the people of East Timor, with any specific actions being taken as a result of consultation with the East Timorese and an assessment of the appropriateness and practicality of fulfilling any such needs.

So far the group had undertaken the following:

*It has sent a substantial sum to the Mary McKillop Foundation.

*It is supporting Ms Penny Davies, a local librarian, who is going to Dili at the end of August to work with the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.

*It is hosting Ms Madalena Peieira, assistant to the East Timorese Minister for Health, for a two-month stay in the Valley, to assist her in the development of language and managerial skills.

*The group has been paired with the town of Natarbora, and Mr Jim Collins and Mr Bertrand Taylor will be travelling there in late September with Mr Abel Guterres, the Timorsese Consul-General in Australia, to specifically assess the needs of the Timorese Agricultural College which is based in Natarbora.

*Three people will go to Natarbora in early October to meet up with Mr Gutterres and Ms Davies and to discuss with the community practical ways in which the Bega Valley can assist.

Those who travelled to Natarbora will report back to the Bega Valley community in October so that specific projects with the Natarbora community can be formulated and undertaken.

*The group is also encouraging schools in the Bega Valley to register with the Friendship Schools program with the aim of linking with schools in the Natarbora area.

Ms Gardiner said the people of East Timor were strong and determined to rebuild their country.

The aim of the Bega Valley Advocates for the People of East Timor was for the local community to play its part in helping the community in Natarbora to help itself.

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