ANTHONY Peacock was enjoying life as a 3RAR paratrooper when the bloodshed in East Timor peaked following its vote for independence from Indonesia.
He was one of the first Australian troops sent in on 21 September, 1999, with Mortar Platoon call sign 83, which would be used as the unit’s QRF (Quick Reaction Force). When they arrived in Dili Port aboard the HMAS Jervis Bay, they were confronted by the sight of a “burning city of despair”’ torched by rampaging militia groups.
The then-Corporal knew they were there to nullify the reign of terror caused by those same militia, who were suspected of killing thousands of people in retaliation for the pro-independence vote. As a result, our Diggers had arrived combat ready. Militia were quickly disarmed, weapons confiscated and suspects interrogated.
What they didn’t expect was to be greeted with cheers, applause and dances of welcome from locals who saw the heavily armed Australian soldiers as liberators, emerging from their hiding places with gifts of fruit and massive smiles.
Here is an extract from Corporal Peacock’s hand-written diary from the time – covering the 25th September, 1999, from his perspective within the QRF made up of 30 infantry and three light armoured vehicles (LAVs) – as they then pushed out past Manatuto to Baucau.
It is shared here because Anthony wants to re-emphasise the good that Australian troops do overseas, at a time when many Veterans are struggling in the wake of the Brereton Report findings:
“The people heard us coming and once again they came running out waving, smiling and shouting ‘viva’. Once again, the emotions ran high.
We were still wary as we moved in. No expected road blocks manned by forces, no sign of armed militia. For a town so large, we expected more people, where are they?
We arrive at the town centre and the question is answered. I look at my watch, it’s Sunday. The townfolk, mostly Christian, are at the church. The inside is full to capacity, the crowd extends outside the church steps into the large church courtyard.
We quickly set ourselves into a protective posture to the right of the church in the town square, shut down the LAVS and quickly but quietly put in a security cordon, so as not to disturb the proceedings. We clear the area around the town centre, while select world press and UNIMET personnel speak to the locals on the situation there.
We are informed that forces have looted and burnt select structures and left two days ago.
We embus into the LAVs and a Danish Major who was posted here during the elections guides the convoy on a trip around Baucau to do the damage assessment.
We stop and speak to many locals that the Major knew, as the journalists snap away and take footage.
My arm is getting bloody sore from waving and my face more creased from smiling back at the locals, especially the resilient children.
It’s remarkable because as the hours go by, more and more people are turning up in large numbers at main areas in the town. The good old bush telegram works here very well.
We finally finish the assessment and move back towards the town centre. In the short time we have been gone from the town centre, approximately two hours, people have laid out fruit on the side of the road for us. I can’t believe this, they have no food yet they offer their last to us. We wave and smile and politely decline the food. These people are truly amazing, we could learn a few lessons from these people back in Australia, don’t you think?
We were back in the town centre for no more than 15 minutes and the crowds went from about 500 to 2000-plus in this time. Dismounted and positioned in key points for security, a few of us move around in the crowd. The people are singing, dancing and have those amazing smiles that go from ear to ear. A gentleman that spoke slight English said to us in a softly spoken voice “thankyou, you have saved our lives” as he grabbed our hands to shake.
You could see in his eyes that the big, tough paratrooper was hurting a bit, including me. Another gentleman who we started talking to had been a school teacher at Baucau. He explained that the people of the town were mostly hiding in the hills. They heard through various means, including small radios, that Australian soldiers had moved into Baucau. They straight away started moving down from the hills.
There were many Indonesian flags flying high around the town, but not for long. I remember one incident where a large tower about 100m high and used as a signal transmitter, was flying a large flag that the entire town could see. A local climbed the tower very quickly and brought it down. Subsequently, this was repeated by the locals, and flag burning and singing in the town centre increased. The press loved it. I thought to myself, this could be untidy if there were militia etc just waiting to return.
The time came when we had to return to Dili. We reluctantly remounted the LAVs and slowly drove out of the town up through the winding roads. Amazingly, from every vantage point as far as you could see, people came out waving, cheering and clapping. Every house, laneway and road was full of rejoicing people. Women were throwing these pink flowers at us.
This reminded me of when I was a child and I would watch the Second World War black-and-white films and you would see the Allied troops rolling into a French town or city to cheering, confetti and flowers. I never knew what that felt like, now I do.
I had been privileged, for a better choice of word, to be a part of liberating Baucau. This was another learning curve to the life puzzle. When the LAVs stopped at one point due to the crowds, a woman ran over to the head LAV and kissed it, saying thankyou over and over again.
The children from about four up to adulthood seem to know exactly what’s going on, they all wave, cheer and motion their heads in that nod of approval and thanks. It was a bit much seeing these kids like this. I was clearly upset but I held it in, in my own way. There was no talking between any of us in the LAV and we dare not look at each other, we just took it all in and gave as much as we could back.
This is why we are here. We can’t leave now, there’s a job to be done.
”Twenty-five years of oppression ended the day we rolled into Baucau”