East Timor: The Story


Barry Wicks and Fatty the canoe go to East Timor

Impact was inevitable. We barely had time to duck. Glass shards from the
shattered exterior rear view mirror flew across the trucks' cabin.

Issuing strict instructions to stay in the cab, our driver flung open the
cabin door and strode purposefully back up the rutted road to shirt-front
the driver of the vehicle that had side swiped us shattering our vehicles
large rear view mirror.

Having spent the last few days being driven about the island I was ready
for the inevitable tirade that was to come. This was going to be fun to
watch. Avoiding hopeless U.N drivers is a daily contact sport in East
Timor. A license will be issued to anyone wether they can drive or not but
can manage to steer a car up the road turn it round and make it back.
Finding a UN vehicle (and there are hundreds of them) in Dili with out
battle damage from road accidents is rare. There are virtually no rules so
driving is a question of the survival of the boldest and the one with the
quickest reflexes. Ironically more people now die from a lethal game of
dogems on East Timor's 'roads' than from the attention of the militia. Some
700 a year at last count.

A uniformed man, his eyes shielded by black wrap around sunnies and armed
with a lethal machine gun bolted to the vehicles roof, peered back over his
gun sight in a menacing fashion. More armed and uniformed men emerged fromthe U.N. Hummers interior.

This was road rage - East Timor style.

Undaunted our driver continued his torrent of abuse facing down the machine
gunner.

The Portuguese crew of the hummer, unused to being roundly told off for
arrogantly dangerous driving, stared back and tapped their holsters in a
threatening manner but did not retaliate. After all, these guys are widely
regarded as bullies and by definition cowards, and are more used to beating
up defenceless locals than being dressed down by an infuriated and un-armed
bloke in a t-shirt and shorts. They seemed baffled.

These guys are the Portuguese Rapid Response Group aka The Pretty Boys, who
are officially the UN sanctioned instant response group that prowl East
Timor in their white Humvees, a sort of squashed over wide military jeep,
totally inappropriate for the job. These trucks are quite often wider than
what's left of the roads. Their purpose is to put down any uprising that is
beyond the capabilities of CivPol the United Nations Civilian Police Force.

These guys seem to enjoy their work and are universally loathed, along with
the despised Indonesian malitia, by the East Timorese not to mention a fair
percentage of the itinerant NGO and U.N population. It could be perceived
as insensitive of the United Nations to employ the services of the
Portuguese when they are the people that the East Timorese fear almost as
much as the Jakarta backed malitia.

Stories are legion around Dili of the Pretty Boys excesses.

But like all bullies that seek safety in numbers

Whilst our driver-cum-minder continued to dress down the gun toting crew of
the hummer they meekly re boarded their vehicle and drove on. Our driver
stalked back to our truck muttering terrible oaths.

Just another day on the chaotic roads of East Timor

He continued his dissertation on the brutality and ignorance of the Pretty
Boys garbed in immaculate blue uniforms and highly polished calf high
boots, the militia and the Portuguese, who he claims are certainly not
blameless when it comes down to sheer cruelty and attrition.

He tells of obscene inhuman torture methods by the Java backed militia.

Anecdotal stories of children's limbs being broken in front of their
mothers eyes to get them to divulge the whereabouts of their husbands.
Punching skewers through victims' ears. Burning cigarette butts ground into
eyes. Injecting local men with a drug that would make them obey the dark
forces of the militia totally. Whilst under the influence of the chemical
they would be ordered to go to a certain house and murder the family there
in. It was their own address! It would not be until the next day when the
drug wore off that they would return home to find the remains of their
family. He tells of visiting orphanages. He went there once. He says he
cannot go back.

Before being rudely interrupted on our journey around the magnificent
coastline from Port Hera to Dili, Our protector (who must stay anonymous)
had been telling us of a particular incident in Dili where an inoffensive
local who had partaken a little too much palm wine at a road side caf�.

The owner over reacted and ordered up the rapid response police.

Within minutes a hummer skidded to a halt and five heavily armed Portuguese
lost no time in beating up the little guy, boots and all.

Sitting quietly in a darkened corner of the caf� were four Fijian peace
keepers. One of their number left the table, disgusted by the brutality of
the officials attack on the little Timorese guy who by this time was on the
ground and being kicked an punched to a pulp.

"You can't treat another human being like that", he reportedly said and
with that a truncheon wielded by one of the hummers crew caught the Fijian
on the skull.

The blow to the head stunned the Fijian. Anyone that has ever played rugby
against the Fijians will tell you that they are a kind and gentle race
until seriously annoyed. Unarmed and out numbered the four Fijians
delivered their own form of corporal retribution.

The ensuing stoush was short and violent. The end result being that the
five rapid response police (not to be confused with the civilian police-
CivPol, were loaded into an ambulance and taken away to be repaired.

The Fijians calmly resumed their evening albeit one with a sore head.

....................

Fatty and Barry meet ET

The UN flight 65 Hercules pointed its bulbous nose imperceptibly towards
the distant island twenty four thousand feet below and began its languid
decent into the mayhem that is East Timor.

Deep in the cavernous bowels of the UN shuttle from Darwin, an hour and
forty minutes to the west, Barry Wicks sat shrouded in apprehension amongst
the melting pot of uniformed international peace keepers and UNATET
officials heading into East Timor for their tour of duty. Aussie medics,
Ugandan police, South African pilots, Thai soldiers. This amalgamation of
international humanity, all slumbered the journey away until a thump
announced the Hercs' touch down at Dilis' airport, a grandiose term for
what is in fact a battered and patched empty shell. A landing always comes
as a surprise in a Hercules as, apart from a couple of port holes, the
portly old work horses do not provide the luxury of being able to see out.

Along with the pot porie of races and colours Barry emerged blinking into
the afternoon light and dusty heat of a Dili autumn afternoon. He'd walked
from the safety capsule straight into a reality shock.

Barry was about to embark apon the sometimes heart-rending adventure of his
life and to see his personal dream come true. Not many 67 year olds
willingly enter a hell hole of murder, chaos, corruption and down right
savagery which was (and occasionally still is) East Timor before the UN
arrived along with Aussie and Kiwi soldiers to pour oil apon the very blood
soaked waters.

The place is still a shambles of torched buildings, burnt out car bodies
and contorted superstructure melted at impossible angles as Dilli burned,
razed by the maniacal fury of the Indonesian backed Militia. Crazed
terrorists who systematically sacked the town and tortured, slaughtered and
raped the already subjugated inhabitants of this once beautiful city. A
city inhabited by a gentle race of people who, for the last 450 years, have
been cruelly crushed demoralised and terrorised by their original
Portuguese masters and latterly the indescribable brutality of the Indo
malitia who invaded and annexed East Timor in 1975. No one accurately knows
how many people died or have simply vanished 200.000 300.000? More mass
graves have been found recently but the officials are reluctant to tell the
people for fear of stirring up more trouble. The people might be to all
appearances gentle but they have long memories and there are many scores to
be settled. Retribution would be brutal and they can hardly be blamed. One
can almost hear the metaphorical sharpening of machetes.

Finally the East Timorese had had enough and wanted independence. Countless
thousands have been exterminated (something like a third of the population)
in their attempt for peace and self-determination. A genocide that closely
matches that of Cambodias' evil Pol Pot. The massacre on the 12th of
November 1991 was the final straw. Finally and belatedly peace-keeping
forces from Australia, New Zealand and the UN moved in. Some would say far
too late. There are now some 10.000 peace-keeping officials in a country of
less than a million. An estimated 100.000 East Timorese are still locked in
West Timor. At least 80.000 still want to come home. A sort of peace has
now settled over East Timor and refugees are returning to their devastated
towns and villages. Dili, in a chaotic fashion, is bustling again.

Barry Wicks, retired boatbuilder and pensioner from the peaceful little
community of Harwood Island (Northern New South Wales) is just one unsung
Aussie who wants to help these oppressed, kind but confused people restart
their lives in peace and with dignity.

To forget the gruesome past for them will be impossible but to assist them
in looking to the future is possible as Wicks found out during a hairy and
sometimes scary 10 days in ET.

Barry is a physically small, quiet man with a very large vision. In
simplest terms he wants to build and donate two hundred 6.5mtr long state
of the art fishing dories to the tragically beleaguered East Timorese
fishermen who have quite literally had their boats burnt and sunk from
under them with their families efficiently and grotesquely slaughtered. He
has, against a myriad frustration's, constructed the prototype of the
'Fat Canoe' in the cramped and dusty confines of the garage under his
modest high set house adjacent to the Clarence River. "We are a fishing
community here", says Barry, "trying to help out the fishermen over there".

Fatty (as the boat is affectionately been nicknamed) finally made it to
Port Hera via a combination of some big hearted Aussie truckers and a
couple of Australian shipping companies who donated the safe passage to
this outwardly idyllic location for a fishing village. Just over the
mountain some 16 kms away lies the wreck of Dili. Idyllic until you
remember the terror inflicted on the petrified inhabitants who now eke out
an existence and live in humpies fashioned out of rusting corrugated iron,
tarpaulins and parapa, an interlinked type of palm stem.

Heras' people suffered the same fate as their city and country cousins.
Their village was burnt to the ground. The locals were either killed or the
survivors who avoided the slash of the machete blade headed for the
mountains. They are gradually returning to the gutted shell of their
aesthetically beautiful township. They now have a future to look forward to.

When queried as to why a cash strapped 67 year craftsman and coordinator of
Aussie Boats for East Timor should come out of a retirement and take on the
monumental task of building the Timorese fisherman a fleet of fishing craft
Barry says quite simply that ".we owe them one. They need a hand up, not a
hand out"!

Barry (who's son is waiting to serve in East Timor with the Aussie Troops
and is peeved because his old man made it before he did) will point out
that Australia and Australians owe the East Timorese a debt of gratitude.

A small and totally out numbered force of Aussie Troops and their Timorese
mates, hidden in the steaming jungles of East Timor during World War 2,
were hell bent on stopping the invading Japanese armies from getting a toe
hold into Australia. If it hadn't been for the bravery of the Timorese not
to mention the Aussies, life in this country might be very different from
how we enjoy it now. This time the estimated body count was some sixty
thousand Timorese.

The villages have literally nothing in which to fish apart from a few
battered dug-outs and are desperate for help. Logs fashioned into the shape
of primitive canoes serve as fishing platforms. It looks romantic but is
hardly practical. The people have few tools with which to build or repair
their own boats. Barry's master plan includes teaching the Timorese how to
build the boats and set up their own industry.

Barry was finally re united with Fatty, loaded to the gunnels with 250 kg's
of donated clothes, school books, pencils and precious chalk for the few
teachers that are left. A restored sixty year old hand operated sewing
machine and a respirator were also part of the cargo. A sewing machine no
matter what vintage is worth its weight in gold to the Timorese women.
Especially one that doesn't need electricity.

Word soon got around the village. The ever cheerful if sometimes artful
kids of the village soon clamoured at the U.N Dept. of Fisheries (where
Fatty was stored and evaluated by UN fisheries officials and local
fishermen) perimeter fence to receive pencils, clothes and the most prized
gift of all - a tennis ball.
Wicks was often overwhelmed.

"How one human being could do this to another is incredible', said Barry
after befriending one 16 year old boy called Julio.

Julio along with his mother and "small sister" was forced to watch his
father having his throat slashed.

Wicks marvelled at the boys out ward cheerfulness but also heard him weep
piteously at night. Julios' mother and 4 year old "small sister" are both
seriously ill with malaria. Small sister holds a tenuous grip on life. The
family home is now a shanty with a dirt floor and precious little else.
Fatty's' largesse would help this family and many others including a
birthing unit to help the women birth with safety. Infant mortality is high.

Then the great day arrived when Fatty was lifted by excited local fishermen
from the shed and onto the cobalt blue waters beyond the reef to be
escorted by squadrons of flying fish. The ocean churned with a feeding
frenzy of tuna. Fatty was finally in its element. The shake down cruise
involved a dawn start and a voyage around the spectacularly beautiful
coastline to a fishing community on the outskirts of Dili.

A group of expectant fishermen were waiting on the beach for their new
craft and in the style of a Normandy landing Fatty and Barry hit the junk
strewn beach to be pounced on by it new owners. Fatty came equipped with
everything needed to begin fishing including cast nets, line, weights and
lures. All donated by caring Aussies.

The guys were ecstatic.

Barry pronounced, his voice cracking with emotion, that the seemingly
endless bureaucratic struggle, many broken promises and his and his wife
Michele's self-deprivation of the last eighteen months had all been worth
it. He was literally speechless.

"All I've got to do now is go and build a couple of hundred more of them",
he quipped while watching Fatty's new owners launch the boat and head out
to sea on an hilarious shake down cruise. They had never comer across
anything like Fatty before and as is the Timorise way turned the launch
into fun, always yelling instructions that everybody ignored. The oars were
a bit of a mystery, they are more used to paddles.

Several days later the final part of the story of Fatty was played out.

Barry was invited back to the beach for a party organised by an
appreciative crowd of fishermen and their families. The fat canoe has been
designed as a work- boat that could keep upwards of fifty people occupied
and fed. And so it has proved.

For the people the party was a banquet of freshly caught char grilled fish
doused in an exquisite if ferociously hot marinade. A couple of well
galloped barbequed chickens, sticky rice wrapped in palm leaves and the
piece de resistance, a cup full of the local hooch-palm wine.

Humble provender maybe but to the charming fishing people of East Timor it
represented the only way the people had of saying thanks to Wicks and Fatty
and ultimately the people of Australia who believed in Barry and his project.

The only thing that was missing was birdsong. There are no birds left in
East Timor. The starving people have eaten all the eggs.