BOOK REVIEW by Andy Alcock:
SCORCHED EARTH – Peacekeeping in Timor during a campaign of death and destruction by Tammy Pemper
This book which tells the story of the great contribution of the UN police peacekeepers in the achievement of independence for East Timor is long overdue.
Peter Watt – a former SA police officer and the hero of the story – rang me in July 2019 to see if our East Timor solidarity group in SA (the Australia East Timor Friendship Association SA or AETFA SA) would be interested in promoting the book as we were having a celebration for the twentieth anniversary of the UN coordinated independence referendum in East Timor which occurred on the 30 August 1999.
Of course, we were very interested because we knew the problems that were faced by the UN CIVPOL (civil police) as they were expected to keep the peace for some time before, during and after the referendum while they were unarmed and the Indonesian military (TNI) and their Timorese militias were armed and running riot. Their targets were any East Timorese who were known to be working for the UN and supporters and promoters of East Timor’s independence from Indonesia
The book is written by Tammy Pemper, Peter’s wife and herself a former UN police peacekeeper in East Timor, so the book is also a romance. Having said that, the book shows clearly the incredibly difficult and the life threatening role that the peace-keepers played during the exercise.
Sixty Australian police officers working under the auspices of the AFP participated in the the UN CIVPOL police force for the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) for the referendum. They were part of an international force of 271 police personnel from 27 countries that were deployed to UNAMET.
Their role was to liaise between the Indonesian military (TNI) and the East Timorese resistance (FALINTIL) and provide advice to the Indonesian Police (POLRI).
Peter was sent to Gleno, a town established by the Indonesians during their 24 year illegal and very brutal occupation of the tiny nation. This is a town that means a lot to AETFA SA members because in 2002 just before the independence celebrations, seven members of the Campaign for an Independent East Timor SA (CIET SA) – the forerunner of AETFA SA, visited the town on a day that Xanana Gusmao – the former resistance (FALINTIL) supreme commander and later the president, PM and a minister of the independent Timorese government visited the town in a UN helicopter.
This was a joyous occasion. People were in an exuberant mood and wanted to get a glimpse of their hero. However, everywhere we went, we could still see the damage that had been wreaked by the TNI and its militias.
We had a guitar that we donated to the principal and staff of the Konis Santana Memorial High School in Gleno which had also had some of its science block devastated by the TNI and the pro-integration militias. And the damage was still visible.
Scorched Earth gives great detail of what Peter and the other UN police peacekeepers had to face in Gleno and other places before, during and after the referendum.
The whole situation was very confronting as many of the militia members were supercharged on drugs and consequently had a great blood lust. And the TNI and POLRI, which were given the responsibility for the security of the UN administrative and police staff, were mostly unhelpful or urging on the militias.
At the AETFA SA’s celebration on 30 August 2019, one of the speakers was Gizela Moniz da Silva, a tertiary Timorese student who is currently studying in Adelaide. Gizela was a small girl 20 years ago following the referendum and she gave a harrowing description of what it was like dodging the bullets and the machetes of the TNI and its militias. She also added a tragic note of how one of the kids she was attempting to escape with was wounded and tragically died because he could not get to a hospital in time because of militias blocking the road. Her account was very moving and there were a few tears – hers and others. This was the most poignant part of the evening and gave those listening some idea of what the East Timorese and the UN staff and police had to endure.
According to James Dunn, the former Australian consul to East Timor and the author of two books on Timor, who worked with the UN, told me that the militias and the TNI were responsible for approximately another 2000 deaths during the lead up to and after the Referendum. The TNI had already wiped out about a third of the East Timorese population – over 200,000 according to Amnesty International and the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR).
In one very confronting situation, Peter even had a loaded firearm pointed at his head. One US police officer was shot and wounded.
As Gil Scrine, the Australian documentary film maker – currently making the film Reluctant Saviour about Australia’s involvement in the situation in East Timor at the time – has said: “Anyone familiar with the previous 24 years of Indonesian occupation knew this was an act of faith beyond all reason. The very people assigned this protective role had perpetrated a genocide in East Timor second only to the Holocaust in the blood-soaked twentieth Century.”
The Australia PM and Foreign Minister of the time would have been well aware of the situation as Australian security agencies had been monitoring the brutal actions of the TNI for the entire time they occupied East Timor. Yet knowing about the atrocities committed, they still sent the UN police peacekeepers in to do an almost an impossible task.
We should also remember that when the post referendum violence took off, most foreigners left. However, a group of about 80 UN personnel remained. These people showed such incredible courage to assist the positive outcome for the East Timorese and their courage should never be forgotten. Sadly, a recent ABC documentary on the UN peacekeeping in East Timor after the referendum does not give adequate tribute to the very valuable role the UN police played.
This book provides this missing piece of the history of that struggle and is a tribute to the courage and endurance of all those who assisted the East Timorese gain their independence under great adversity.
Andy Alcock, Information Officer, Australia East Timor Friendship Association SA is a founding member of CIET SA (Campaign for an Independent East Timor SA) in 1975 which became AETFA SA after formal Independence in 2002.
If you are interested in purchasing Scorched Earth please contact AETFA SA: E: firstname.lastname@example.org (Secretary) Ph: 08 83710480 (Andy Alcock)