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Ten years in Timor

Wing Commander Logan Cudby
Wing Commander Logan Cudby (AK06-0442-03)

In June 1999 Squadron Leader Logan Cudby received a phone call alerting him that he may be called to go to East Timor as a United Nations Military Liaison Officer (MLO) as the Timorese prepared for a referendum on independence from Indonesia. 

Ten days later Squadron Leader Cudby and Majors Jon Knight, Mark Ogilvie, and Philip Morrisson were on a flight to Darwin under the command of Colonel Neville Reilly.  Fortunately the team all had previous deployment experience, since the speed of the deployment meant that there was only one day of pre deployment training, briefs and a hectic scramble to get kit issued and personal affairs in order.

On arrival in Timor, the NZDF team paired with an Australian Defence Force (ADF) counterpart, selected because they spoke Bahasa Indonesian. The four teams were sent to areas where militia activity had been interfering with the registration process for the United Nations run Independence Referendum. The command team remained in Dili. Cudby was teamed up with a Captain Justin Rooke and posted to Liquica village, about 45 minutes drive from Dili. None of the teams were entirely sure of the situation they were entering into but Cudby and Rooke “certainly got a heads up to what was going on in the place” when, on their second day in theatre, they found themselves between a group of refugees and the militia who were attacking with clubs and machetes.

The MLOs brief was to liaise with the various factions and armed forces (particularly the TNI, the militia and the Falantil freedom fighters) and help ensure the referendum that was to be held in August 1999 would run smoothly. There were a team of New Zealand and Australian Police already in East Timor to assist with the referendum. Cudby counts himself fortunate that there were four New Zealander Police in the Liquica team when he arrived.

Because there were no reliable census statistics for Timor, registrations to vote were just taking place when the MLOs arrived. The MLOs operated unarmed, (“under blue berets”) something that, in hindsight WG CDR Cudby says might have been a good thing: “if we were armed people would have a reason to shoot us, but if you’re unarmed they don’t - that became more apparent as time went on.”

There were some hitches getting the independence referendum underway, but ultimately about 85% of East Timorese registered to vote. “It was impressive to see just how determined the Timorese were, after 25 years of Indonesian occupation, to go ahead and vote despite massive intimidation. Many Timorese families were illiterate and lived on just a dollar a day - yet these people would walk 15 miles through the mountains in jandals, carrying their babies, just to register. Those same people returned on the day of the referendum to stand in the hot sun for hours just to vote. That was really impressive.”

30 August, the day of the referendum was “an amazing day”, WG CDR Cudby recalls. The militia threatened to take ballot boxes away and to burn down the house of anyone who voted and yet 99% of people who had registered turned up to vote, ignoring the militia trucks attempts at intimidation.

Votes were taken back to Dili and the result – that the Timor people indeed sought independence  - was announced on the morning of 4 September. Fires and violence, however, started in the afternoon.

“In Liquica, there were about ten UN Police and MLOs at the UN Compound on the day of the referendum announcement. The militia attacked us about 3pm, busting in with rocks and handguns. But we had already cut a hole in a wall. Escaping, we drove down the main road to the Police station where a UN helicopter could pick us up, but all our vehicles ended up taking a bunch of rounds. An American policeman took three rounds in the stomach – fortunately we managed to patch him up and get him out to Darwin and he was back on his feet within the month”. 

The MLO’s returned to the capital, Dili, that day to find infrastructure being burned (by now the number had grown to around 50 MLOs, including five more NZDF Officers). Each of the NZDF personnel had a story to tell: MAJ Knight had been at the Suai church just before the infamous massacre and MAJ Ogilvy had driven two days with UN volunteers across East Timor dodging in and out of security points.”

In June 2000, COL (now Brigadier) Neville Reilly was awarded the New Zealand Gallantry Star for a particularly timely action which saw him rescue New Zealand embassy staff just minutes before their house was to be over run by militia.  MAJ Knight was awarded the Member of New Zealand Order of Merit for his work in organising the evacuation of UN employees and Timorese refugees to Darwin. LTCDR Shaun Fogarty was also awarded the Member of New Zealand Order of Merit for his role in the evacuation from Baucau.  WGCDR Cudby was awarded the New Zealand Gallantry Decoration.  He describes his role in the incident for which he received this award as “turning up to a machete fight without a knife”, below.  

“Drinking water was extremely tight for the UN contingent in Dili. We were rationed about 1.5 litres a day but needed more because we were racing around in flak jackets in 30 degree plus heat. There was a UN warehouse down at the wharf in Dili that we were pretty sure had not yet been ransacked and had water in it. There were crowds of Timorese down at the wharf being forced on to boats by the TNI and militia. I led the patrol.  Without weapons or strength of numbers, we knew we’d be pushing our luck. So, with the mantra ‘fortune favours the brave’, we drove up like we were supposed to be there, backed up our Landrovers, opened the warehouse locks and started loading the water. For about ten minutes we got away with it. Then the militia recognised me and CAPT Rooke from our time in Liquica and they started to get the crowd worked up. We jumped in our trucks to get out of there, but my driver didn’t move. Then I saw he had a gun pointed at his head and we had men with guns and machetes surrounding the vehicle – I yelled, he planted his boot and the gunman shot out the back window as we drove off.  We’d gotten enough water to alleviate the shortage and the UN flights kept up the supply after that.”

The INTERFET Force arrived in September 1999, quickly secured a base in Dili, then deployed across the rest of the country. It had been great to see how quickly the Kiwi Troops adapted to the environment and started having a real affect on the locals.  By the time the initial Kiwi MLO’s ended their six month deployment on 23 December 1999, INTERFET was well established and the country was starting to rebuild. 

Asked what he thinks the future holds for Timor-Leste, WGCDR Cudby says he expects that the NZDF presence may be required a while longer. “You don’t learn to be a country in just ten years, but the Timorese people are on the right track. It’s neat to have been a part of at the start, and watch the nation advance in small steps over a decade.”

Ends

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As at 21 September 2009 there were 157 NZDF personnel in Timor-Leste. The situation on the ground is calm but precarious. Five New Zealand soldiers have died during this ten year deployment, including Private Leonard Manning, New Zealand’s first combat casualty since the Vietnam War.

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