Rangers guard eerily quiet Timor town


If one of East Timor's shattered towns could be said to be have suffered more than the others in last month's terror, it is Suai.

Here, on Timor's south coast, not only was every building burned or trashed but many people were massacred. Residents may be returning to other towns but Suai today is eerily quiet, pervaded by the sense by the great evil done to its people, most of whom are still in hiding or held in militia camps in West Timor.

It is here that a platoon of the Irish Army Ranger wing has been deployed as part of the International Force in East Timor (Interfet) with the goal of helping to restore peace and security.

The 30-member platoon has been integrated into a New Zealand-commanded battalion, which also includes Canadian troops who arrived yesterday by ship from Darwin, Australia.

Today four six-man teams of Rangers, who are specially trained in counter-terrorism, will begin a week-long reconnaissance patrol in the wooded hills near the border with West Timor.

Since the Rangers' arrival the area has been quiet, the militia having fled. "The Irish have enhanced our ability to detect what is going on in our area," says Maj John Rogers of the New Zealand army, who is OC of a reconnaissance company composed of one New Zealand and one Irish platoon.

"They are providing the eyes and ears for the battalion. There appear to be very few militia in the area, but it is important to detect infiltration and that is what they will be doing."

"As a unit we train for a task like this," says the Rangers' platoon commander, who requested anonymity, given the sensitive job the Rangers perform in Ireland. "Our mission is to restore peace and security," he said. "We are creating a presence to instil confidence in the people that they can return."

The Irish Army Rangers' wing, comprising about 100 men, was set up in 1980 as a counter-terrorism unit to deal with such contingencies as kidnappings and hijackings and to provide VIP protection.

"They have a black role - anti-terrorism - and a green role, which is conventional warfare," says Capt John Whittaker, a former Ranger based at Irish Army headquarters in Dili, where the senior Irish officer is Lieut Col Derry Fitzgerald. The Rangers arrived in East Timor self-sufficient in communications and supplies for their first-ever deployment at platoon strength overseas.

Their section of the rapidly growing Interfet camp at Suai is recognisable by a small tricolour on the operations tent and two Dublin-registered motorcycles parked outside. They are armed with assault rifles equipped with grenade-launchers, machine-guns and sniper rifles.

With the arrival of Interfet the Suai airstrip is reminiscent of a Vietnamese war scene. Camouflage tents have been erected on the perimeter. American SeaStallion helicopters ferry containers all day from a ship moored off the coast, blowing up clouds of dust as they pass by. Indeed the 1964 Caribou aircraft which does daily runs from Dili has seen action in Vietnam in the 1960s.

Some of the helicopters have drawn ground fire near Maliana, further along the border, a pilot told me. "The tracers could be seen flying past," he said.

Approaching Suai from the air, several village sites could be identified only by charred circles where houses once stood. The devastation in the surrounding countryside is complete.

The Rangers have, however, seen some hopeful signs. After they established a presence in the village of Zumalai last week about 100 villagers returned cautiously. Along the narrow roads small groups of children have appeared to cheer every passing military vehicle.

The big unanswered question in Suai is where the thousands of missing residents are and when they will be able to come home. At the burnt-out cathedral in Suai, brightly coloured flower petals placed in a ring of small stones mark the spot where a local priest, Father Hilario, was shot dead by an East Timorese soldier in the Indonesian army on September 6th.

Nearby, 24 bodies were found after militias followed this act by spraying bullets into the crowd of terrified people here who sought sanctuary. I counted 140 bullet holes on one wall of the church and 40 on another. All the classrooms in the school had been burned or wrecked and the ground was littered with children's exercise books and patches of blood.

In Dili last night crowds of local people gathered to jeer Indonesian soldiers as they boarded a rusty troopship. The evacuation of the last 1,000 of the 25,000 Indonesian soldiers once garrisoned in the former Portuguese colony is taking place. For the first time in 24 years, East Timor will be free of the Indonesian army.