In a simple warung Ben Whiley enjoys his supper. He looks super fit, healthy and satisfied. The retired Australian army soldier just arrived in Balibo, a western town in Timor-Leste near the Indonesian border.
In just twenty days he accomplished an extraordinary mission. At sunrise on 30 August, the twentieth anniversary of the 1999 referendum, he started his 485 kilometre trek from Jaco island, the eastern tip of the country.
‘It is just a perfect spot for it. It is so beautiful,’ he tells. Carrying a backpack weighing 40 kilos and using a GPS to find his way, he walked to Tutuale, Los Palos, Baguia and then on to Matebian mountain. Taking roads and tracks he crossed Laga, Baucau, Soibada, Same and Maubisse. But the hardest part was descending from Ramelau, with 2,986 metres Timor’s highest mountain. ‘It was steep. There were no tracks at the back of the mountain. No one has been crazy enough to do it. Holding on trees and roots I sometimes zigzagged 500 meters to get 50 meters down the hill,’ he tells.
His first time in Timor-Leste was in 1999 when he arrived end September as an Australian soldier with the International Force East Timor (Interfet), which addressed the massive security problems created by the Indonesian army that had unleashed a scorched earth campaign after the East Timorese people had voted for independence. ‘It was distressing coming into Dili and to see the whole place had been burned to the ground. I saw refugees coming back from West-Timor with horrific injuries. What haunts me most is what happened to children,’ he says. It was the immense human suffering that affected him deeply. He saw a hand tied to a fence, but there was no body. Just a hand. ‘I thought about that person, to whom the hand belonged. What a terrible ordeal that person must have gone through,’ he tells.
Whiley was involved in security operations in Timor-Leste. ‘I was always hyper vigilant, watching every single person. My body got used to running like that,’ he tells. When he went back home on 20 February 2000, he could not switch off. ‘I was always watching and listening. That became my normal. Later on in life, when I became a father, things really hit home and became more painful. It’s like a lot of memories affected me badly,’ Wiley tells, explaining his post-traumatic stress. ‘Part of me never left Timor. I felt the need to come back. The first time was three years ago with the Timor Awakening Program. It was absolutely phenomenal. The healing and benefit I got from that program really set me up in position where I am today. It’s been a long road. There is no way I could have done this trek at the end of last year. I was hospitalized for two months from a complication of a brain injury that I got during my service in Timor.’
This is Whiley’s seventh visit. ‘Coming back has been so amazing for my healing. It has replaced those bad memories with happy memories. I also learned from the Timorese that the only way forward as a nation was to forgive. That power of forgiveness has been healing for me.’
The purpose for his trek lies further back in history as well, dating back to the second World War. Whiley: ‘As a direct result of Australia’s involvement, Japan invaded Timor to turn it into a strategic base to launch operations into Australia and to stop Australian troops coming out. During the Japanese occupation 60.000 Timorese were killed as they were helping us.’
At the time there was a small bunch of 242 Australian soldiers in Timor. ‘They had lost 20 troops, were cut off without supplies and had no ammunition. Australia presumed they were dead. They Australians fought on against the Japanese with the help of the Timorese people. Eventually they built a radio and sent a message back to Australia. Only then Australia found out they were still alive and put resupplies.’
‘The reason they were so successful was also because of the young Timorese boys, who were just between 8 and 10 years old. They were called criados. They literally fought side by side our soldiers, carried ammunitions and did reconnaissance for them,’ Whiley tells with great emotion.
The Australian troops, which operated for over a year in Timor, were not used to the terrain. They got diseases such as malaria, were dehydrated and went blind. The criados saved their lives, as they would lead them to a village where they were given food and water and were able to recover. ‘You can imagine that their bond was just the most powerful thing,’ says Whiley. Finally Australia started an operation to withdraw the Australian troops from Betano beach. ‘The commandos were ready to get on the boat bringing criados with them. But then the message came through: no natives were allowed to come. So they had to leave their criados behind. This was absolutely devastating for them,’ Whiley says, struggling to hold back his tears. His trauma is also related to guilt feelings. While the Timorese sacrificed their lives for Australia, Interfet was only sent in after the referendum when much of the country had already been destroyed and people were deported, raped, abused, tortured and killed. ‘Deploying the troops earlier would have prevented much suffering,’ Whiley says.
Debt of Honour
Whiley named his trek: Debt of Honour. ‘I wanted to make the trek as hard as possible to honour our commandos and Falintil, who were hiding in the mountains in extremely difficult circumstances,’ he says. On his trek Whiley took food for just four days with him to recreate the experiences of the Australian and Timorese troops, who hunted for their own food. ‘A few days I deliberately did not eat anything. I wanted to get myself into that mind-set of what the commandos and Falintil went through and experience it for myself.’
It was not easy to be tough all the time. ‘The generosity of the Timorese people was amazing. The amount of times I had to knock back lifts, explaining I was walking! When I stopped for two minutes along the road, next thing I was invited into a house. I tried to buy water one day, and when the people heard what I was doing, they gave me water, made me coffee and invited me in to stay for the night.’
He still remembers the moments he walked on the top of a hill. ‘It was absolutely in the middle of nowhere. I was exhausted and collapsed. Then a little old Timorese woman came up and gave me a bottle of water and a box of crackers. That could have been half a day’s pay for her. She just said: thank you.’
He would sleep just anywhere. ‘I just walked until I pretty much collapsed. Then I would walk some 20 meters off the road and go to sleep in the open air. I had a tent and used it a couple of times. But other times I would get in my sleeping bag and put a little mosquito net over my head. Before sunrise I would get up and go.’
A week before he started his trek, Whiley came to Dili to prepare his trip. He had taken some old photos with him of two little Timorese kids who had returned mid-October in 1999 from West Timor. ‘They were skinny, starving and wearing rags. They weren’t well at all. In 1999 I was manning checkpoints and vehicle control points, and then these kids would find me. I would always feed them chocolate and food and give them water. They would learn me Tetun. I taught them English. They were like my little besties. I always felt heavy wondering what happened to them.’ So just after his arrival in Dili in August, he posted their pictures on Facebook. ‘Less than 24 hours later I found them. Next day we met up with the kids, which was amazing. One of the boys, Pedro, joined me on the trek for a few days.’
The other main goal of ‘Debt of Honour Trek’ is to raise funds for two projects in Timor-Leste. Australian and Timorese veterans were given a large parcel of land in Same to build a retreat, but instead they decided to build an English language school. Whiley hopes to raise 25,000 dollars for this school. He also wants to support ETDA, the East Timor Development Agency, with 25,000 dollar for scholarships for children of Falintil veterans to follow vocational training to become a tour guide, to make pottery or learn other tourism oriented jobs. He has passed the 5,000 dollars mark. ‘I have been quite busy doing the trek, and while I was doing the walk the phone reception hasn’t been the best. Now I will start playing the drums hard. So far the money came from grass roots funding in Australia, but I hope to get some corporate sponsorship as well.’
He looks back on an incredible experience, emotionally as well as physically. ‘Actually one of the best things was when I climbed up Matebian. Three little kids, who were barefoot, came up with me for a while. I then felt what it would have been like for the commandos with the criados.’
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