An ANZAC Day reflection from our CEO
Helping to repay a debt of honour to the Timorese
ANZAC Day hold special significance for me, as it does many Australians.
Both of my grandfathers fought in WWII. One sustained such severe injuries that he was unable to take part in the traditional parade, so as a young boy I wore his medals and marched for him.
He was always there at the finish with a big smile and open arms. I would sit with him and his Digger mates at the local RSL, listening to their stories.
Their stories were never of war. They were always about mateship. Even though years had passed since the time they were in the trenches together they never forgot their mates and what that time meant to them.
As a young child this had a significant effect on me. It remains a large part of the reason why I do the work I do.
It is against this personal backdrop that on Anzac Day I reflect on our mates in Timor-Leste, one hour’s flying time from Australia.
While the ANZAC campaign at Gallipoli is the stuff of national legends, the story of Australia’s involvement in Timor-Leste is relatively unknown.
At the outbreak of WWII, Australian troops landed uninvited in Timor-Leste, aiming to impede the advance of the Japanese.
They were ace commandos but only survived because of the help of Timorese villagers, who supported, fed and sheltered them.
For their friendship the Timorese people paid a terrible price.
Japanese forces massacred more 40,000 civilians (up to 70,000, or one in ten of the population, by some estimates) after the withdrawal of the Australians in 1942.
War historians believe that no other nation suffered such horrific civilian losses supporting Australians in war.
Our government dropped leaflets telling the Timorese people “Os vossos amigos noa vos esquecem” (“Your friends do not forget you”). Today, Australian veterans and service men and women just like my grandfather still speak of the “debt of honour” owed to the people of Timor-Leste, one that was partly repaid when Australia led the peacekeeping force that supported the transition to independence in 1999-2000.
But as long Timor-Leste remains one of the poorest countries in Asia, with unacceptably bad health outcomes (including one of the world’s highest rates of preventable, treatable rheumatic heart disease), we believe reparations are due.
Last week, the Timor-Leste Ministry of Health announced that it would partner with East Timor Hearts Fund and the World Health Organisation on the nation’s first rheumatic heart disease action plan.
We are proud to support our friends in Timor-Leste, and hope that through life-saving surgery and other heart-health work we can help repay that debt of honour.
Lest We Forget.
CEO, East Timor Hearts Fund