Enduring Connection to Timor Leste

Enduring Connection to Timor Leste

Colleen Thornton-Ward is an English language teacher and mentor with expertise in Indonesian language studies, is fluent in Tetum, and has a long-standing passion for Timor Leste. In July 2022, at the request of the Diocese of Maliana, Palms participant Colleen commenced her placement in the local catholic secondary school Escola Colegio Infante de Sagres. Colleen is working alongside the local English language teachers to help improve the existing English language program and to help develop their capacity to implement improved language programs.

Advancing the awareness, enthusiasm and involvement of Australian and international communities in shared action to achieve just, sustainable, and peaceful development is at the heart of Palms Australia’s mission. It has also been part of the journey that led Colleen to become a Palms participant and below, she tells us a little more about her enduring connection to Timor Leste.

This year, I was finally able to volunteer in Timor Leste. For many years, I had hoped to return to East Timor and give back to their community in some small way for what they had done for the Australians in 1942. I was able to achieve this with the assistance of Palms Australia, having registered with them in 2020 but having been delayed due to the Covid Pandemic. The following is a little-known narrative about the 2/2 Commandos who fought in East Timor during WWII. What makes the narrative incredible is that the majority of the men came from Western Australia and remained as a bonded unit until they died. The 2/2 Commando Association is presently maintained by the sons and daughters of the troops who fought in East Timor in 1942, and they continue to assist projects in Timor Leste.

During the darkest days of early 1942, a relationship was formed between the peoples of East Timor (Timor Leste) and Australia. With the Japanese Army quickly converging on Malaysia, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies, a small band of Australian commandos was shut off in East Timor (Timor Leste), with the Japanese dominating Dili and Kupang. Withdrawing to the mountains behind Dili, the Australian Commandos were able to ambush and harass the Japanese soldiers as they emerged from Dili into the mountains. The Australian Commandos were able to battle successfully because of the invaluable help of the people living in the mountain villages, and especially the Timorese lads who joined the Australian forces as Kriadu.

With their understanding of languages, mountain paths, and villages, the Timorese youths assisted the Australians by carrying ammunition, finding food, and caring for the sick and injured. Nicolau Gonclaves, my father’s Kriadu, saved my father’s life many times by taking him to safety down Timorese paths after they had battled the Japanese and were being chased. When it came time for my father’s Commando group, the 2/2 Commandos, to leave East Timor (Timor Leste), they walked to Betano and waited for the ship. The Australian soldiers and their Timorese Kriadu sobbed as they parted ways on the beach, promising not to forget each other.

My father, with the assistance of the 2/2 Commando Association and the Portuguese Government in Timor, was able to bring Nicolau Gconclaves to Western Australia on an Agriculture study tour in 1969, and they were reunited after 26 years. Nicolau stayed at our house in Denmark, Western Australia  for a portion of his tour, and as youngsters, he left an indelible impression on us.

Nicolau and two of his boys were killed during the Indonesian invasion of 1975, and we lost contact with the family. We were fortunate to see the family again in 1995, when Murray and I visited with Nicolau’s wife and son Januario and other family members at their house in Leicidary, East Timor  We also went to Bazatete to meet Luis ‘Gon Zaga, a carpenter who assisted the 2/2 Commandos during WWII [pictured here].

We returned to East Timor in 1999 to serve as Voluntary International Observers in Suai on the south coast, where we experienced both the joy of the election and the tragedy of the militia’s destruction of most of East Timor (TL).

Since then, we have returned to East Timor/Timor Leste many times. In October 1999, Murray returned to Timor Leste to work for an NGO and employed Nicolau’s son, Januario Goncalves. The sons of the two men who fought alongside each other in 1942 [pictured] were now collaborating to restore East Timor. We also served as voluntary International Election observers at National Elections, maintained contact with Timor Leste students supported by a Denmark Agriculture School Association, interacting with Timorese seasonal workers in Albany and Yanchep, meeting with our father’s companion/Kriadu family each time, and keeping in contact with our Timorese friends.

Murray competed in the Tour de Timors from 2009 through 2012, and I helped with race support.

It was a very memorable occasion in 2019 to be able to visit Suai and attend Sunday Mass in the new cathedral and to meet Simao Barretto who was working for the UN again, twenty years after the euphoria of the vote and the tragedy that followed.

It was a very memorable occasion in 2019 to be able to visit Suai and attend Sunday Mass in the new cathedral and to meet Simao Barretto who was working for the UN again, twenty years after the euphoria of the vote and the tragedy that followed.

My father was fortunate to have Nicolau Goncalves as his Companion (Kriadu), and my family and I are fortunate to have so many Timorese friends. Without the Timorese’s help to our father and all of the 2/2 Commandos during WWII, we might not be here to share this story – an 80 – year friendship that continues today.

Feature image: Colleen in Maliana, Timor Leste, with Father Nico and Marianne (English Teacher) in front of her new house.