Commemoration to mark 'hell on earth' conflict in East Timor

Commemorations marking New Zealand's involvement in the violent and bloody East Timor conflict are being held in the country's capital of Dili today.

The crisis erupted in 1999, after a number of people voted in favour of splitting from Indonesia in the name of independence. Leaders on both sides of the conflict threatened a bloodbath, and many villages were burnt to the ground, forcing locals to flee to the mountains.

To try put international minds at ease, Indonesian President BJ Habibie initially called reports of violence "fantasies", with his top military general saying soldiers had the situation under control.

The catalyst for New Zealand's involvement came just days after the referendum, when pro-Indonesia militants opened fire on those seeking shelter in Ava Maria church in the town of Suai, killing scores of men, women and children.

New Zealand military assistance, as part of International Force East Timor, was sent to the warring nation in September 1999 to try and maintain peace.

Retired Major General Martyn Dunne told Newshub he still remembers touching down and being overcome by a strong smell.

"I can still see it like it was yesterday…this picture of going through the city, but nobody was there. The place still burning. It is hard to describe what local people were putting up with. Total destruction."

The Defence Force deployment to East Timor, consisting of more than 6000 personnel, was cross platform - with Navy, Army and Air Force banding together.

"A small group of observers got out by the skin of their teeth, just before we arrived," Dunne said.

He said he spoke to locals once on the ground, who described it as "hell on earth".

Friday's commemoration in Dili is also a time to mourn.

"We lost five people over there. One of them, Private Manning, was our first casualty since Vietnam," Dunne said.

He said the toll the deaths, and the tense environment, took on soldiers was difficult.

"Troops had to handle some pretty desperate people as they went about their business, but it is like that in any combat theatre.

"I saw many people who were badly affected. The first casualty in East Timor was an accident, which brought it home to everybody."

The conflict slowly came to an end by May 2002, with a United Nations Mission established to provide security and develop a law agency. It also helped to create some political stability for the country, which had been left devastated by years of violence.

New Zealand began pulling out troops around that time, but sent another cache over in 2006 to support the new Timorese government and, up until 2012, personnel helped maintain calm.

Dunne says he is looking forward to being in Dili for today's commemoration, and to step foot on the terrain once more. 

"Just recognising everyone's contribution. It had a massive impact on the Defence Force and was a massive commitment by New Zealand."

"It's going to be a trip down memory lane and I think it's important. I am quite an advocate of veterans' efforts."

NZDF still provides assistance to Timor-Leste, by helping with military training programmes.



  • November 1999: Warrant Officer Tony Michael Walser died when a road collapsed under the truck he was driving in Tilomar.
  • April 2000: Staff Sgt William Edward White died when the Unimog he was in fell down a cliff.
  • July 2000: Private Leonard William Manning was killed by pro-Indonesia militia
  • March 2001: Private Boyd Reagan Henare Atkins died in a swimming accident near Dili
  • July 2002: Private Dean Russell Johnston died in the United Nations Barracks in Dili