Thursday, October 1, 2009

Operation Blue Heron: 10 years on

Operation Blue Heron I:
Timor Leste October 1999
Photo essay and reflections of the October 1999 embed with 1st Media Support Unit (1 MSU), Australian Defence Force to follow. These pictures have never been published.

With Lieutenant-Colonel Lee Chong Kiat, a Singapore Army liaison officer attached to the Internet Force for East Timor (INTERFET). LTC Lee, a Commando, played an active role in keeping an eye out for the Singaporean media group in Dili, the capital of East Timor, during our embed there.

We met on the streets of Dili. I spotted a Mercedes-Benz MB240 scout jeep and my heart jumped when I saw that its numberplate was 35xxx MID. I was aware that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) had LOs with INTERFET but did not know they brought their own vehicles.

So I hailed it like one would hail a taxi.

The street was almost deserted, apart from military personnel, and when the scout jeep drew alongside, the vehicle commander spoke to me.
LTC Lee:"Singaporean?"
CJ: "Yes, I am." I showed the officer my ADF press accreditation pass.
Lee:"Get in."

As I was in the middle of an unfamiliar town, I hopped aboard and had to perch atop jerry cans and assorted stores in the back of the vehicle.

LTC Lee rode in the vehicle commander's seat with his P-226 pistol in his hand and its muzzle just out of sight below the window frame. I asked why he did so and he replied that if he needed to take immediate action, he would probably be shot before he could draw his pistol if it was holstered. That's why he travelled, weapon drawn during that trip.

A word on the "Red Cross" stickers on the MB290 minimog behind us. These were originally stickers of the Singapore flag. On arrival in Dili, the Singaporean ground commander felt they looked too similar to the Indonesian flag and improvised. He got his men to cut the stickers and form them into Red Cross symbols. This explains the one-off, non standard vehicle markings. The Singapore Army troops were in full accord with all international conventions on the conduct of war as the personnel who used these vehicles were doctors or combat medics.

LTC Lee's scout jeep carried no insignia, apart from the MID numberplate.

Reflecting the multinational nature of INTERFET, a Royal Canadian Air Force C-130 flew me from Darwin to Dili. The transport's engines were kept running throughout its time on the ground and the aircraft started taxiing to the runway the moment the loadmaster indicated that the last cargo pallet had been safely lifted off the ramp. The morning silence that replaced the roar of the four turbo-props was eerie.

Except for soldiers and a handful of civilians from non governmental organisations, Komoro Airport was deserted. Journalists sent to cover military operations would do well to remember to pack sensibly for such embeds. There are no airport trolleys or porters to move your kit. What you pack, you carry yourself. Shortly after this picture was taken, liaison officers from the Australian Defence Force escorted me and a French LTC who was a military doctor to Dili with an armed escort.

These are some of the scenes that greeted me in Dili. Indonesia had long lost the "hearts and minds" campaign with East Timorese and the resident population made its feelings felt with graffiti. The impact of what appeared to be a coordinated and systematic scorched earth policy by pro-Indonesian militias was clear to see. All concrete buildings had been torched and buildings with thatched or tiled roofs had these removed. A United Nations compound had been sacked and the burnt-out remains of Land Rover Discoverys left behind.

Towards the end of my embed, East Timorese residents who had taken refuge in the hills around Dili began slowly streaming back into the town. Note the scale of the scorched earth destruction.

When I arrived, the town was pitch black after sundown.

Journalists covering similar situations must take note of the sunset time in their area of operations and make allowance for getting back to a safe area well before nightfall. My allowance was two hours of daylight. The only occasion when Jerome (the photographer) and I returned after dark was the day trip we made to Suai with the World Food Programme.

Though Dili was gutted by mobs, the TNI barracks was left untouched. Homes and buildings owned by people with connections to Indonesia were also unharmed. The banner hung above the street was a belated attempt at shoring up pro-Indonesia sentiments. It was also ineffective - a number were illiterate while most Timorese who had lived through the civil disorder had lost faith with the Indonesians.

In my opinion, Indonesia lost political mileage in the international community after the TNI apparently stood idly by while Dili was sacked by mobs.

The 1st Media Support Unit (1 MSU) of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) operated from Hotel Turismo, a beachfront hotel. The hotel had been looted and stripped of furnishings. Electricity was provided by ADF generators but the electricity supply was intermittent.

General Peter Gration (facing camera, fourth from left) calls a commander's conference after meeting the media. He is seen in conference with 1 MSU Media Relations Officers. Note the smoke trail from the burnt out generator room.

1 MSU required all journalists to sign a five-page Press Accreditation form which indicated, among other things, that journalists agree not to write anything prejudicial to ADF operations during the embed. In return, 1 MSU provided the media field essentials such as access to power, fresh water and rations. 1 MSU had its own television studio and dark room transported to the field in NATO standard shelters.

1 MSU was well-geared for info ops and it showed a high degree of trust, at least to the 90 cents paper. There were no minders who shadowed us, no requests for Q&As to be done in writing, no attempts at massaging journalist's copy by asking what tomorrow's headline and photo would be - which unbloodied media ops officers may tend to do.

ADF officers and men, and women in uniform, gave their views freely and did not abuse the trust their commanders placed in their hands in saying the "right thing".[Or perhaps it was because I didn't ask difficult questions....]

Ten years after OBH, the Singapore Army's Army Information Centre (AIC) is the closest match with the capabilities demonstrated by 1 MSU a decade ago.

In my opinion, if today's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Public Affairs Department (PAFF) were tasked to execute a 1999-era Timor embed with its current mindset on defence media relations, PAFF would collapse.

By serving as a media hub, Australia ensured journalists' copy swung in her interest. Control over media access to RAAF Darwin and the military shuttle flights between Dili and Darwin provided a convenient way of cherry picking the media agencies it liked or felt it could cultivate. I did not see a single Indonesian journalist during my two weeks with INTERFET. The ADF showed it understood the operational art of defence media relations and backstopped this with cultivating the media using various tactical issues to cement goodwill.

At this juncture, the reader should bear in mind that the effort Australia made in courting international opinion was not aided by censorship. My stories were passed without censorship and so were all of Jerome's pictures, including those photographed in Suai when ADF troops came under fire from shots that appeared to have come from across the border.

While more timid defence media relations set ups might gravitate towards censorship, 1 MSU's approach in trusting journalists to do their jobs objectively gave the Australians more credibility than any stage managed media event could hope to achieve.

I am of the view that this is an attitude and approach to defence information management many in Singapore would do well to heed.

This is how 1 MSU was resupplied every morning with potable water. Soldiers in the field will seldom say no to an offer to help them with fatigue party duties and I made it a point every morning to help the water party carry 20 litre jerry cans. The gesture built goodwill and helped Jerome and I get better access than other scribes who treated Hotel Turismo like, well, a hotel, with 1 MSU as its service staff. The hotel was a staging area for a military operation other than war - those journalists who adopted this mindset adapted to the situation better and could do their jobs more effectively. There were a number of diva journalists who stayed a night, didn't like it and left on the next available flight.

Field humour shown by soldiers in Dili. Journalists reporting on assorted wars around the globe would be familiar with this sort of dark humour. In the early days of INTERFET, the situation remained volatile and troops were on guard against Indonesian saboteurs who might try to sabotage the military build up.

At the gates of Hotel Turismo with a ballistic vest - part of my "hostilities only" gear that appears only on selected assignments. A very senior contact at the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) personally helped me pick out what I needed for the embed. I remember that during our intelligence preparation of the battlefield, we debated the threat situation and the merits of heavier protection, heat stress and mobility. One option was to go in with all the bells and whistles, ceramic armour and all. In the end, we reasoned that the biggest threat was from some crank taking potshots at foreigners using 9mm handguns or home-made firearms firing .38 or 9mm rounds. The vest I'm wearing was meant to be concealed and protected against 9mm gunfire.

Preparing to move out with the 5/7th Battalion (Mechanised) Royal Australian Regiment. During my trips outside the hotel perimeter, I made sure my backpack came with me at all times. Inside was one day's worth of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) rations, provided by LTC Lee, 1.5 litres of water, US dollars and Indonesian Rupiah in small denominations, a Pelican flashlight, plus the usual stuff journalists carry. I did not have a digital camera in 1999 and had to ration my film.

Before the trip, I acquired a CamelBak water bladder but ditched it on the advice of the SAF medical team. The MOs had reservations about hygiene issues (those were the early versions of the CamelBak), especially the drinking tube that was hard to clean.

On a mechanised patrol with the ADF. The M-113s were complemented by wheeled Light Armoured Vehicles and that was my first exposure to mechanised infantry operations in a built-up area. M113s were noisy and announced their presence to the whole neighbourhood whenever they operated in a built-up area.

Troops from the Royal Thai Army man one of the many vehicle check points in Dili. About the only vehicles on the streets were INTERFET or TNI vehicles, or those run by non governmental organisations (NGO) such as the World Food Programme or Medicins sans Frontieres. The Thai troops were the same ones I met in RAAF Darwin during my morning departure.
We were at the base around 4am as our respective flights had pre-dawn departures timed such that the flights would arrive just after sunrise. The Thai troops had their regiment flag hoisted on a flag pole as the troops sat cross-legged in neat lines by platoon order. As I passed their Colours party, I bowed in respect as this flag would have been consecrated by someone important, perhaps the Thai King himself. Most of the soldiers saw me do that.
When I met the Thai troops in Dili, some remembered me and I had no problems at all at their checkpoints.

This picture was taken in Suai, a town close to the Indonesian border. The 45-minute flight by a World Food Programme MIL-171 covered a distance that would take about a day or more by a 4WD vehicle, such was the condition of the roads outside Dili. Jerome Ming, a 90 cents newspaper photographer, and I were the first Singaporeans to venture so far outside Dili on our own. As the WFP chopper was fully loaded, several sacks of rice had to be offloaded before we boarded the chopper in Dili. This was my first chopper ride.
I made a mental note that our assignment in Suai should not be a wasted effort and that we should try to tell the world what the WFP was doing.
We were still objective in our business, but there's no denying that journalists in conflict zones build rapport with organisations that help them do their jobs or show a little empathy.
It was at Suai that I wrote a story on an alleged massacre and pointed out that shell casings I found carried the PT PINDAD stamp - the hallmark of an Indonesian arms factory. That report was carried by several NGOs and can still be found on the web. See ST article: Signs of a massacre
Journalists who want to report from conflict zones must be prepared to read up and be familiar with the intricacies of military operations and politics of the area. Such knowledge would help them pick out details that will help them tell a more compelling story.
I am still learning, after all these years.

Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) sailors deployed for Operation Blue Heron I may remember the heavy swells in Dili harbour. This picture was taken during a visit by the SAF Chief of Defence Force. The Lianhe Zaobao photographer nearly died when he lost his footing while trying to climb aboard the side ladder and was nearly crushed between RSS Intrepid and the FCEP land craft. He pulled both legs up in the nick of time just as the hulls slammed against one another. The visit marked the only time the Singapore Ministry of Defence engaged the 90 cents newspaper while we were in theatre. Operationally, it did not affect our news gathering as there were heaps of stories to write.

So near yet so far, RSS Intrepid and FNS Siroco, anchor offshore. MINDEF PAFF did not have a ground presence in Dili, apart from the in/out visit by CDF. This explains why almost all the stories I filed were on contributions made by other countries, particularlythe ADF effort. The seaside looks pristine, but a week after our departure we read about an INTERFET soldier who was attacked by a saltwater croc.

Here's part of the Operation Blue Heron 1 medical team who set up a medical post alongside the ADF at a museum between Komoro Airport and Dili. During our entire embed, Jerome and I wrote only two stories on the SAF contribution - not through our lack of interest. One story was on CDF's visit to Dili and the other talked about how the old LSTs contributed some 60 per cent of INTERFET's sealift effort between Darwin and East Timor. The second story was basically from our own effort as MINDEF did not assist.
The SAF did not send any Media Relations Officers (MROs) and the team was reluctant to talk to us for on-the-record interviews without an MRO. Jerome's attitude was "fine, let's leave" and we ended up covering other stories. And there were plenty.
If you trawl through copies of the 90 cents paper to find stories we filed in October 1999, you will discover that the vast majority of stories were on non-SAF topics.
I personally feel it's a loss, not for us but the OBH 1 team, as the 90 cents newpaper failed to properly record their contributions to INTERFET.
Here's some trivia: the OBH 1 team had limited access to the Internet in those days and kept in touch with their loved ones through snail mail. The day before Jerome and I returned to Darwin, I offered to bring their letters home as our trip home served as one extra mail run. They had one night to write their letters and I returned the next day to collect the post. I received a stack of about 20 letters from the team leader, which I put in the front pouch of my ballistic vest for safe keeping. To my surprise, the stack of letters came with Singapore postage stamps which they had brought to Dili!

Meet Louis, the motorbike rider I engaged throughout my stay in Dili. Ten days in theatre and the strain has begun to show. I treated him as best I could and shared rations and drinking water with him during our trips in Dili. Journalists who have never worked under such conditions may find it difficult empathising with colleagues deployed for overseas assignments where everyday conveniences such as mobilephone coverage are hit or miss affairs.
The day before I left Dili, I gave Louis a US$20 ex gratia tip as a gesture of appreciation. I didn't claim that sum as part of my trip expenses. That said,  I was astonished when the bean counters at Singapore Press Holdings queried my trip expenses and asked for a receipt for the motorbike rides that I took during the Dili assignment.(The going rate was 8,000 Rupiah per trip).

After about 10 days writing without a break, I told my editor, Felix Soh, that I needed a one day break as an operational pause to rest and refit. I spent that day exploring Dili on my own. The town's former police station had piles of stuff left strewn on the ground. It took me awhile to enter the place as I checked all door frames and walk areas for booby traps and trip wires and retraced my steps on my way out. Yes, it sounds loony but in those early days, no one knew what state the town was left in after the riots.
This picture was taken using the self-timer with the camera balanced on a broken chair. Note the rattan riot shields leaning against the wall on the right. I picked these out as among the best of the lot and was determined to bring them home. Louis (the motorbike rider I hired as a means of personal transport) and I had to make two trips between the Hotel Turismo and the police station, with me balanced precariously on the back seat with a shield clutched in each hand.
Thinking back, it was a silly thing to do. : )

Here's one that got away: an unknown type of field gun outside a wrecked building (not the TNI barracks). I had thought of persuading the LST to liberate the gun by storing it in her vehicle deck and I'd collect it from Tuas Naval Base later but this effort was unsuccessful. My ties with the RSN grew stronger over the years and if we repeated that mission with some officers and WOSEs whom I know from 191 SQN, I'm pretty confident we'd get that gun home. For those who may be wondering, the box on wheels to the right of a gun is/was a sewing machine.

I found it ironic that I had to sleep on the ground without a mattress on my first two assignments covering military operations. The first one was in Taiwan (please see the post dated 21 Sept 2009) and the second time was in Dili in a hotel that had all its mattresses and furnishings stolen. I used my backpack as a pillow.

This was my room at the Turismo. It looks a mess as I'd just come back from the field and stripped off the ballistic vest and shirt (on the bed frame in the background) and left my kevlar helmet and Pelican flashlight on the bed in the foreground. The grey object to the left of the helmet is the towel which I had loaned from the Singapore Civil Defence Force during the 9/21 quake relief assignment.

I made it a practice to check my room for booby traps whenever I returned. It may sound paranoid but one can never be too careful in a lawless place like Dili during October'99.

During my first nights at the Turismo, I slept with my boots on in case we had to move out at night. Helicopter resupply flights took place mainly at night and light sleepers had a tough time catching some shut eye.

A few words on those riot shields. I managed to bring them home, all four of them. Those of your familiar with Aussie immigration would know they frown on the import of wooden objects, so I was worried that my efforts retrieving the shields would end up with them confiscated. I managed to stash the four shields somewhere on my return C-130 flight and somehow got them off the aircraft and past customs at RAAF Darwin. : )

The Bushmaster was then undergoing trials and two were sent to Dili. The ADF quite happily allowed me to inspect the vehicle and see it "in action" during its patrols in Dili. It was little more than a battle bus.

The hands-on experience with ADF motorised infantry operations 10 years ago provided a mental benchmark when Commander 9 Div/CIO introduced me to his Terrex ICV. This would have provided material for a commentary on wheeled armour, but I scuttled plans to write this after the AOH incident signalled the start of a period of tension.

P.S. Jerome and I won a Newscom (newspaper committee) monthly award for Excellence from SPH for our coverage of INTERFET operations.

Check out my post in December: Tsunami relief mission, Operation Flying Eagle, five years on.


goat89 said...

This is a great read Mr Boey. I am a Singaporean residing in Canada for my studies before returning home for NS. I am looking forward to it, and even hoping to be able to volunteer for UN operations or even A-stan medical/CE detachment, though the chances are EXTREMELY low for a conscript. >< These pics and insight are incredible and I would pass on to anyone wanting to know more about S'pore's UN missions overseas, the East Timor crisis, etc. Many are unsung heroes, us coming from a tiny country, with jokes being made worse based on the 'fact' that blue helmets are useless. I believe otherwise. Thank you for the post. Thank you

PS: Were you the defence coresspondent for the Straits Times? Your name is STUNNINGLY familiar.

David Boey said...

I used to write for The Straits Times (aka the 90 cents newspaper) until I joined the Sentosa Integrated Resort in May 2008. This is something MINDEF Public Affairs have only recently realised, so it seems.

My company transferred me to Genting several months later and seconded me to the IR project.

Thanks for the comments. There's more to come.

goat89 said...

AHA! I remember those articles you did. Especially that 'special' with the RSN Submarine Corps, SOF, STAR, etc. Thx man! Keep it up!

FIVE-TWO said...

David, do you think having served NS gave you that extra insights and sensitivity to battlefield situations and empathy of troops on the ground (such as offering to carry water jerry cans)? ;@)

David Boey said...

5-2, My interest in defence matters pre dates my NS enlistment. I've read widely about defence info management and have more books about the subject than SAFTI MI. :)

You give me more credit than I deserve. Though I've covered more SAF operations than any other Singaporean scribe, I've never been under fire and have no illusions that my previous embeds point to stability under such situations. I think I'm adaptable under trying circumstances but cannot say with any certainty whether I'd lose my wits.

re: empathy with troops. Different people react differently. There are outstanding officers one meets on the job, and there are the duffers. At the time, I felt it was the proper thing to do.

re: battlefield. I've never seen one and hope I never will. If you've read how wasteful and wretched war is, such situations are not something you hanker after. If my job requires it, I will go and make sure I'm as fully prepared as possible. It seems to me that the ones who crave action are those who've never lost a person during an op. In my opinion, there's nothing wrong being eager to see action - so long as you're prepared to think of the consequences and less glamourous consequences of military action.

I lost one man during the Land Rover tsunami relief mission on 1 January 2005. That was a very painful experience and it was heartbreaking explaining to his teenage son what his dad did.

If I've to plan such a mission again, I'd do so willingly but will make sure my group is better equipped and better prepared.

Do look out for my Ops Flying Eagle/tsunami relief mission report in December 09.

Anonymous said...

David, I do remember how the nicest thing 90c had to say of these nice Australians, was that the Thais criticized their use of sunglasses. Too little eye contact, they felt. I don't think that was you, though.