16 September 2019
New Zealand Army Major Ange Sutton is travelling to East Timor this week to mark the 20th anniversary of the International Force East Timor (INTERFET) deployment.
As a member of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) contingent, Major Sutton will be participating in the official commemorations on 20 September in Dili, including marching in a veterans’ parade.
Now based at Hokowhitu Campus in Palmerston North, Major Sutton deployed in November 2001 with the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), and again in 2010 with the International Stabilisation Force (ISF).
“I’m really looking forward to seeing how the country has developed since I was last there,” she said.
In 2001 she was a Private, stationed in the Belulik Leten settlement in the mountains near the border with West Timor. As well as conducting regular patrols of the surrounding villages, her Civil Military Affairs detachment helped rebuild and teach English at a local school.
“We would visit different villages daily and built strong personal relationships with the villagers,” she said.
“Teaching at the local school further developed that trust. We showed we were there to help and the Timorese really responded to that.”
It was that trust that led to Major Sutton becoming involved in one of the more dramatic experiences of her time in East Timor.
“One of the children I was teaching came to our base and asked for me, because one of the local women was in labour and they wanted me to assist.
“The trust was such that they immediately thought of me and that I would know what to do,” she said.
It was a traditional birth in a dark, warm hut with a fire going and only women allowed in to assist. There was no running water or any of what New Zealanders would consider necessities for a birth.
The mother delivered the baby safely but appeared to go back into labour immediately.
“I was okay at speaking tetum (an official language of East Timor), so I asked if there could be two babies. They laughed at me and said no but shortly after the mother delivered another baby, a son, with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck.
“The women thought he was dead but it didn’t take much to remove the cord from his neck and he started breathing. There was a lot of relief and gratitude.”
In 2010 Major Sutton returned to East Timor with the ISF, based in Dili. High on her list was making a trip to Suai to check in on the friends she had made during her earlier deployment.
“I remembered where our interpreter lived, so we visited his house first,” she said. “His wife recognised me right away and sent someone to get her husband.
‘We stayed at their house for the evening and went to visit the twins and another family I had become close to. It really was a fantastic experience to be able to reconnect with people I had shared seven months of my life with.
“It was personally rewarding to see the happiness in the local people and realise the impact that New Zealand soldiers had had on their lives.”
Although there won’t be time to make the journey to Belulik Leten, Major Sutton hopes to catch up with some of the Timorese people she has kept in touch with from her time in Dili in 2010.
“My tetum is a bit rusty but I’m sure that won’t be too much of a problem,” she said.
From 1999 to 2002 New Zealand deployed 5,000 NZDF personnel to INTERFET and then to UNTAET, making it the largest single deployment of New Zealand military personnel since the Korean War.
The NZDF remains committed to East Timor’s security and stability and maintains a strong partnership through the NZDF’s Mutual Assistance Programme, which provides training assistance to the Timor Leste Defence Force.