Date: May 19 2012
Acting Superintendent Chris Meagher is no stranger to war. Far from the quiet streets of Canberra, where he has served with ACT Policing for 28 years, Sydney-born Superintendent Meagher has worked in conflict zones in Afghanistan, Mozambique, Cyprus and the Solomon Islands.
But of all his work across the world's war-ravaged and dangerous nations, it's his harrowing time in East Timor that he remembers most. He was shot at, had a bomb put under his car, and narrowly avoided being cut to pieces by machetes during his deployment there, something that was not reported publicly at the time.
In Canberra, 47-year-old Superintendent Meagher worked in community policing, investigations, response policing and as an elite tactical operator for 17 years, before ''old age, arthritis, and common sense'' set in. He had a three-year stint with AFP intelligence in a counter-terrorism role, and also was a commander of Gungahlin Police Station, rebuilding it into a fully functional 24-hour facility.
Superintendent Meagher was one of the first 15 foreign police in East Timor, during the violent, volatile lead-up to the 1999 referendum on independence from Indonesia. He was deployed in a remote, mountainous region of Timor, with the United Nations Advance Mission to East Timor. In his area were two notoriously violent militia leaders, who had been implicated in the massacre of hundreds of pro-independence supporters in Dili in 1991, and were known for grotesque attacks on women.
As the referendum drew nearer, the region began to deteriorate around Superintendent Meagher. He can vividly recall sitting with 35 students on plastic chairs outside a house talking about the electoral process. Suddenly, militia armed with machetes and lumps of concrete came screaming out of the jungle behind the house. They had come to kill the students.
''I thought 'how dare you','' Superintendent Meagher says. ''So I picked up a plastic chair and started swinging it … I got a big chunk out of my right shoulder hit by a lump of concrete,'' he says.
He screamed into his radio for help. Luckily, a Maori officer from New Zealand was not far off. The enormous 135 kilograms officer, who Superintendent Meagher fondly describes as a ''dead ringer of [rugby great] Jonah Lomu'', was there in under a minute. He picked up a large coffee table, stood next to Superintendent Meagher, and together they managed to fight off the militia. He now recalls the image of the huge Maori officer swinging a coffee table at machete-wielding militia with a laugh, and pictures the scene as almost ''comical''. But what happened over the next seven days was far from a joke.
A bomb was placed under Superintendent Meagher's car while he was observing the Timorese vote. ''You can imagine, I'm watching 2457 people vote in my area, suddenly this big bang goes off in front of my car, leaving a small crater,'' Superintendent Meagher says.
The explosion caused panic among the voting Timorese, and huge crowds turned and ran away from the polling station. Without thinking, Superintendent Meagher ran to catch up with the crowd, and started yelling at the East Timorese to turn around and vote. ''We knew they probably wouldn't kill us, they tried a couple of times but we managed to get out of it,'' he says.
Sometime later, Superintendent Meagher was sitting idly, watching as long lines of Timorese put down their thumb prints to register for the vote. Screams were suddenly heard coming from his radio. A Dutch man, housed nearby, was being attacked by militia.
Superintendent Meagher ran to the house to find a young Timorese boy with a machete buried between his shoulder blades. The militia weren't far off.
''A bloke tried to cut me in half, I don't remember this happening … somehow I've disarmed the machete, and I've thrown off the struggle and said 'Look at me, what do we do now?','' Superintendent Meagher says. ''That's the political space we were working in at the time.''
His last week there was the worst, as New Zealand pulled all of its officers from the deteriorating region. He taped the windows up, and secured the house, switching rooms every night with the Timorese houseboy he was living with. In the dark of night, militia groups would visit Superintendent Meagher's home, tapping on the windows, whispering threats and telling him he would be killed. ''It was a long week,'' he says.
He sent his houseboy from the house, armed with money and directions to ''get out of the country''.
The region descended further into chaos, and eventually the remaining Australian Federal Police officers were forced to evacuate to Dili.
Superintendent Meagher fled under fire, running to the airfield as militia came out of the scrub to pop shots at his back. Safely aboard a plane, Sergeant Meagher looked down to see a scene of horror below.
''My house was the first one to blow up as we flew away, I could see my house being targeted,'' he says. ''During that election process in East Timor … basically there was a regime, the Indonesians were still there at the time obviously, as was their Indonesian-backed militia. [There was] constant propaganda, constantly targeting people who were community leaders or students, to say this is not a silent vote, we're going to watch your vote and kill you and your family.''
But the officers found no respite in Dili.
''The militia were forcing people into the centre of the city,'' Superintendent Meagher says.
''I can recall standing at a back fence calling out for help to police from the local Indonesian police.
''They were throwing kids to us through the razor wire so we'd take the kids. The kids would land in your hands, they're hands and feet would be cut to pieces … you'd tape them up, and as you were taping them up, a couple of rounds would hit the wall above you. It was just pandemonium.''
To try to calm the situation in Dili, the officers drove through the city in Land Rovers. Their observations were relayed back so that others could be sent out to try to restore order.
Superintendent Meagher and his two New Zealand counterparts soon became a target.
''A bloke came out with a homemade gas gun about 25 metres away from us, and he just blasted it at us,'' he says. ''For some reason, he never hit us … we got out of there real quick.''
Eventually, Superintendent Meagher was safely evacuated to Darwin.
Now, he is back with ACT Policing, acting as the head of their intelligence and crime prevention units. But his experiences in the remote, mountainous regions of East Timor will never leave him.
The experience was so harrowing, that he describes his recent deployment to Afghanistan, where he was embedded with the FBI training a major crimes task force within the Afghan National Police, as a cakewalk in comparison.
''You had to forget about your personal safety sometimes and keep that vibrancy about the election process with the locals so they wouldn't lose hope,'' he says.
''It's one thing I can take to my grave … myself and 50 other coppers, we actually gave these guys a free country.''
Christopher Knaus is Police Reporter
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