"This story began before Afghanistan," said the former SAS soldier. "It started in East Timor."
We were sitting in my pokey hotel room in a capital city. For several hours he had been telling me about what he saw in Afghanistan and the people he served alongside.
He had told me of dark events that had stained the honour and reputation of the most elite and celebrated regiment in the Australian Army – the SAS. The stain he was telling me about were war crimes.
It wasn't the first time I had been told to delve further back in time in a bid to understand where the culture of the SAS had started to go rogue.
Other former members of the regiment had hinted that something had happened in East Timor. Something bad. But I had my crosshairs on Afghanistan. East Timor would have to wait.
Then, as my stories about Afghanistan were published, emails about the SAS in East Timor began popping into my account.
"I wonder if you have ever considered going back to 1999 and East Timor where [name redacted] was one of the first SAS soldiers to be investigated for dubious shooting activity," wrote one former SAS veteran in 2020. "The NZSAS soldiers would not testify. I believe this incident was the start of the SAS culture issues."
"I thought it pertinent to draw your attention to allegations that were made against SAS members from the 1999 INTERFET operation in East Timor," wrote another. "It would appear as though the most recent discoveries [about Afghanistan] mirror the historic allegations from East Timor … multiple allegations were made including unlawful killing and abuse of deceased persons."
Then came another email. It was from another ex-serviceman who said he had evidence that something went bad in East Timor. A week later we met at a regional fast food joint, where he slipped a manila envelope across the greasy table.
"Don't open it here," he said.
Later, in the car outside, I unsealed the envelope. Inside were Australian military police witness statements. The names of the witnesses were all coded. There was 'Soldier X', 'Soldier M', 'Soldier U', and so on. I kept reading. Holy f***. The witnesses were New Zealand SAS soldiers, and what they were alleging against an Australian colleague during their deployment in East Timor was shocking. I slipped the statements back into the envelope and started the long drive back to my hotel.
Back in my office in Brisbane I started to read the statements, line by line. The main incident the Kiwis were being asked about was a firefight with pro-Indonesia militia outside the border town of Suai on October 6, 1999. The Australian SAS had been caught in an ambush and two of their soldiers had been badly wounded. In the counterattack they had killed two militiamen. But it was clear from the statements that the New Zealand SAS soldiers who were there in the aftermath were disturbed by what had unfolded.
One spoke of how he was told by a comrade that an Australian SAS soldier had fired on one of the men as he was running away. Others spoke of seeing him "kicking and punching the bodies". Others say they were told that he had shot the corpses at close range. Another thought at the time, "F*** he's lost it". A Kiwi SAS commander regarded the Australian as a "loose cannon and often unprofessional" on operations. He told his soldiers not to emulate the "cowboy" attitude of the Australian SAS.
Nestled among the Kiwi SAS statements was one that didn't have a code name. The witness was clearly identified. Her name was Andrena Gill. In October 1999 she was a New Zealand legal officer assigned to INTERFET's legal office in Dili. In her statement to the Australian military police investigators, she recounted how a Kiwi SAS soldier told her how his Australian comrades "were undertaking 'dodgey' [sic] activity". But the events around the Suai killings were not the most shocking allegation in Andrena Gill's statement. On page three, Captain Gill recounted how she was told by Australian military police about the mistreatment of Timorese detainees at the special forces compound at Dili's heliport.
"Sleep deprivation, lack of food and water, rough treatment, use of handcuffs, use of blindfolds, use of white noise, use of 'stress positions', stripping them and leaving them naked and physical beatings."
Andrena Gill told the investigators how she took her concerns to her boss, the Australian chief legal officer.
"[He] made jokes about food deprivation and detainees being stripped naked," she said in her statement.
She also recounted the story of a wounded detainee named Nadus Bau, and how he had been dragged from his hospital bed and interrogated. When he was returned his wounds were "oozing blood and pus".
We tracked Andrena Gill down to her home in New Zealand. When I called her she seemed wary. She wanted to know more about this nosey Australian journo and so I told her about my Afghanistan reporting. I promised to send her a link to my Four Corners program, Killing Field, which showed the unlawful killing of an Afghan man by an Australian SAS soldier. It also featured Braden Chapman, a former Australian SAS member who spoke of witnessing unlawful killings. I asked Andrena to at least mull over going on the record. The next day she emailed.
"I viewed your programme — pretty powerful stuff," she wrote. "After seeing the bravery of the former soldier who was prepared to go on camera and recount what he saw, at the very least I need to be as brave about it and if you feel I have a valuable contribution to make, I agree."
I knew Andrena would have a crucial contribution to make. In the first of many emails we exchanged, she echoed the views of the former Australian SAS soldier I had spoken to in that pokey hotel room months earlier.
"I do absolutely believe that seeds of what happened in Afghanistan started in East Timor."
While the Kiwi SAS were given code names in their statements, there were other leads in the documents. They were the names of the Australian MP investigators. One that featured prominently was that of Sergeant Karl Fehlauer. Thanks to his uncommon surname I had his mobile number in less than 10 minutes.
Karl was happy to talk about the investigation. He was out of the military and felt that justice hadn't been done. I flew across the continent to Western Australia, and we sat in his home for hours chatting about his role in the military police "special inquiry" and what he and his team had uncovered. In his interview with Four Corners, he spelled out the personal cost of the investigation.
"My wife doesn't know anything about what I did in that investigation. The first [she will] actually know about the investigation is if she sits down and watches this interview," he said. "I've never spoken to her about it."
Karl told me about his belief that the Timorese detained by the Australian SAS had been mistreated, and possibly tortured, in the secret interrogation centre at the heliport in Dili. I knew that a crucial, and so far, untold part of the story was that of the 14 Timorese who ended up there. It was time to assemble a team to push the story forward. It was time to try to find the detainees.
All we had were their names and mugshots taken 23 years earlier. We later discovered a lot of the names were misspelled by the interrogators. Our crack team of Four Corners researchers — Stephanie March, Josh Robertson and Rory Callinan — tracked down some local fixers on the ground in East and West Timor. Armed with photos and names, the fixers headed for the hills, fields and villages. In many places the phone signal was sketchy or non-existent. Finding these people would rely largely on word of mouth. But soon came a breakthrough. After asking around, one of the detainees, Celestino De Andrade, was found near a remote village in West Timor called Kuburan China – the Chinese Graveyard. Celestino connected us with some of the other detainees living near the border with East Timor.
We wanted to make sure these men were telling us the truth and not telling us something they thought we wanted to hear. So we gave our fixers only basic information about what we were doing and instructed them to ask very broad questions about what the detainees remembered. Their answers backed up everything we had read in the documents about their treatment.
Thanks to the forensic detective skills of Stephanie, Josh and Rory, and the grit of our fixers on the ground in East and West Timor, Four Corners tracked down 11 of the 14 detainees. It was a remarkable effort. The MP investigators had only managed to find three.
It was now time for Four Corners to go to Dili. From the East Timorese capital, our team of producer Kyle Taylor, camera operator Louie Eroglu, sound recordist Rob Mackay and I set out for Suai. Despite being only 170 kilometres away, it took us nearly seven hours. The roads varied from glutinous muddy tracks to arse-jarring rocky trails, to bitumen expressways with bomb crater-sized potholes.
From Suai we spent days rattling around the district going to see some of the former detainees. There was Florindo, the bus conductor who had been stopped at an SAS roadblock before ending up in the interrogation centre.
Then there was Valdemar. A small, painfully shy man with thinning hair, Valdemar was one of the most difficult interviews I have had to do in almost three decades in journalism. Back in 1999, the Australian interrogators thought Valdemar was some sort of Indonesian special forces operative who couldn't be broken. He was nothing of the sort. It turned out Valdemar had severe hearing and speech impediments that made communication with even his fellow Timorese a difficult affair. Put simply, during interrogations Valdemar had absolutely no idea what was going on. That's why he never responded to the interrogators.
It was clear that what he had endured at the hands of the Australians all those years ago still haunted him. When we turned up at Valdemar's remote hilltop village to interview him, he wouldn't come out of his thatch hut. His fellow villagers explained that he was petrified of this carload of white guys, thinking we were INTERFET soldiers who'd come once again to take him away. Eventually, he was gently coaxed out by his neighbours and he sat for an interview. That involved a lengthy and somewhat cumbersome chain of translation. My questions were rendered from English to Tetum, then into Bunak, and then Valdemar's neighbour Julio would translate them into a pidgin version that only the two of them understood. Then the answers would then be translated in reverse order back to me.
Other interviews were done remotely with former detainees who lived over the border in West Timor. For the first time, the voices of the Timorese caught up in this saga would be heard.
"It's often hard getting people to talk about trauma, even when it's something that happened 20 years ago," said Four Corners researcher Stephanie March. "But when these men were approached out of the blue and asked by a complete stranger if they wanted to talk on camera about what happened to them in East Timor when INTERFET came, none of them hesitated. They wanted to tell their stories."
Over months, our list of people connected to the twin stories of the Suai killings and the mistreatment of the detainees grew. The list had names that spread from Australia to New Zealand to East Timor to the UK to the United States.
"I'm not surprised you guys contacted me about that particular event," one person close to the MP investigation told Stephanie when she called. "I wondered when the lines would be drawn between that and recent events."
The team would eventually contact more than 130 people. They ranged from generals to privates, SAS to MPs, interrogators to legal officers. Some refused to speak to us and alerted Defence to our inquiries. Others gave us detailed background about what they witnessed. More than a dozen bravely agreed to go on camera. We crisscrossed the continent, travelling to Perth, Darwin, New South Wales and Queensland. We trekked through the mountains and border villages of East Timor and spent time in the lush countryside of New Zealand.
Many of those we spoke to asked us the same question. Why? Why dredge this up after all these years? There are many answers to this. For a start, the Timorese who were detained by the SAS and interrogated by Australian intelligence remain traumatised. Their stories have never been told. They deserve to be.
Then there is the Australian-led INTERFET intervention itself. It is justifiably seen as a great success and a source of pride for this country. It should be. But this important story deserves to be told in full, including the less savoury aspects of it.
And finally, another answer is contained in that simple sentence uttered by the former SAS soldier in that pokey hotel room.
"This story began before Afghanistan. It started in East Timor."
He believed East Timor was the first link in a chain that led to Afghanistan. He told me that what happened in East Timor was the start of the breakdown in culture and leadership that led to unaccountability and a sense of arrogant elitism in the SAS. That, in his view, led to war crimes in Afghanistan. He wanted the full story told.