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Postcard from Dili, Timor-Leste

by Contingent Medic Olivia Sheeran

14 February 2012

When I arrived in Timor-Leste last November,  I found the heat stifling and thought it was impossible to endure it for six to seven months.

A stitch in time: Everybody was all smiles after Contingent Medic Olivia Sheeran stitched up the gash on a Timorese boy’s (centre) knee.


The first month was all about settling in. I made awesome friends with the Australians who are living with us at Helicopter Point of Departure (HPOD) base. They are great to hang out with as well as the small group of Kiwis.

In December, I went on my first patrol to Suai, a city about 138km to the southwest of Dili, the national capital. We had to locate and work on the memorial sites for the groups that are visiting the following week. The most memorable part of the patrol was walking up to the memorial for Private Leonard Manning, a soldier from Waikato who was killed while on peacekeeping duties in East Timor in July 2000. As I stood there thinking that Private Manning was trying to achieve the same objective that brought me here, I felt so overwhelmed I did not realise a leech had crawled into my boots.

January was the Regional Engagement Patrol. We travelled through Baucau en route to Lospalos in East Timor-Leste, where we spent a week engaging with the local communities. This was my first opportunity to interact with the Timorese people. Everybody recognised the Red Cross patch on my uniform and called out “Doctor” every time they saw me. I spent an afternoon trying to communicate with the local kids, an exercise which left all parties in fits. As you may have guessed, my knowledge of Tetum (one of two official languages of Timor-Leste) is still limited.

A large group of children hung around our Forward Operating Base and enjoyed playing soccer with the Kiwi soldiers. One night, in the middle of a soccer match, one of the cheekiest kids suddenly went down in a heap. The boy looked at me with imploring eyes and when I came over to him, I found he had a gash on his knee. No wonder he was in tears. It was dark so I carried him close to one of the parked vehicles’ headlights so I could examine his gaping wound. With permission from Platoon Commander Lt Matthew Singleton, I stitched up the boy’s wound as dozens of onlookers watched with bated breath. I had to focus hard to steady my shaking hand as it is not everyday I find myself working on children, let alone ones who cannot speak English but trust that you will be able to help them because you wear a Red Cross patch.

It took seven stitches to close the wound. We then had our interpreter talk to the boy’s parents on the phone to explain that the stitches would need to be removed in a week’s time. It is hard to imagine that the wound will not become infected given the living conditions here but because I had stitched it up, that was less likely to happen. The next day, the kids I met on the street pointed to their knees and said “Diak” to let me know that their friend was fine. You cannot imagine the huge relief I felt.

I was exhausted by the time I returned to the HPOD base in Dili. But as I sit here reading over this postcard, I cannot help thinking how lucky I am to be posted here. I have met some amazing people in my journey so far and this experience makes the time away from my family and friends and my service worth it.


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