Visiting the Graves

Today marks the 18th anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre.

In the towns and villages in the hills of Timor Leste there are no bluestone memorials or brass plates or granite cenotaphs to commemorate the fallen. Instead small services are held at different times and at different places throughout the year to remember the victims of whatever conspicuous act of cruelty was inflicted on that community.

But the 12th of November is a national day of mourning. It was on this day in 1991 that a massacre took place at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili. The event marked a turning point in the Timorese struggle for independence – the point at which the reality of the occupation could no longer be ignored by the international community.

The catalyst for the demonstration and the bloodshed that followed was the murder of student activist Sebastiao Gomez . Abductions and killings of this sort were carried out regularly by the Indonesian army, the TNI, or on their behalf by militia- but this particular murder may have provoked more resentment than anticipated. Sebastiao Gomez was only 18 but a vocal supprter of the independence movement. He was at the Motael church in Dili when he was killed and many local residents were there to witness his murder as well as the arrest of 25 other people and the desecration of their church.

Two weeks later a memorial service was organised and thousands of Timorese took to the streets in a procession from the Motael church to the cemetery where Gomez was buried. They carried pro-independence banners and waved the Fretelin and Falantil flags – representing the political and military arms of the resistance. Portuguese officials were in Dili at the time as well as a special human rights delegate from the UN and a handful of foreign journalists. To the activists it appeared to be a rare opportunity to stage a protest while the Indonesian authorities were under some small degree of scrutiny.

Instead the TNI took the opportunity to try to crush the movement altogether. Indonesian troops were sent in. They waited until the rally had reached its destination. Then they surrounded the cemetery, closed off the streets and opened fire on the crowd.

271 people were killed in and around the cemetery. Roughly the same amount were arrested and never seen again. At least 350 people were wounded.

Atrocities like this had taken place before without any repercussions for the Indonesian government or even local TNI commanders. Australia had continually turned a blind eye, the UN had sat on its hands and successive British and US governments had actively supplied and financed Suharto’s regime. The Australian minister for foreign affairs at the time, Gareth Evans, referred to the massacre as ‘an aberration, not an act of state policy’ and was satisfied by Indonesia’s assurances that only 19 people had been killed.

The massacre, like so many before it , may well have been covered up were it not for the recordings made by British journalist Christopher Wenner. He was in amongst the young Timorese men and women inside the cemetery walls when the shooting began and his footage from that day is a testament to the casual brutality of the occupation force.

In an interview for the Kyoto journal years later he explained how he came to be there at that critical point in time.

it seemed to me that this visit was a very interesting opportunity to make a film because it was a challenge to both sides. A challenge to the Indonesians to show that things were just fine, and a challenge to the Timorese to show what really was going on. And so it proved. The film I made there was really a film about that challenge, that particular drama. And the massacre that took place on the 12th of November was the culmination of exactly that confrontation.

It had been going on for months, and students and the young people and the clandestine front and the resistance and so forth had been dodging the Indonesians and painting flags in hiding, sewing them in different homes and mountain retreats, and burying them. Many Timorese had been in hiding for weeks because they were just ordinary students and school children, because they were being pursued by the Indonesian police and arrested and beaten up. Some of them were sleeping rough, some of them were sleeping in the cemetery itself, some of them were sleeping in different villages and towns.

Wenner survived the massacre and the interrogation that followed and risked his life the following night to sneak back into the cemetery, retrieve the video tapes and smuggle them out of the country. When the footage was aired, international support for East Timorse independence gradually began to gather momentum. In 1999 the Indonesian government tried to legitimise their control for the nation by announcing the East Timor Special Autonomy Referendum. They flooded the country with Indonesian soldiers and pro-integration militia and started a campaign of terror aimed at formally making East Timor the 27th province of Indonesia. Despite systematic intimidation and the certainty of reprisals voter turnout was estimated at 95% and the vast majority rejected the proposal and voted instead for independence.

American journalist Amy Godman and colleague Allan Nairn also bore witness to the massacre in 91 and narrowly avoided being killed. They helped form the East Timor Action Network that brought international attention to human rights violations in East Timor following the massacre. Wenner understood the nature of the conflict better than most, having covered similar mass movements in the Middle East and the Balkans.

These days communication is a powerful weapon, too, because such things are kind of clear if you show them in films and you show them on the TV, and talk about them and so forth. Other people kind of recognize them. They may not understand the full details, but they get the message. And that causes embarrassment for people like the Indonesian business community who want to be part of the world and make money and have tourists and say “this is a paradise!” There is now a business interest in certain minimal standards of decency if only in PR areas. So that is one consistent, very unrewarding mode of struggle, for long, long term struggle to continue to remind people and continue to irritate those people who want these things to be buried.

Time will tell whether these business interests and their ‘minimal standards of decency’ will compel the Indonesian authorities to hold their own citizens accountable for the crimes committed and restore some semblance of justice after decades of Indonesian political repression and the willful indifference of Australia.






These photos were taken at the Santa Cruz Cemetery in September this year following the eight year anniversary of independence in Timor-Leste.

The Kyoto Journal interview can be found here. Wenner responds under the pseudonym ‘Max Stahl’.