Sydney Morning Herald
Monday, November 12, 2001
Ten years later, Santa Cruz still leaves a scar
Many victims of the massacre are unaccounted for, writes Jill Joliffe in Dili.
Ten years after the massacre that shocked the world, memories are still raw in East Timor. When a short piece of theatre re-enacting the November 12, 1991, slaughter of more than 200 students in the Santa Cruz cemetery was shown to an audience of survivors and families on Saturday, it left them in tears.
One elderly woman collapsed into bitter weeping, and even a panel of dignitaries cried openly.
The killings could almost have been yesterday for Father Ricardo da Silva, director of Dili’s Fatu-Metan seminary. That day he presided over an early mass for the soul of Sebastiao Gomes, a student who had been shot dead in the porch of his church in the suburb of Motael. About 2,000 young people came to the mass. When it was over, a procession set off for the cemetery.
After 16 years of Indonesian military occupation, a glimmer of hope had emerged for the Timorese nationalist movement. Indonesia had agreed to admit a Portuguese parliamentary delegation and its own press team.
Expectations for the visit were enormous, leading to elaborate secret preparations for a demonstration by resistance supporters - and heightened repression by the Indonesian military.
When Portugal suspended the visit over Jakarta’s refusal to allow this correspondent to accompany the delegation, tension spiralled. There were, however, journalists already in East Timor, who had slipped in as tourists to await the delegation. Disappointed by the failure of the visit, the students decided to convert the funeral procession into a daring demonstration in which, for the first time, they would show the world their support for the guerilla resistance.
When his young parishioners left, Father Ricardo was slightly anxious because of the atmosphere, but not too worried. “They were smart kids, disciplined and well organised - I didn’t think they’d fall into any traps.”
Then he heard concerted gunfire from the cemetery. He was preparing to go there when the first wounded came into the church clinic.
“The young people were terribly distressed, saying the Indonesians had fired on them without warning.” The difference between this and earlier massacres was that it was all filmed - by the cameraman Max Stahl - and his images changed the world’s perception of East Timor.
Ten years later the territory has its nominal freedom, but Santa Cruz is still an open wound. The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) has paid little attention to victims of war crimes, although they constitute a substantial sector of the population.
Father Ricardo believes there were more killed than the 200-plus estimate given by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, and he says there is a pressing need for a proper inquiry.
Of this figure, only a tiny proportion of bodies were found.
“So many children disappeared, and parents still live the trauma. For a Timorese it is very important to have the mortal remains and to bury them adequately.”
Teresinha Sarmento Borges, 56, is one such mother. For a decade she has not given up hope that one day her son José Julio will walk in the door. Several hours after the shootings his stepfather searched the cemetery and the hospital, in vain. The Indonesian military had collected the bodies in trucks, and apparently buried them under cover of night. No-one knows where.
There is a UN police inquiry under way. It is hampered by lack of staff - last year two international officers had sole responsibility for the Santa Cruz massacre, another massacre near Viqueque, and the inquiry into the 1975 Balibo killings.
“Santa Cruz is a scar in terms of atrocities committed here,” the prosecutor, Mohamed Othman, said. “We need additional people to work on it.”
The balance is not entirely negative a decade later. Two young men, Gregorio Saldanha and Francisco Branco, were among those arrested and tortured for the crime of organising a peaceful demonstration.
Both served eight years in Soeharto’s prisons, but were freed prematurely after the dictator fell. Today, they walk tall as members of Timor’s new parliament [Both are National Fretilin Party Representatives elected to the Constituent Assembly - BD]. Only their troubled, serious faces indicate their sad past.
BD: War Crimes & Crimes Against Humanity - A collection of recent press releases, petitions, articles and news
BD: Calls for International War Crimes Tribunal - A collection of recent reports, articles and news