Home News Timor Leste 20 Years on still Searching for Santa Cruz Massacre Bones

20 Years on still Searching for Santa Cruz Massacre Bones

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Download 20 years ago this month more than 250 unarmed students died when occupying Indonesian troops fired on a memorial procession to the Santa Cruz cemetery, in East Timor.

A further 250 are missing, believed dead and nearly 400 others were wounded.

Only a tiny number of the bodies from that day have been found.

As Leoneto Gonsalves reports from Dilli the families want the government to more so they can finally put their love ones to rest.


A crowd of 2,000 people yells out ‘Long live Timor Leste’ during the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Santa Cruz Massacre.

Amongst them is Fatimah Alves da Silva Pereira.

She survived the massacre.

“I was 16 and at high school at the time. I went to the Santa Cruz public cemetery, near the church after the mass, when suddenly we heard shooting outside. We were inside the cemetery and we did not know what was happening. A friend outside screamed, “Don’t run,” and then we sat on the ground. We heard continuous shooting outside; we stood up and ran outside, jumping over the wall behind the cemetery. We hide in someone’s house until late in the afternoon and then I came home. I joined the demonstration because I thought Timor was going to be free at last from Indonesia. I was fighting for the truth, peace and justice.”

20 years ago Fatima along with 2,000 young people had just attended a mass for the soul of a student who had been shot dead in front of their church by the Indonesian military.

When it was over, a procession set off for the cemetery.

The funeral march turned into a daring demonstration in which, for the first time, the students showed the world their support for the guerilla independence movement.

Fernando da Silva was amongst them.

“If Indonesia is still here, we will not have a better future. We will have no future because all government offices are occupied by Indonesian people. That’s why we joined the demonstration on November 12, 1991. We sympathized with the victims. That day was so terrifying, I ran to the the crown to hide from flying bullets.”

Indonesian military authorities have expressed regret at the deaths, but claimed they were attacked by rioters.

Eyewitnesses say the burial procession was peaceful and that the soldiers opened fire without warning and without provocation.

Importantly the events were filmed by foreign journalists and broadcast around the world.

US journalist Allan Nairn recalled what he saw.

“There was this building feeling of exhilarating as well as fear among the Timorese and when they reach the cemetery the crowd had gathered to around 5,000 people, so people lay flowers on the boys grave most people were still outside and then suddenly someone looked and we saw marching up the same route was a long column of Indonesia troops dressed in brown carrying M16 and they were marching very slowly. They marched straight up to us and when they had just passed us they raised their rifles all at once and they opened fire."

"The Timorese in an instant were down; the street was covered with bodies, covered with blood and the soldiers just kept on coming they were aiming and shooting people in the back. I could see their limbs being torn, their bodies exploding, there was blood spurring out everywhere and it was very organized, very systematic the soldiers just kept on shooting until no one was left standing.”

Journalist Allan was badly beaten and his radio equipment destroyed.

Timor Leste President Jose Ramos Horta speaking at the 20th anniversary of the killings says the presence of foreign journalists proved a turning point for the independence movement.

“In our history, thousands of Timorese died and we haven’t found the bones until now. Santa Cruz massacre is special because there were journalists there, like Max Stall, and also Emye Botmant from the US who helps Timor Leste in the country. There was also Allan Nain from Indonesia. But we remember Max Stall the most because he was in the church in the Santa Cruz cemetery. He was shooting with his camera, and then he buried the tape in the ground. At night he came back to the cemetery, took the film and sent it abroad. The tape was broadcasted around the world. So the world knew the truth, what really was happening in Timor Leste.”

An independent report commissioned by the UN transitional administration in Timor Leste’s said that at least 100,000 Timorese died as a result of Indonesia's 25-year occupation.

Only a tiny proportion of bodies of the people killed during the Santa Cruz massacre have been found.

Jeferinho de Araujo has not been able to bury the body of his daughter who went missing on that day.

“I didn’t know where my daughter was that day, when the massacre happened. At 1pm I suddenly started wondering, where is my daughter, how come she’s not home yet? I went to her school and asked the principal, “Do you know where my daughter Adelia is?” And then the principal answered that he heard there had been some shootings and he sent all his students home. Until now, I don’t know what happened to my daughter. Maybe her body was thrown into the sea or where else. At 3 pm I went to the Santa Cruz cemetery to look for here, but I could not find her.  My heart was broken, I could not think of anything else. I just cried and cried....I will never forget that day.”

At a ceremony to mark 20 years since the massacre Jeferinho along with other families of those killed were presented bravery medallions from the government.

But what the families say they want most of all is to find the bodies of their love ones so they can finally put them to rest.

Antonia Sabu is still searching for the remains of her daughter Adelia who was killed in the massacre.

“We want to bury ourour daughter according to Timor Leste rituals. It’s been so long, 20 years. We have received a medallion from the government, but that’s just a piece of metal. We want her bones to be found.”

Last Updated ( Monday, 28 November 2011 10:13 )  

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