DILI, 12 November 2019 (TATOLI) – A large crowd shuffles into the courtyard of Dili’s grand Portuguese-era Motáel Church for Mass. It’s a mixture of people – young and old, from VIPs to shopkeepers, from the city and from the country. A faithful few drop to their knees and say a quiet prayer. The church bells chime from above.
It could be any other day in deeply-Catholic Timor-Leste. In fact, at this very spot, 28 years ago, the day began in a similar fashion. But it soon turned to bloodshed and horror.
UNDER Indonesian occupation in 1991, talk of ‘independence’ was only in whispers. International journalists were banned. But with frustrations simmering after the killing of independence activist, Sebastião Gomes, hundreds of young people joined a vigil at the Motáel Church. Many never returned home.
The group marched peacefully from the church to the cemetery. But along the way, unfurled their contraband: East Timor flags.
According to British filmmaker, Max Stahl, that’s when Indonesian troops began marching after them.
“Outside the cemetery, Indonesian soldiers arrived…lined up, raised their rifles and fired into the crowd, very much like an execution squad.
“[They] started chasing those running away…shooting them very much like a duck hunt,” he said in an interview some time later.
His footage of the massacre, later smuggled out of the country, shocked audiences around the world. Yet it was to be another eight years before the Timorese cast off the Indonesian occupation, and could piece together what had been lost.
The “nation’s best”
At the Santo Antonio Motael church Tuesday (12/11/19), Parish Priest, Padre Guillhermino da Silva, told the crowd of some 2,000 packed into the plaza, and lining the roads outside, that the Santa Cruz victims died as martyrs.
“[These] heroes, in their sacrifice and dedication, gave us the right to liberty. They deserve thanks and appreciation for this sacred service, to fight for the nation… the poor, and the marginalized,” Pde. Guillhermino said.
It’s not know exactly how many people were killed in the cemetery. Chega!, the report of Timor-Leste’s Truth, Reception and Reconciliation Commission, estimates as many as 271 people died, and a further 250 disappeared.
“Hundreds were arrested and detained in the aftermath,” the report read.
Today, November 12 is remembered sombrely, but also as a celebration: National Youth Day (Loron Juventude).
Santa Cruz survivor, Ato Lekinawa Costa, told TATOLI after the service, the freedom which arose after so much death and the destruction of Timor, must be cherished.
“I also said that for independence… [we] must be honest,” said Mr Costa, imploring Timorese youth to follow the rules of the young country.
“You will see a future with hope”: PM
This afternoon, standing at the site of the massacre, President Francisco Guterres Lú Olo called the victims “national heroes and martyrs”, and said the country would honour them through a more contemporary struggle: economic development.
“The President knows that the majority of young people live with very simple conditions, with few [attaining] high levels of formal education, but you must believe in your own words. You must find ways to improve today, and thus think of the future”, Lú Olo said.
Ahead of the mass, Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak said the Santa Cruz victims died defending the truth.
“I wish to appeal to all young people throughout the country, to give your mind and heart to study. When you have some difficulty, you cannot give up … [because] to become wise you need to study hard.”
The Prime Minister, a Deputy Chief-of-Staff with the rebel FALINTIL forces at the time of the massacre, said the resistance movement owed a debt to Timor’s youth.
“The future of Timor-Leste is in the hands of our young people!” he said.
Some reporting translated from Tetum: Selebrasaun Masakre Santa Cruz, PM Enkoraja Joven Labele Deziste
Reporter: Robert Baird, with additional reporting by Cipriano Colo and Osória Marques
Editors: Xisto Freitas; Francisco Simões; Robert Baird
Translation: Robert Baird