Hope in hunt for graves of East Timor massacre

Canberra Times

Jill Joliffe

Families of victims of the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor have found Christmas hope with a project to locate mass graves of youths who disappeared without trace.

A leader of the former political prisoner association ASEPPOL, Gregorio Saldanha, said 40 relatives attended a meeting in Dili last Thursday, and that work involving Argentinian and Australian forensic experts would begin in February 2008.

“In recent years the families have been asking regularly what is being done to find their children. Now they have hope,” he said, adding that they were also crucial in locating remains.

About 200 youths are estimated to have died on November 12, 1991, during the first public demonstration in Dili to support resistance fighters against Indonesian military occupation. Film taken of the event showed East Timorese being shot down in cold blood at the Santa Cruz cemetery in central Dili. Survivors testified that many bodies were whisked away on trucks by Indonesian soldiers.

Although the Indonesian army withdrew in 1999, the bodies have never been located.

“Indonesia has always refused requests to tell where the bodies were buried. We have asked constantly,” Mr Saldanha said.
He was shot during the massacre, then charged with organising the demonstration and sentenced to life imprisonment for subversion.

Even though his sentence was commuted, he was the last East Timorese political prisoner to be freed from an Indonesian prison, months after the fall of president Suharto.

The forensic team, employed by the UN Serious Crimes Investigation Unit in Dili, will use infrared equipment to locate and exhume the bodies with the help of research conducted by ASEPPOL with the families.

“Those of us alive have a responsibility to search for them,” Mr Saldanha said, adding that a commission was working on identifying all who took part in the ill-fated demonstration in order to honour their contribution to East Timor’s liberation.

“The survivors have many problems,” he said, “which are largely ignored”.

There are many carrying injuries still some who vomit blood, others with bullets in their bodies, and many with psychological problems.

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