Sunday, November 12, 2006

November 12

scruz1On 12 November 1991, two weeks after Sebastiao Gomes was shot in the stomach at point-blank range by an Indonesian soldier, thousands of East Timorese defiantly marched through the streets of Dili before being slaughtered by the hundreds at Santa Cruz cemetery, not far from Gomes' fresh grave. East Timor, which the Portugese had abandoned in 1975 after four centuries of colonial rule, suffered grievously under the subsequent Indonesian occupation, which crushed East Timorese independence after nine days; with the exception of the Catholic church, civil society in East Timor was utterly suppressed beneath the anti-communist pretense of the Suharto regime. In October 1991 a UN-sponsored delegation from Portugal was scheduled to in Dili to investigate the conditions of Indonesia's occupation. In preparation for the visit, the military began digging mass graves in Taci-Tolu, Hera and Maloa among other places as a warning to those who might have considered speaking with the delegation. The Indonesian military began arresting blacklisted civilians en masse. Gomes, a student activist, sought refuge in the church of San Antonio de Motael with other pro-independence youth who intended to meet with the UN delegation there. When the delegation canceled its visit, the Indonesian forces stormed the church killing Gomes in front of dozens of astonished witnesses.

On the morning of November 12, after attending a memorial mass for Gomes, thousands of East Timorese marched from Motael church to Santa Cruz Cemetery to lay flowers at Gomes' gravesite. Along the way, the marchers were harrassed by police and intelligence agents, who pelted the procession with rocks and attempted to divert the march away from the cemetery. When the mourners reached Santa Cruz, several army trucks appeared and armed soldiers poured forth.

Allan Nairn, who was on assignment in Dili for The New Yorker, described the massacre to the Senate Foreign Relations committee in late February 1992. As Nairn explained, he and Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio stood between the soliders and the demonstrators, assuming -- incorrectly -- that the Indonesian soldiers would not fire on foreign journalists.
But as we stood there watching as the soldiers marched into our face, the inconceivable thing began to happen. The soldiers rounded the corner, never breaking stride, raised their rifles and fired in unison into the crowd. Timorese were backpedaling, gasping, trying to flee, but in seconds they were cut down by the hail of fire. People fell, stunned and shivering, bleeding in the road, and the Indonesian soldiers kept on shooting. I saw the soldiers aiming and shooting people in the back, leaping bodies to hunt down those who were still standing. They executed schoolgirls, young men, old Timorese, the street was wet with blood and the bodies were everywhere.

When it was over, nearly 300 people were dead and hundreds more wounded. An additional hundred East Timorese were "disappeared" shortly after the massacre. Constancio Pinto, one of the leaders of the underground independence movement in East Timor, wrote several years later that
[t]he situation in Dili and throughout East Timor was very tense in the days following the massacre. Indonesian soldiers were arresting young people throughout the city. Many were brutally tortured. The Indonesians killed many of those wounded at the cemetery who they transported to the military hospital by crushing their skulls with rocks and injecting cold water into them instead of medicine. On November 15, I received information that the military had taken 68 people arrested at the cemetery to the bank of the Be-Mos River a little more than one mile south of Dili and gunned them down. Such reports were common.

As many as 200,000 East Timorese may have been killed by the Indonesian military between 1974 and 1999, although the final totals will likely never be known.

Throughout Indonesia's occupation of East TImor, the United States remained one of its strongest patrons, offering it billions of dollars in economic and military assistance while vetoing numerous UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Indonesian occupation and calling for its immediate withdrawal.