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Home » News » Massacre remembered, journalist Mark Bowling reflects on a shocking event in East Timor in 1999

Massacre remembered, journalist Mark Bowling reflects on a shocking event in East Timor in 1999

Destruction: A burnt-out street in Dili East Timor, after pro-Indonesia militia gangs ran riot in 1999.

JUST as we have been remembering the horrors of Rwanda 25 years ago, another anniversary passed almost unnoticed this month – the 20th anniversary of a Church massacre on Australia’s doorstep, in East Timor.

In April 1999, five months before East Timor’s vote for independence, dozens of people were killed inside a priest’s house and church courtyard in the idyllic coastal town of Liquisa. 

The figure could have been much higher – up to 200 people – the remnants of a crowd of about 2000 who had attended a morning church gathering on April 5.

At that time I was the ABC’s Indonesia correspondent, and I had found myself travelling almost constantly between East Timor and my base in Jakarta.

Only days before, I had interviewed the chief of one of East Timor’s feared militia gangs – the Besi Merah Putih (the red and white iron). 

He had vowed that “fire and blood” was soon to be unleashed on anyone who opposed Indonesian rule in East Timor. 

His prediction of terror was coming true.

I stood in the APTN new agency office in Jakarta watching video footage that had just been satellite-fed from East Timor. 

I stood aghast at what I saw – a boy lying on his side on a white, tiled floor, his back to the camera, with a deep, long gash down the side of his body – the signature of a machete. 

There was a pool of blood and he was gasping for breath, barely alive. 

Several injured and hysterical people huddled around.

We were watching the aftermath of a massacre, and within a day I found myself back in Liquisa with ABC cameraman David Anderson trying to piece together what had happened.

We found Liquisa deadly silent – no traffic, no one in the markets or on the streets. 

We headed for the church São João de Brito.

I won’t describe the horror of what we saw in the courtyard, even though attempts had been made to wash it clean. 

In the nearby house of the priest, Father Rafael dos Santos had been ransacked, and we found the floor in one room – the white tiled floor from the video – covered in blood. 

We learned that the priest had escaped with others to Dili. 

However Carmelite Sister Maria Immanuella had stayed to try and calm emotions.

Nevertheless, I found her overcome by the horror of what had happened.

“I don’t know how many were killed,” she said 

“According to Fr Rafael seven were killed in his house. The situation here is tense. Everyone is afraid.”

I began searching for witnesses. 

Nobody in the town was willing to be interviewed for a TV report, so I took notes that I would use to file a report for ABC radio.

Here are the notes I took:

“About midday a group of up to 500 armed pro-Indonesia paramilitary – members of the Besi Merah Putih (red and white iron) – chased residents of Liquisa to their church. The militiamen stood outside shouting threats. There were also Indonesian troops present. 

“They stood behind the militiamen outside the church grounds, and as the tensions increased they fired warning shots into the air – but significantly they made no attempt to stop what happened next.

“An old man who had been inside the church told me that people around him panicked when they heard the sound of gunshots. 

“Some ran outside into the churchyard. Others ran to the priest’s house. It was then that militiamen attacked with machetes. He said people got their throats cut. Soldiers fired tear gas into the priest’s house to drive out those who had sought refuge. One witness said he saw blood dripping from the ceiling.”

Later, when I entered the house, I found slit marks across the entire ceiling, which suggests the militiamen must have thrust their machetes into the ceiling to try and stab anyone who may been hiding in the roof.

East Timor’s spiritual leader, Bishop Carlos Belo, said the death toll was 25, a figure he was told by the local Indonesian military commander. 

People I spoke to in Liquisa said the toll was much higher, and by 2003, when a serious crimes investigation finally took its investigation to court, the figure was said to be up to 200 – nobody knows for certain because the bodies were taken away in a truck.

The court heard detailed testimony about how the Besi Merah Putih militia held a ceremony before the massacre in which each member was allegedly forced to drink a cocktail of alcohol, animal blood and drugs to prepare themselves for the church killing.

Testimony implicated the direct participation in the attacks by Indonesian soldiers, who were allegedly dressed in civilian clothes to look like militia members. 

Some of East Timor’s most prominent pro Indonesia militia figures, including Eurico Guterres and João Tavares, were the primary suspects and leading figures during the massacre.

The court heard from one eyewitness, Herminia Mendes, how the militia along with the police and the military attacked the church. 

“They fired shots into the air to give the signal to the militia to enter the church, and then they started shooting the people,” she told the court in 2003.  

“Wearing masks that covered their faces the militia and the military then attacked with axes, swords, knives, bombs and guns. 

“The police shot my older brother, Felix, and the militia slashed up my cousins, Domingos, Emilio, and an eight-month old baby.”

Ms Mendes described how she desperately tried to flee with others to the Carmelite convent.

“The militia, police and military had prepared a truck to carry people to the district administrator’s house,” she said. 

“When we arrived the militia continued their actions and continued beating and stabbing civilians.

“After about three hours Augustinho (a civil servant)… made an announcement to the people, saying, ‘Go home and raise the Indonesian flag. And tie it to your right hand to show that we are all people who are prepared to die for this flag’.”

By the time David and I arrived in Liquisa we found most houses in Liquisa were flying the red and white flag of Indonesia. 

People were petrified of another attack and were flying these colours for protection. 

As David and I walked the streets we saw many strange and disturbing sights. 

In one neighbourhood the air was filled with smoke from piles of leaves burning in the gutters – it gave the place an eerie, nightmarish look. 

Youths loitered in the street watching us and moving away. 

They looked weary and drained of all spirit – like zombies. 

Many wore tattered red and white headbands, or had red and white crepe paper wrapped around their arms and bodies. 

In any other circumstances they could have been mistaken for football fans trailing home after losing a big match.

But in Liquisa, after a massacre, they were simply trying to avoid provoking further attack from a crazed and unpredictable enemy. 

It was still many months before East Timor’s vote for independence and the pro-Jakarta militia were doing everything they could to intimidate.

And where were the United Nations’ peacekeepers in this chaotic situation? 

It wasn’t until May 1999 – a month after the Liquisa massacre – that East Timor’s former colonial power, Portugal, signed agreement to allow East Timorese to vote on their future. 

That deal was endorsed by the UN and signalled the start of the UN’s participation in the voting process. 

Significantly, the UN allowed the Indonesian police force to be in charge of security in the lead up to the August ballot.

That proved a poor decision. 

As well as more attacks and killings leading up to the August ballot, violence erupted once a majority of eligible East Timorese voters chose independence from Indonesia. 

Some 1400 civilians died. 

About 250,000 people – more than a quarter of the population fled to West Timor, where many were housed in refugee camps. 

Martial law was imposed.

The UN then sent in an authorised force (INTERFET) –  consisting mainly of Australian Defence Force personnel – to restore order and rebuild. 

I returned to Liquisa a few years later. 

A youth choir was singing in the church São João de Brito. 

Their voices were sweet and beautiful. Peace had finally come.

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