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Survivor of Santa Cruz cemetery massacre tells his story – God is ‘centre of everything’

Massacre survivor: Wounded in the gunfire, Rogerio Castro Da Cruz says the Santa Cruz massacre is “engraved in my mind”. Photo: Mark Bowlinig

ROGERIO Castro Da Cruz, a devout Catholic, clearly remembers his mindset as an 18-year-old student, the day he marched from Dili’s historic Church de Santo António de Motael to the nearby Santa Cruz cemetery. 

“Death or independence. That determination was absolute,” he said.

Mr Castro Da Cruz was one of a group of East Timorese veterans to visit Brisbane last week, to march alongside diggers in the Anzac Day parade, and to attend Mass in St Stephen’s Cathedral.

He said the horror of November 12, 1991, is “engraved in my mind”, a day when an estimated 250 pro-independence students and citizens died, when Indonesian soldiers opened fire. 

It proved a turning point in East Timor’s independence struggle, simply because the horror of the event was captured on film and was later broadcast to the world. 

That day, Mr Castro Da Cruz had joined his high school friends and thousands of men, women and children in a memorial procession to honour independence campaigner Sebastiao Gomes, killed by Indonesian troops just days earlier. 

Gomes, with a group of independence supporters, was taken out of the Motael church and shot by the soldiers.

An integration activist Afonso Henriques, stabbed and killed during the fight, also died outside the church. 

“An order came from the leader of our struggle (guerilla commando Xanana Gusmao) to highlight this event and what had happened,” Mr Castro Da Cruz said.

He remembers the procession, which started peacefully, but was big and loud and soon attracted the attention of Indonesian soldiers stationed along the route.

Along the way, members of the group pulled out banners and East Timorese flags.

Then, members of Indonesia’s notorious Battalion 303 (that operated by the creed “Setia Sampai Mati” – Loyal until Death), some not wearing uniforms, moved in to break up the march. 

“It was a provocation … and then clashes started,” Mr Castro Da Cruz said.

“The military took revenge for one of their men being beaten up.”

Remembering the procession’s approach to the Santa Cruz cemetery, Mr Castro Da Cruz said there was gunfire and teargas.

“I ran with a group of friends, and it is then that I got shot,” he said, peeling back his polo shirt to show where a bullet entered his shoulder. 

Mr Castro Da Cruz was also shot in the leg. There are marks where the bullet entered and left his shin.

Even though shot and bleeding, Mr Castro Da Cruz helped carry other injured, including four young women, to a Red Cross centre for treatment.

About 200 more Indonesian soldiers had arrived and pursued many more student protesters and unarmed civilians into the Santa Cruz cemetery where they were trying to hide from the gunfire.  

At least 250 East Timorese were killed in the massacre, in and around the graveyard. 

Two American journalists – Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn – witnessed the attack, and it was captured on video by Englishman Max Stahl, who was filming undercover.

Mr Stahl’s footage was smuggled out of Timor, into Australia, and appeared about two months later in a documentary In Cold Blood: The Massacre of East Timor.

 This chilling footage, together with the testimony of Mr Nairn and Ms Goodman and others, caused outrage around the world.

It also created a new urgency about the plight of human rights in East Timor, and the brutality of the Indonesian occupation.

The Santa Cruz Massacre also changed Mr Castro Da Cruz’s life forever.

“I stopped going to school. For me, nationhood came first,” he said. 

“I am proud for what we did, and for the bravery of Max Stahl.”

Like many students, Mr Castro Da Cruz’s participation in the march meant he was “marked” by Indonesian intelligence.

For months he did not go home.

He was shielded by resistance sympathisers and at night moved from house to house around Dili.

Mr Castro Da Cruz said that throughout the Indonesian occupation his Catholic faith remained very strong. 

“God is the centre of everything,” he said.

“I believe he is my spiritual guide.”

When East Timor was granted an independence vote in 1999, Mr Castro Da Cruz was married and starting to raise a family.

He now has six grown children – three boys and three girls.

“Like a parent everywhere, I hope for a bright future for them,” he said.

As a veteran of the resistance struggle against Indonesian rule, Mr Castro Da Cruz visited Brisbane last week, and marched alongside comrades in the Anzac Day parade. 

The shared legacy is twofold: the assistance the East Timorese gave to Australian diggers fighting the Japanese during the Second World War as well as the role played by Australians in the peacekeeping force in the years after the 1999 independence vote.

Timor’s veterans are trying to establish their own independent veterans’ organisation, similar to the RSL.

Written by: Mark Bowling
Catholic Church Insurance

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