East Timor Massacre Remembered: U.S.-Armed Indonesian Troops Kill 270 Timorese 20 Years Ago
This weekend marked the 20th anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor. On November 12, 1991, Indonesian troops fired on a peaceful memorial procession in the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, killing more than 270 East Timorese. Two decades later, Amnesty International has called for a judicial inquiry into the massacre, noting that the failure "to hold all the perpetrators to account highlights a wider problem of impunity for crimes under international law and other human rights violations committed during the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste (then East Timor) between 1975 and 1999." We play an excerpt from a 1992 documentary, "Massacre: The Story of East Timor," produced by journalist Allan Nairn and Amy Goodman. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: As President Obama heads to Indonesia during his nine-day trip through the Asia-Pacific region, we turn to East Timor. This weekend marked the 20th anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre. On November 12th, 1991, Indonesian troops opened fire on a peaceful memorial procession at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili. They were armed with U.S. M16s. They killed more than 270 East Timorese.
On Saturday, Amnesty International called for a judicial inquiry into the massacre. In a statement, it said, quote, "The continued failure—twenty years later—to hold all the perpetrators to account highlights a wider problem of impunity for crimes under international law and other human rights violations committed during the Indonesian occupation of [East Timor] between 1975 and 1999."
Today we go back to that day, November 12th, 1991. This is a radio documentary that journalist Allan Nairn and I produced about 20 years ago, going back to the day of the massacre. It was the two-week anniversary of the Indonesian military killing a young Timorese named Sebastião Gomes. The people gathered then, two weeks later, November 12th.
AMY GOODMAN: And then came the morning of November 12, the two-week commemoration of Sebastião’s funeral. A memorial mass and procession were planned to lay flowers on Sebastião’s grave. After the mass was held at the Motael, people, young and old, came out into the street, and in a land where public speech and assembly had been forbidden over a decade, they started chanting. The Timorese then held up banners drawn on bed sheets. They had been prepared for the delegation that never came. The banners called on Indonesia to leave East Timor and said things like "Why the Indonesian army shoot our church?" The Timorese were facing a gauntlet of troops that stretched the length of Dili. It was the boldest act of public protest occupied Timor had ever seen.
ALLAN NAIRN: More and more Timorese joined the procession. They came from huts and schools and offices along the way. And there was this building feeling of exhilaration, as well as fear, among the Timorese. And when they reached the cemetery, the crowd had swelled to maybe 5,000 people. Some went inside to lay flowers on Sebastião’s grave. Most of the crowd was still outside. And then suddenly, someone looked up, and we saw that marching up along the same route that the Timorese had come came a long column of Indonesian troops, dressed in brown, holding M16s in front of them, marching in a very slow, deliberate fashion, hundreds and hundreds of troops, coming straight at the Timorese.
AMY GOODMAN: Allan suggested we walk to the front of the crowd between the soldiers and the Timorese, because although we knew that the army had committed many massacres, we hoped that we, as a foreign journalists, could serve as a shield for the Timorese. Standing with headphones on and microphone and camera out in full view, we went and stood in the middle of the road, looking straight at the approaching troops. Behind us, the crowd was hushed as some Timorese tried to turn away, but they were hemmed in by cemetery walls.
ALLAN NAIRN: The soldiers marched straight up to us. They never broke their stride. We were enveloped by the troops, and when they got a few yards past us, within a dozen yards of the Timorese, they raised their rifles to their shoulders all at once, and they opened fire. The Timorese, in an instant, were down, just torn apart by the bullets. The street was covered with bodies, covered with blood. And the soldiers just kept on coming. They poured in, one rank after another. They leaped over the bodies of those who were down. They were aiming and shooting people in the back. I could see their limbs being torn, their bodies exploding. There was blood spurting out into the air. The pop of the bullets, everywhere. And it was very organized, very systematic. The soldiers did not stop. They just kept on shooting until no one was left standing.
AMY GOODMAN: A group of soldiers grabbed my microphone and threw me to the ground, kicking and punching me. At that point, Allan threw himself on top of me, protecting me from further injury. The soldiers then used their rifle butts like baseball bats, beating Allan until they fractured his skull. As we sat on the ground, Allan covered in blood, a group of soldiers lined up and pointed their M16s at our heads. They had stripped us of all of our equipment. We just kept shouting, "We’re from America!" In the end, they decided not to execute us.
ALLAN NAIRN: The soldiers beat us, but we actually had received privileged treatment. We were still alive. They kept on firing into the Timorese. We were able to get onto a passing civilian truck, went into hiding, but the Timorese, who had been with us there on the cemetery road, most of them were dead.
AMY GOODMAN: Inside the cemetery walls, Max Stahl, a filmmaker on assignment with Yorkshire TV, had had his video camera running.
MAX STAHL: The soldiers began at that point to encircle the entire cemetery. I saw soldiers as they gradually moved towards the middle, picking out people who were wounded or taking refuge between the tombstones, and when they got to them, they beat them and assembled them in the back of the cemetery. People were stripped to their waists. They had their thumbs tied behind their backs, and they were made to look at the ground. And if they looked up, they were immediately beaten, usually with a rifle butt.
AMY GOODMAN: Max Stahl was filming near a crypt in the middle of the cemetery. Some of the wounded and those too scared to run were huddled inside praying. As Stahl filmed, he buried his videocassettes in a fresh grave. Then he was arrested by the troops.
MAX STAHL: Whilst I was being interrogated, I observed these trucks driving by with more people in them. These people were clearly in a kind of paralysis of fear. They were not able to move. Some of them, at least in the cemetery and, indeed, even in the trucks, when I saw them going by, were barely breathing. When people are that terrified, it’s quite often difficult to tell if they’re dead or alive.
AMY GOODMAN: After nine hours in custody, Stahl went back to the cemetery under cover of night, dug up his videocassettes and had them smuggled out of the country. Allan Nairn and I had managed to leave East Timor a few hours after the massacre. From a hospital on Guam, we reported what had happened to dozens of newspapers, radio and television outlets around the world.
PACIFICA REPORT: From Washington, this is the Pacifica report for Tuesday, November 12, 1991. A massacre in East Timor. Among those injured were two journalists, including a news editor of Pacifica station WBAI in New York.
AMY GOODMAN: They beat me and dragged me over and started slamming me with rifle butts and kicks and punches, and then Allan jumped on top of me, and they beat him very badly. But that was the least of what they did. They opened fire on the people, and these were truly defenseless people...
MONTAGE OF WORLD NEWS FOOTAGE: When Indonesian troops opened fire on a crowd—This is CBC Radio—The massacre of 100 unarmed Timorese by the Indonesian military—Photographs of the bloody massacre during a fight for freedom—This is the CBS Evening News.
AMY GOODMAN: In the face of the massacre story, even Suharto’s longtime allies were compelled to condemn the killings and came under public pressure to cut back their aid to Indonesia. In Australia, large crowds marched on the capital and surrounded Indonesia’s local consulates. The European Parliament voted for sanctions against Indonesia, and the European community later canceled a scheduled trade pact. There were even open protests inside Indonesia where student demonstrators were beaten and arrested.
Back in the United States, the Bush administration continued to ship weapons to Indonesia.
PRESS SECRETARY: Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: The only time President Bush mentioned East Timor publicly was months after the massacre, when asked about it by a Portuguese journalist.
PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: A lot of discussion is going on on the tragedy in East Timor. We have expressed ourself in terms of the pure human rights part of it. We pride ourselves, and I think properly so, in standing up for human rights, and I think we’ve made clear to the parties that are interested there the U.S. position. I don’t know how it will come out...
AMY GOODMAN: That position: to call for an increase in U.S. military training aid. It’s called IMET, International Military Education and Training. More than 2,600 Indonesian officers have been trained under IMET since 1975. They include those who planned the invasion and have overseen the policy of mass slaughter. Immediately after the massacre, General Try Sutrisno, the National Commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces, gave a speech to a military gathering. He said of the Timorese who dared to oppose the Indonesian Armed Forces, "They must be shot," adding, "and we will shoot them."
Listening to politicians is something José Ramos-Horta has been doing for 17 years. He left East Timor at the age of 25, just before Indonesia invaded. He had been sent to the United Nations to plead East Timor’s case. While Ramos-Horta got out of East Timor alive, much of his family has been killed.
JOSÉ RAMOS-HORTA: I lost one sister and two brothers. The sister, she was 17 when she was killed, along with 20 other kids. Two Bronco aircraft nosedive over a village and blew up the school and the 20 kids there. One brother was killed when he was captured. Another, we don’t know what exactly happened, but he disappeared during a helicopter assault on my village, where he was.
But like me, there are many, many other families, and in fact, some are even worse. I know families that were totally wiped out, families that I knew, I grew up with, that no longer exist. I know villages, when all my youth I spent there, and when I ask survivors, I’m told that village does no longer exist. It’s not on the map. So, this is the scale of the tragedy that was imposed on East Timor, with U.S.A. complicity.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you hold out hope? You’ve been outside the country for 17 years. You’ve been the representative of East Timor at the United Nations for more than a decade. What gives you any hope?
JOSÉ RAMOS-HORTA: Well, the past 17 years that I’ve been engaging in diplomatic struggle, I also have witnessed—and all of us witnessed—empires crumbling. No one thought possible five years ago, 10 years ago, that the Soviet Union would disintegrate into independent states, or Yugoslavia or the Berlin Wall, democratization in Africa and elsewhere. And Indonesia will follow the same. It cannot escape the train of democracy. But apart from that, the resistance in East Timor is continuing at all levels—armed resistance, one, but also cultural, religious. The entire people are mobilized. And we are very confident. I can state categorically, in the next three, five years, six years, maybe a bit longer, East Timor is going to be independent.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been listening to an excerpt of Massacre: The Story of East Timor_. José Ramos-Horta is now the president of an independent East Timor. Xanana Gusmão, the rebel leader imprisoned by Indonesia for years, is the prime minister. To see the timor">full documentary, Massacre: The Story of East Timor, that journalist Allan Nairn and I produced on the first anniversary of the massacre—the massacre took place November 12th, 1991—you can go to our website at democracynow.org. President Obama heads to Indonesia later this week.