Candles for victims of Timor massacre


November 13, 2009 - 5:34AM


Thousands of mourners lit candles, sang hymns and prayed in East Timor on Thursday, honouring the victims of a massacre of pro-independence demonstrators by Indonesian troops 18 years ago.

Many called on the tiny nation's leaders to seek justice against those responsible and help find the bodies of dozens of people missing since the shooting at the Santa Cruz graveyard in downtown Dili, Timor's capital, on November 12, 1991. There was no official record of the death toll, but witness accounts put the number of dead in the hundreds.

Mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers clutched photos of dead relatives and held flowers as they walked from the Motael Catholic church to the scene of the bloodshed. After sunset, thousands of candles flickered from homes along Dili's bay in what has become an annual memorial service since independence.

"My son is still missing," said 71-year-old Maria Lourenca, whose boy Antonio was a junior high school student at the time. "I want justice for his death. He was too young. The Indonesian soldiers who shot him should be punished."

Dramatic footage of the shooting and the wounded was captured by Western journalists and smuggled out of East Timor.

Some of the gunmen were clearly captured on video, but no one has ever been prosecuted for the killings. Dozens of victims remain missing nearly a decade after the end of a 24-year Indonesian occupation that wiped out a third of Timor's population.

The failure to find victims of past crimes highlights East Timor's ongoing struggle to come to terms with its violent history, which includes more than 250 years as a Portuguese colony before it became an Indonesian province. Some of the roughly 174,000 people who died during Jakarta's rule were buried in mass graves that have never been discovered or exhumed.

Mourner Terezinha da Silva Ximenes, 65, asked for help to locate the body of her son.

"I beg our leaders ... to approach Indonesian authorities to show us the graves of my son and his other comrades so that we can give them a humane burial in accordance with our beliefs, our religion and our Timorese culture."

President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, icons of the country's independence movement who spoke to the thousands attending Thursday's service, have rejected calls to put on trial more than 300 suspects, most of whom are believed to be at large in Indonesia.

"The great justice for the Timorese was gaining independence," said Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace laureate. Families on both sides of the conflict suffered, he said, but let us "forget our past and open a new era of mutual reconciliation with Indonesia".

Legal proceedings would open old wounds and may undermine the sensitive relationship with Indonesia maintained by the tiny nation of 1.2 million that only gained independence seven years ago.

"Killers should be treated like killers," said Chico Magaly, who survived the gunfire but lost his brother, Antonio. "I need justice. I don't need the comments of politicians."

East Timor recently released an alleged militia leader accused in a 2003 UN indictment of murdering women, children and priests at a church in the town of Suai. Gusmao ordered Maternus Bere's handover to Indonesia, in what rights groups say was an illegal act that violated the constitution.

The decision was made during intense negotiations with Indonesia, which insisted Bere be let go.

He was brought to the Indonesian Embassy on August 30 during celebrations marking the anniversary of East Timor's independence vote.

Bere, whose trial had been under preparation by prosecutors, was freed without consulting judges or a court hearing, highlighting the weakness of East Timor's infant legal system. The case is being investigated by the Supreme Court.


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