Australian soldiers left our mother to die, says family
LINDSAY MURDOCH IN DARWIN AND STEVE TICKNER IN DILI
January 28, 2010
Josefina Ba Kita, 15, was orphaned after her mother, Gracinda da Costa, was run over by Australian soldiers. Photo: Steve Tickner
THE family of a 65-year-old East Timorese mother of nine say Australian soldiers abandoned the woman after she was struck and seriously injured by an army vehicle.
The soldiers were unaware for 13 days that Gracinda da Costa had died from a head injury, hours after being struck while walking along a street in Dili on December 18 last year.
Mrs da Costa's family says no Australian soldiers deployed in the International Stabilisation Force in East Timor have contacted them to explain what happened, express regret or offer compensation, expected in Timorese tradition.
Australian soldiers serving in East Timor effectively have immunity for any crimes they commit, both on and off duty.
A brief statement issued by the Australian Defence Force on January 21 - more than a month after the accident - said military personnel administered first aid to a woman they did not identify before an East Timorese ambulance took her to hospital.
The statement said a military medical officer who went to the hospital that afternoon ''confirmed'' she had suffered only a broken leg and lacerations. But family members and hospital staff have told the Herald Mrs da Costa's injuries were so severe she lost consciousness soon after arriving at the hospital and did not regain it.
She had an injury to the back of her head, including suspected skull fractures. Doctors operated for three hours to try to save her but told the family her condition was ''helpless''.
But a Defence spokeswoman said yesterday that when a military officer left the hospital the day Mrs da Costa was admitted, she was ''stable'', conscious and alert. The January 21 statement said it was not until January 1 that a medical officer inquired about the woman's health while at the hospital and was advised she had died the evening she was admitted.
Cornelio Baros, Mrs da Costa's son-in-law and family spokesman, told the Herald the family received her body from the hospital the day after she died but had not been contacted by anyone in authority - either from the international armed force, the United Nations or the Timorese police. ''My family is upset we have not heard anything since the accident.''
He said that Mrs da Costa had a 10-centimetre opening in her skull.
Mr Baros said his family appreciated how Australian soldiers have helped bring peace to East Timor. ''However, when they are working here or in other parts of the world they need to take care of their responsibilities and not harm those they seek to protect,'' he said.
Mr Baros, a former employee of World Vision, said the family believed they should be compensated because of the hardship Mrs da Costa's death had caused family members, including her daughters Fatima, 13, and Josefina, 15, who have now been separated and are living with different families.
Mrs da Costa lost everything when pro-Indonesian militia burnt down her home in 1999 but she struggled to raise nine children and many grandchildren.
In Timorese tradition, families are compensated, even in a token away, by people involved in a death, no matter who was to blame.
In response to questions from the Herald, the Defence spokeswoman said yesterday that as Timorese police were conducting an investigation ''it is inappropriate for the ISF to be in contact with the da Costa family''.
The spokeswoman said the vehicle was unable to avoid hitting Mrs da Costa.
She said the military medical officer gave Mrs da Costa's family compensation claim forms on the day she was admitted to hospital. But Mr Baros said the family had no idea how to seek compensation.
He said he was told by the office of East Timor's Secretary of State that the International Stabilisation Force was responsible for the death.
Australian troops in East Timor are not under UN command. Under the UN's system, forces must answer to an outside body.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald