November 12th, 1991. As day breaks, an eerie quiet hangs over Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili, East Timor. Among the pretty headstones – some painted white, some sky-blue – the recently dug grave of young Sebastião Gomes glints like an open wound in the morning sun. Two weeks previously he had been taken from a church and shot by Indonesian troops for his part in the Timorese independence struggle.
The murder of a teenager was not an uncommon act by General Suharto’s soldiers, whose occupation of East Timor since 1975 involved summary executions, torture, disappearances, and watching thousands die from starvation.
By 8am, the stillness in the graveyard would turn to panic, then chaos. Volleys of gunshots were heard over screams of people scrambling for cover behind headstones, over the murmur of the rosary being recited in Portuguese. Within minutes the picturesque cemetery was littered with broken bodies: schoolchildren, women and young men had been shot, bayonetted and bludgeoned.
Twenty-six years on, British filmmaker Max Stahl stands at a tombstone and remembers. "That chapel was like a 14th-century scene of hell," he says of the tiny white-washed building where the wounded and terrified lay screaming and praying.
Stahl’s footage – the only video evidence that exists, smuggled outside the territory days later – would bring about a turning point in the history of East Timor: alerting the world to the atrocities happening there; securing, at last, wide international support for the Timorese cause; and setting this small southeast Asian nation on the path to self-determination.
Before his death, Gomes and other activists had been preparing for a visit by a parliamentary delegation from Portugal, East Timor's long-time coloniser. Lisbon's rule ended there in 1975, a consequence of Portugal's Carnation Revolution in April. By December, within days of the Fretilin party's declaration of independence, neighbouring Indonesia had invaded.
Official visits from outside the territory were rare under Indonesian rule, and few foreigners were allowed in. The prospect of showing the international community what was going on inspired independence campaigners to plan a demonstration. Those who weren’t fighting in the mountains beyond the capital – alongside the likes of resistance hero Xanana Gusmão –busied themselves turning bedsheets into banners, and making placards asking the world for help.
The delegation’s visit was cancelled, but the activists decided to protest nonetheless. Two weeks after Gomes’s burial, Mass was said in his memory in Motael Church, from where a procession set out to pay respects at his grave 2.5km away.
Banners were unfurled along the route. On reaching the cemetery, the crowd had grown to several thousand. It was a peaceful protest, punctuated by defiant shouts of “Viva independencia! Viva Timor-Leste! Viva Xanana Gusmão!”
Stahl, one of a few foreign journalists working secretly in the country, filmed the soldiers shooting, beating, and dragging people away. He noticed that victims who could still move were making their way towards him. “They were showing me their wounds,” he recalls. “They saw the camera, and they wanted the world to see. They were dying around me, but – and the survivors later told me this – more important than the fact of their dying was that their deaths be meaningful; that all this should be ‘for’ something.”
He was arrested, but not before burying two rolls of film in a grave. That night, having been interrogated for nine hours, he retrieved them. He needed to get the footage out fast. In a development both surprising and ironic, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and torture, who was visiting Dili, refused involvement. Dutch journalist and rights activist Saskia Kouwenberg obliged: she left the country with 10 minutes of film hidden in her underwear.
Once seen around the world, the images from Santa Cruz ensured an end to East Timor's long isolation. Solidarity groups were formed in many countries, including Ireland, where then-Dublin Bus driver Tom Hyland raised awareness of and support for the Timorese plight. Indonesia came under heavy pressure to allow an independence referendum, which was eventually held in 1999.
No one knows how many were killed in Santa Cruz. Stahl, who runs an audiovisual archive in Dili, estimates 65-100; others say more than 250. Some bodies were found in mass graves; others, it’s thought, were dumped at sea. Many families are still without closure.
The Santa Cruz massacre was not Indonesia's final atrocity in East Timor – now officially the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste – but its exposure made it impossible for Jakarta to continue its reign of repression unchallenged. Paradoxically, the mood in the aftermath was one of euphoria, not defeat. Because on November 12th, 1991, the dying of East Timor got their final wish; and those left behind were emboldened to continue the struggle.