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Widow in call to exhume the Balibo five

Melbourne Age - October 15, 2012

Michael Bachelard, Indonesia – Shirley Shackleton refers to it as "my job" – telling journalists the story of her husband, Greg, who died at Balibo in East Timor in 1975, and seeking justice.

At 80 years of age, she is worried that, soon enough, she will no longer be able to do that job.

But she has set herself one new challenge – taking on the Indonesian government in the attempt to bring the remains of her husband home to Melbourne.

At the moment, the remains of the journalist, who was killed in Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, lie in a well-tended grave in a South Jakarta cemetery, Tanah Kusir.

They have been there since 1979, after being moved from another cemetery. On the headstone are the names of all five of the Australian newsmen who were killed – according to the New South Wales coroner in 2007 – "not in the heat of battle".

But nobody knows what exactly is left of the bodies, which were repeatedly burned. One theory holds that the five are intermingled in one box. Shirley Shackleton, who went to the grave site yesterday, refuses to believe it just because that's what she's told.

"We don't know that and I don't work on supposition," she says. "The only way to know that is to get in there and look."

It is this doggedness that has carried her throughout her 37-year campaign on behalf of her husband.

In the latest journey she has involved Senator Nick Xenophon, who accompanied her to Indonesia yesterday. He in turn has enlisted Indonesian human rights activist Andreas Harsono and lawyer Haris Azhar.

They hope also to see new Jakarta governor Joko Widodo. Senator Xenophon took Ms Shackleton last week to see Foreign Minister Bob Carr.

"We saw Bob Carr and he was extremely nice to me," Ms Shackleton said at the graveside. "I expect that he'll do what he can too, that's his job... to look after Australian citizens, dead or alive."

On her last visit to Indonesia, in 2010, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa also agreed to do what he could.

Senator Xenophon believes that in the next few months it is possible the remains will be exhumed to find out what is really buried. "The science of DNA now is light years apart compared with 1975," he said.

It's not clear whether the families of the other four newsmen killed – Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie and Tony Stewart – are seeking the remains to be returned, but according to Senator Xenophon this should not be an obstacle to Ms Shackleton's plan.

"If the remains of the DNA can be isolated, which they should be, then we should be able to resolve this in a way that is dignified."

Ms Shackleton says that in 1975, the Australian government told her it would cost $48,000 – the price of a good house in those days – to repatriate her husband's remains.

That was never good enough for a woman who has been lied to repeatedly over the years about what happened when her husband and his colleagues were killed by Indonesian troops as they invaded East Timor.

"Some people just imagine things. I don't do that. I want to know the truth," she says.

Asked if it was not time she moved on, she was quite clear. "On to where? Leaving here, that would destroy me. That is not right. I think people who do that end up dippy... I don't think you get anywhere by pretending these things didn't happen."