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'Young heroes' massacred at Timor-Leste's Santa Cruz cemetery 30 years ago, honoured in Darwin ceremony

ABC News - November 21, 2021

Felicity James – Maria Jose was at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Timor-Leste 30 years ago when Indonesian soldiers opened fire.

"I was young at the time, very excited to go along with the crowd and with my friends, we all walked together," Ms Jose said.

"We thought we were going to have a peaceful demonstration, to tell the world what Timorese want."

Now, Ms Jose lives in Darwin with her family and several other survivors of the massacre in Timor-Leste on November 12, 1991.

On that day, a church mass was held in the capital Dili for a woman who had recently been killed.

Ms Jose and other students then decided to walk about eight kilometres to the cemetery to protest for independence from Indonesian occupation.

"Three of my friends didn't come back," Ms Jose said. "It's still fresh in our minds."

Ms Jose and other survivors have been part of a ceremony in Darwin for the students who died and the late filmmaker Max Stahl, who passed away in October.

Osvaldo Coelho was 19 years old at the time and a member of the student group that organised the Santa Cruz protest.

His older brother had already been taken away, likely killed – his family still don't know what happened.

"After we arrived at the cemetery, everything was good, we were waiting to pray," Mr Coelho said.

"After prayers, we wanted to put the flowers in the cemetery. But we didn't even pray before the Indonesian army come and just shoot, they were shooting us like animals."

Hundreds were killed and those who survived were forced to hide.

"When I heard the shots I start to panic, I don't know what I'm going to do, because the fence is quite high, the cemetery fence. I start to run, jump over the fence," Ms Jose said.

"Afterwards, the Indonesian soldiers came searching for the demonstrators who hid.

"I was lucky. They didn't walk into that place where I hid."

Max Stahl filmed the massacre and buried it at the cemetery, so it could be later smuggled out of the country.

"Lucky we have Max Stahl, he is there and can film the massacre and pass on to the world," Mr Coelho said.

"From 1975 to 1991, before the massacre, we fight for independence but no-one knows what's going on.

"A lot of people died that day, but it was also one of the very important days for our freedom."

Many Timorese-Australians have now made Darwin home because of its proximity to Timor-Leste.

"Only a one-hour flight. You just wake up and can fly in for breakfast in Timor," Mr Coelho said.

Veronica Pereira lives in the Darwin suburb of Karama.

The recent ceremony for the students and Mr Stahl began and ended with the sounds of Ms Pereira beating her traditional drums.

Soon after the massacre in 1991, Ms Pereira started weaving the names of those killed into traditional fabric known as "tais" – it took her several years.

The artist and weaver explained the significance of the colours, with translation help from a friend.

"The black is for mourning, the red is the blood and the white is light (or hope)," Ms Pereira said.

Ms Pereira escaped Timor-Leste in 1975 and later became an Australia-based independence activist.

She was among the Darwin residents who wailed and lay in the city streets after the massacre, to demonstrate the likely death toll.

Timor-Leste has made November 12 a national holiday in memory of the "young heroes" who marched to the Santa Cruz cemetery.

However, Mr Coelho said he was worried many Timor-Leste residents, especially young people, were still suffering.

"I want a better life for my country and my people," he said.

"If after independence, the people still suffer I think it doesn't make sense.

"We don't forget the past and can do better for the present and future."

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-11-21/nt-timor-leste-ceremony-santa-cruz-massacre/10062096