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Remembering the Santa Cruz massacre

Candles burned and blazing tires spewed acrid smoke into the humid night air across Dili. Crowds of people milled around the ramshackle neighborhoods of the Timorese capital and remembered the dead on a recent evening.

The street vigils on 12 November marked the 16th anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre, a turning point in Timor’s bloody struggle for independence from Indonesia.

More than 270 people died on that November day in 1991 after Indonesian forces opened fire on a crowd of mourners and pro-independence supporters gathered at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili. The mourners, many of them university students, had assembled to pay respects to Sebastiao Gomes, a young Dili man who had been shot dead outside a church by Indonesian forces a couple of weeks earlier. The memorial procession evolved into a peaceful, pro-independence rally. But it soon turned violent.

“They opened fire on everybody. I lived because I threw myself into a roadside ditch. My best friend, Idalia, died that day. I never saw her again,” said Melita Andrade, human resources manager for Concern in Dili. Tears rolled down Andrade’s face as she recounted the events of that day. “My brother was arrested. They cut his clothes off and beat him. His head was so swollen. He still suffers seizures and memory loss,” Andrade said.


Foreign journalists, some of them also beaten by Indonesian soldiers, captured the bloodshed on camera. A clandestine video of the massacre found its way out of Timor and later was broadcast around the world. Images of the indiscriminate killing and bloody corpses helped galvanise international opinion against the Indonesian occupation and in favor of Timor’s independence struggle. Now, five years after independence was finally gained in 2002, 12 November is a national holiday.

Like many other Dili residents, Andrade returns to the Santa Cruz cemetery every year on the anniversary and lays flowers on Sebastiao Gomes’ grave. In the evening, she lights candles in the street outside her home in the Vila Verde neighbourhood of Dili, where Gomes had lived. She remembers him, Idalia and all the others who didn’t make it.

“It’s a very sad day. It’s very painful,” Andrade said.