On November 12, 1991, the Indonesian military fired at a peaceful memorial gathering at a cemetery in Dili, Timor Leste, which had turned into a pro-independence demonstration.
More than 200 people were killed and hundreds more arrested and detained.
To mark the tragedy, each year Timorese gather to walk in remembrance from Moatel Church to the Santa Cruz cemetery, the same path taken on that deadly day in 1991.
Reporter Teodosia dos Reis has this story from Dili.
It’s early morning here and crowds of people have gathered to join the memorial for the Santa Cruz massacre.
There’s families of the victims, students, government officials and also the president of Timor-Leste, Taur Matan Ruak.
They start at the Motael Church and head toward the Santa Cruz Cemetery, on the way singing music from the days of the struggle for independence from Indonesia.
One line from this song is: “I sell my body to buy freedom, I am shedding blood, dead or alive I want independence for Timor.”
The song is a reminder of what happened here at this cemetery in 1991 when people gathered to march in protest of the death of Sebastian Gomes – an independence supporter who had been killed at Motael Church by Indonesian soldiers weeks before.
The crowds had gathered to march to the cemetery and place flowers on his grave.
American journalist Allan Nairn was here with another journalist Amy Goodman, when the massacre happened.
He’s also traveled back to Timor Leste to be here today to retell his story.
“That day I was with Amy Goodman, we were in the middle of the crowd alone with many of you and then suddenly we looked down the road, and we saw the Indonesian soldiers approaching,” Nairn told the crowd.
“They were uniformed; they were carrying M16 automatic rifles from United States, my country. As the soldiers came down the road, we could see that they were hundreds and hundreds, thousands of them, so I decided that we should go to the front of the crowd, because we thought we could prevent a massacre,” recalled Nairn.
Goodman and Nairn hoped that by being foreign journalists they might act as a shield between the approaching military and the Timorese gathered at the memorial.
But instead, they were beaten and the Indonesian military started to shoot into the crowd.
Nairn remembers how the military started shooting systematically, as blood was running in the street.
Max Stahl, a British journalist was also there that day.
It was his footage of the Santa Cruz massacre that was screened around the world.
But he had to take special measures to protect it.
“Indonesians were busy stopping everybody, so they were going around the cemetery, and I was not going any where, so I have some time,” Stahl remembered the day.
“After a while, I started to think, what will I do when they come, so I took my cassette out and I put it in plastic and I buried it under the ground.”
At the ceremony, president Taur Matan Ruak gave thanks to the efforts of journalists like Allan and Max.
Reporters who were able to get the story of what was happening in the country – the abuses of the Indonesian military – out to the world.
Ruak was a resistance fighter in the jungle during the years of Indonesian occupation. Other massacres he says, like one in Viqueque, never came to light because no journalists were there.
“The massacre was not only here, such things happened everywhere in Timor Leste,” said President Ruak.
“When I visited one village, I found in the community hundreds of bones in a grave, but we never heard about what happened there. So we have to give thanks to all journalists, especially Allan and Max Stahl who managed to transfer the film of Santa Cruz out of the country,” concluded Ruak.
To commemorate the Santa Cruz Massacre, in 2005 the government decided that November 12 will now be a national day for the youth of Timor-Leste.