East Timor: The Past is Present

(left) Regina Magalhaes with her son, Fidelis, a human rights officer with Jesuit Refugee Services in East Timor. Her husband, Manuel, was killed in the violence that followed East Timor's bid for independence. Photo by Stephen Steele

We combed the whole Bobonaro district and paid repeated visits to Batugade and Palaka, where bodies were dumped according to rumours. We only found few body parts scattered in different places. There was one case where we found one skull miles away from a decapitated body which we assumed belonged to the same person. Despite the recoveries many, including my own father and friends, have not been found. Worse, it has been eleven years and we still do not know what really happened.

Fidelis Magalhães wrote the above poignant words [see footer note] marking the eleventh anniversary of the UN run Popular Consultation which resulted in 78% of the population voting for independence from Indonesia. This ended an occupation lasting 24 years, which had resulted in the deaths of over 150,000 people.  However, in a paroxysm of violence organized and implemented by the Indonesian military and its Timorese proxies, over 1,500 people were killed in the period before, during and after the vote.  The victims and their families have not achieved much in the way of closure.

Fidelis’ story generated considerable interest in Timor, being run by the East Timor Action Network (ETAN) weblist. He talks about the murder of his father, Manuel Magalhães, who was one of the top leaders of the pro-independence movement in Bobonaro district (on the border with Indonesia). Magalhães was murdered along with fellow pro-independence supporters on 9 September 1999, as Chega [Enough, pt], the final report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, reports:

according to the Deputy General Prosecutor for Serious Crimes, on 9 September, Timorese Sergeant M147 (…) (Maliana, Bobonaro) received information from a villager that a group of people who had escaped from the police compound had been discovered on the river bank (…). Sergeant M147 then ordered a group of Dadurus Merah Putih militia to accompany him to Mulau. In this operation, 13 pro-independence supporters were killed. The victims were: Lamberto de Sá Benevides, Abilio Marques Vicente, Augusto dos Santos Marques, José Barreto, Pedro Luis, Lucas dos Santos, Luis Soares (Luis dos Santos), Jeroni Lopes, Domingos Titi Mau, Manuel Magalhães, Carlos Maia, Ernesto da Coli and Paul da Silva. The first nine of them, from Lamberto de Sa Benevides to Domingos Titi Mau, were ordered by Sergeant M147 to kneel down and raise their hands. Sergeant M147 shot them one by one with an automatic rifle. The other four were separately captured and killed. Manuel Magalhães and Ernesto da Coli were each shot and then stabbed. Carlos Maia was stabbed to death and Paulo da Silva was shot several times while trying to surrender. Manuel Magalhães was a CNRT leader and Carlos Maia a prominent pro-independence activist. All the bodies, except that of Paul da Silva, were carried to the beach in Batugade. Under the command of the two commanders of Saka Loromonu the bodies were also dumped at sea.

The same report says that only the body and remains from three victims were discovered and buried, though it was not the case of Manuel Magalhães.

According to one media report, Magalhães knew that his pro-independence activities were potentially fatal: “In his final conversation with his eldest son, Nivio, 19, on Aug. 26, 1999, he told the young man, “If I die, I don't want you to take revenge. I want you to build a country of peace.”” A few days after the tenth anniversary of Magalhaes’ death, last year, his daughter Ivete Liete Oliveira, wondered

is justice too big to ask? (…) We shouldnt just forget the past because past is what has brought us to where we are today.

Now it is the turn of the younger son, Fidelis, a former adviser to Nobel Prize Winner President Jose Ramos-Horta, now studying in London. He was one of the first advocating for national reconciliation in 1999, “in various parts of the country in different communities encouraging people to reconcile, to live without hatred and respect the rights of others”. In his note, he states that the other side of reconciliation is to “one day learn about what really happened and recover the remains of our loved ones”, as he explains:

For me the question is not about revenge, and I don’t even care about arresting the Indonesian generals. What I want is for the Timorese government to pressure Indonesia to let us know what happened and possibly help us to recover the remains. At the moment for many families of the victims there is still no proper closure. They were told to reconcile with the militias and forgive the Indonesians, but until now their own state seem absolutely incompetent to even ask for as little as truth and identification of burial sites. All seem to be overshadowed by pragmatism.

Photo from the memorial to Manuel Magalhães and those killed in the police station at the beach of Batugade, by Flickr user Rusty Stewart shared under a CC Attribution - Non-Comercial - Share Alike license

Photo from the memorial to Manuel Magalhães and those killed in the police station at the beach of Batugade, by Flickr user Rusty Stewart shared under a CC Attribution – Non-Comercial – Share Alike license

While Fidelis together with the help from friends “led families of the victims sweeping through every place we suspected of any significance, (…) gathered information from local communities regarding either possible execution or burial sites [and] searched in many places for almost two years.”, he now pressures the Timorese state for action:

The Timorese state seemed to be incapable to acquire any information from the Indonesian government regarding what happened and the whereabouts of their remains. The only things I found that belonged to my father were his trousers and a half burned bike registration card (according to some sources he and twelve or thirteen others were undressed, hacked to pieces and dumped in the ocean). But even the trousers, I later handed over to the UN Serious Crimes Unit and have not managed to recuperate after all these years. Last year I was summoned by the Serious Crimes Investigation Team in which they handed a couple of photos of the trousers and the card with the accompanying words of consolation that the real trousers and card could not yet be returned because the investigation was still “ongoing”.
Before I end, a youth leader threatened to hit me for organizing the celebration of the international human rights day in 2000. What he said is worth remembering: “you are a traitor, you betray your own friends and father. The so called human rights is simply a way for us to forgive and do no harm to those who harmed us. The deaths will be forgotten. The UN and the government will forget”. I still hope he was not right…But perhaps it is just me, a chronic optimist.

“Some Thoughts of the Past…” by Fidelis Magalhaes posted on Facebook (Sunday, 12 September 2010 at 18:56) is quoted throughout this article with permission.

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