Subject: AGE: A mother's hidden memory for a son who lost his father

A mother's hidden memory for a son who lost his father

Chris Johnston February 17, 2007

The plaque is there, but it's hidden. Not prominent, and not polished either. But it's nice; the broad leaves of the weeping tree above it cast lovely dappled shadows when the sun is right. Sometimes people leave flowers, which is appreciated. But mostly it goes unnoticed.

"Greg Shackleton, journalist," it reads, simple and direct and unflinching. "Died Timor. Aged 29 years." It was put in Albert Park's St Vincent Gardens by his widow, Shirley Shackleton, just after he was believed to have been murdered by Indonesian soldiers in Timor in October 1975. They lived nearby with a young son. Evan Shackleton was eight when his father, one of the so-called Balibo five, died. They used to play in the gardens; throw balls, run around, hide and seek.

Mrs Shackleton wanted Evan to have somewhere to go to mourn his father. The Balibo five, all Australian-based news men, were killed with knives and guns. They were possibly burned, possibly tortured. Their remains were then buried in Jakarta without the families' consent. Mrs Shackleton wanted a memorial of some kind ­ and, apart from a more formal one in Canberra, the Albert Park plaque remains the only physical memory of her husband. It's a de facto grave.

Yet she doesn't want to draw attention to it. In fact, with regard to the plaque, Mrs Shackleton is uncharacteristically shy. She hasn't talked about it before, she's never wanted to. She hasn't been photographed at it and didn't want to be this time. And she certainly doesn't want to elaborate on her son's grief and the plaque's central relationship to it. "The young ones in this ­ the children ­ all suffered terribly," she says. "There's no need to bring it all up in public. I'm sorry I can't make it all gooey for you but I never wanted it to be a big thing or to be over-emotional."

Mrs Shackleton, now 75, has been a major player in the long campaign to prove her husband and his colleagues were murdered by war criminals. She has also long tried to prove a cover-up by Australian officials for diplomatic and trade reasons. The journalists were covering the story of Indonesia's looming invasion of Portuguese East Timor. Greg Shackleton was working for Channel Seven. Indonesia has either maintained they were caught in crossfire between opposing East Timorese factions or were communists with sympathy for the East Timorese.

Mrs Shackleton's role as a prominent Balibo five activist and campaigner for East Timorese issues has made her something of a Melbourne identity. She has been a prolific letter writer to newspapers. She has visited Timor and talked about the deaths all over Australia. And she has never tempered her words. It has been pointed out in The Age before that Indonesia's biggest mistake at Balibo was killing a man loved by someone as bloody minded as Shirley Shackleton.

In Sydney at the moment there is a coronial inquest being held into the death of one of the five, cameraman Brian Peters. Some kind of truth is finally, slowly, emerging. It is the first formal inquest into any of the deaths. Mrs Shackleton flies up on Tuesday; ill health prevented her going earlier. Doubtless she will speak her mind, she will make her presence felt.

The plaque, however, is essentially a secret. The City of Port Phillip has no record of it. There's no indication at the site who put it there. Three of the trees planted above it have died. Mrs Shackleton originally requested a red flowering tree "so there was a resurgence of life every spring" but she never got that. Over the years the plaque has been damaged by council mowers.

Evan Shackleton, just a boy when his father never came home, is now a 39-year-old lawyer in Perth. When he visits his mother, he also goes into the park and visits his father. If this was the humble plaque's purpose, then it has been served.

"I've never wanted to insert myself into this," Mrs Shackleton says.

"I'm not a widow looking for sympathy. It was for Evan, there was no grave, there was nowhere for a boy to go. We were never mawkish about it. I never said to him 'are you going to go over and talk to your Dad?' We never talked about it, it was too painful.

"He just takes himself over there like he always did, quietly. "I don't give a hoot if no one else ever sees the plaque."

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