Subject: Aussie Experts Aim To Help Solve Timor Massacre Mystery
Aussie Experts Aim To Help Solve Timor Massacre Mystery
DILI, Oct 17 AAP - Australian forensic experts are in East Timor to help solve one of the enduring mysteries of the Indonesian occupation - the location of mass graves from a bloody cemetery massacre.
Forensic anthropologists from Victoria and Argentina have gone to the country hoping to give some closure to the families of those killed in the 1991 massacre, believed to have numbered between 100 and 400.
The Indonesian military opened fire on a group of pro-independence supporters during a peaceful demonstration in Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery in 1991.
Footage captured by a foreign filmmaker brought the suffering of East Timorese during Indonesia's occupation to the eyes of the world.
Images of demonstrators shielding themselves from gunfire behind headstones and helping their wounded friends embarrassed the Indonesian government.
The footage marked a turning point in East Timor's struggle for independence, and sparked the formation of dozens of groups supporting the nation's independence push all over the world.
East Timor voted for independence in a 1999 referendum and was officially declared independent during an emotional ceremony in Dili in May 2002. But Indonesian authorities have never revealed where the cemetery victims were buried.
The only known grave, where 19 massacre victims lie, is in the hills surrounding the capital Dili, and members of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine are preparing to excavate another site close by in the hope of finding more remains.
Forensic anthropologist Soren Blau, who is part of the Victorian team, said she and her colleagues were pushing ahead with the task while also training local police in basic forensic techniques.
"We are using very simple archeological techniques to look at the changes in stratigraphy (of the sites)," Blau said.
But, she said, separating myth from fact had been the team's greatest challenge, adding: "The story around the massacre is not clear".
"There are reports of killings at the cemetery, then those who were wounded and taken to hospital (who) subsequently died and then there are individuals who disappeared as a part of that process."
Blau said part of the process was to interview survivors and eyewitnesses to glean clues about where the bodies might be buried.
Even the number of people killed remains a murky issue.
Victims groups who have compiled lists of those missing say the figure is likely to be at least 100. But some estimates have put the figure as high as 400.
"Part of the work we are doing is to try and deny or verify some of these figures," Blau said.
Blau said the team had respected the wishes of victims' families to consult spiritual mediums, but almost all sites identified in this way had been discounted.
But there is one exception - Dili's rubbish dump - which Blau said would be extremely difficult to excavate.
"It's a massive rubbish dump. Then there is the issue of defining how big it was in 1991 (and) you've had 17 years of rubbish dumping there (since then)," Blau said.
"It's possible but it's not something we are going to focus on."
Victims groups desperately hope the next dig will yield some answers about the fate of their loved ones.
"Now we are free because they lost their lives for our liberation," said Gregorio Saldanha, a massacre survivor and organiser of the 1991 pro-independence demonstration.
"We are responsible, especially me as a friend and survivor, to keep looking for them."
Argentine anthropologist Luis Fondebrider said the lack of information from Indonesia made the task much more difficult.
"It is always a problem when you don't have perpetrators providing information," he said.
"You need to find other sources and, unfortunately, this takes time."
Earlier this year, a dig at a site in Tibar, 15km from Dili, failed to unearth any remains.
That site was chosen because residents had claimed they saw nine trucks carrying bodies and an excavator enter the area on the day of the massacre.
Fondebrider said it was important to try to understand the ways Indonesia might have disposed of the bodies.
"Every possibility is open, from dumping the bodies in the sea, or burying them and move the graves again later," he said.