Subject: Ghosts of Balibo 

Ghosts of Balibo

Tom Hyland

May 31, 2009

THE moment they waited for came about 4am when the East Timorese soldier shook them awake: "Mister! Mister! Fire! Fire!"

The five young men scrambled from the house that sat on a dusty square in a tiny village, a border outpost in a forgotten colonial backwater.

They shouldered the hefty film cameras, the bulky sound recorders, the jumble of microphones and cords that entangled TV newsmen in that pre-video, pre-digital age. Artillery was crashing around the village. This was the moment they'd waited for.

But they had to wait a little longer, for the morning light so their cameras could capture the images they wanted ­ Indonesian troops, the secret spearhead of an illegal invasion, advancing through the scrub towards them.

With those images, the five young men from Australian TV would have a great story, a world scoop. Trouble was, the East Timorese soldiers who were their protectors never intended to hold the village. As the Indonesians closed in, and a Timorese soldier urged the newsmen to leave, they lingered ­ "hang on, one minute". At the last moment, about to be surrounded, the Timorese escaped.

Believing their status as journalists would protect them, the newsmen stayed, consumed by the story. Trouble was, the invaders couldn't let them live to tell a story that would expose Indonesia's covert operation to occupy East Timor ­ an operation the Jakarta government was denying at the time, and one which Canberra knew about in advance and secretly acquiesced in.

As they entered the village square, the Indonesians shot one of the newsmen. The others screamed "Australian journalists!" before they, too, were shot and stabbed to death.

The place was Balibo, East Timor, on October 16, 1975.

The five never got to tell their story, yet it has never gone away. Instead, it provokes enduring anger and shame, with each new revelation compounding the grief of five families. And it has haunted governments, too, because Balibo's significance goes beyond five deaths and the subsequent cover-up. The attack was a mere prelude to a full-scale invasion two months later and a 24-year occupation that consumed up to 183,000 lives.

Now the story is about to be retold, with two new books and, crucially, a movie that the writers and filmmakers believe will engage a new generation and pose uncomfortable questions for governments that have always tried to bury Balibo. Along the way, there will be renewed controversy that questions the mythological aura surrounding the young men who, in death, became known as the Balibo Five.

'FEW events have become as poignantly etched into the Australian psyche as the deaths of five Australian journalists in Balibo," NSW magistrate Dorelle Pinch declared as she handed down an historic finding into the death of one of the five 18 months ago.

Only two of them were Australians ­ reporter Greg Shackleton, 29, and soundman Tony Stewart, 21, who, with New Zealand-born cameraman Gary Cunningham, 27, worked for Melbourne's Channel Seven. Cameraman Brian Raymond Peters, 29, and reporter Malcolm Rennie, 28, of Sydney's Channel Nine, were British-born.

While Pinch's inquest was only into the death of Peters, she found all five were deliberately murdered by Indonesian troops, including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah, so they couldn't reveal Indonesians were involved in the attack.

The magistrate recommended the Federal Government examine prosecuting Yosfiah and da Silva for war crimes ­ a recommendation that, despite a promise by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to bring the killers to account, still loiters somewhere on a federal police officer's desk.

But she also put responsibility on the journalists for not taking the opportunity to escape.

The five died only days after arriving in East Timor, sent with scant preparation to cover border skirmishes that preceded the Indonesian invasion. At the time the territory was a Portuguese colony, but Lisbon had effectively abandoned it, leaving it in the hands of the pro-independence Fretilin party.

Jakarta at the time was ruled by the dictator Suharto who, with his generals, was determined to seize East Timor to prevent it becoming a pro-communist enclave ­ "a little Cuba" ­ on their doorstep.

They hoped to achieve this through subversion and intimidation. When that failed, they launched a military campaign. Both operations were barely concealed by a threadbare cloak of deniability, with Jakarta insisting its forces were not involved. Canberra went along with this convenient fiction.

TONY Maniaty was one of the last Australians to see the Balibo Five alive and the first to report they were missing, presumed dead. His brief encounter with them was, he suggests, pivotal in their fatal miscalculation.

In 1975, Maniaty was a 26-year-old ABC reporter, sent to East Timor with 24-hours' notice and told to "fly in, get a few good stories and get out". In a new book, he evokes a lost era when journalism could still be seen "as a wild adventure, at once carefree and committed".

For more than three decades, he says, he has been haunted by the demons of Balibo and a sense of survivor guilt ­ that they died, cut down in their prime, and he survived. Last year he went back to Timor for the first time, accompanying the film crew making the movie, called Balibo, and advising the actors on how TV journalists did their jobs all those years ago, and the psychology that drove them.

Running through the book is a personal and professional assessment of the forces that compelled the five to go to Balibo, and then to stay there. In doing so, he acknowledges he risks being "accused of chopping down icons".

Five days before the five died, Maniaty and his ABC crew were also in Balibo, "to see what trouble we could find". While filming, they come under Indonesian artillery fire. Maniaty believes they were deliberately targeted. He says he shook with fear as they raced from the fort and drove the rutted track back to Dili, the capital.

Along the way they encountered the Channel Seven crew, who had arrived in East Timor just a day before, heading in the opposite direction. Maniaty says he warned them to turn around, that it wasn't safe, but the Seven crew, Greg Shackleton in particular, seemed enthused by his report of the shelling, and "a visceral buzz of excitement ran though the Seven news crew". They, too, wanted to see what trouble they could find.

The picture Maniaty paints of Shackleton, whose emotional reports from Timor have attained a haunting, iconic quality, is of a complex, enigmatic character who was brave, confident and without doubt.

But, in Maniaty's account, Shackleton was also determined to place himself at the centre of the story, a participant, not just a reporter, who was the key actor in the decision of his crew to go to Balibo and, when they were later joined by the Channel Nine crew, to stay there.

If Shackleton was central, other pyschological and professional factors were in play in the complex dynamic tensions that drive journalists in pursuit of a story: the thrill of the chase; the hunger to get the news first, to reveal what's hidden; competition, ambition and enthusiasm.

Even so, none of this answers the question that still troubles Maniaty: why did they stay? He considers all the explanations, "but in none can I really find an answer, or even the beginnings of one".

What happened at Balibo, he writes, has "the ghastly tone of a Greek tragedy, a schema drawn up and launched by warring gods, unable to be halted until the last blow is struck".

THE tragedy of five young men only partly explains the hold Balibo has on many Australians, and it is only part of the wider Balibo story: the fate not of five, but of the Timorese Thousands, as Maniaty puts it.

It is a grip he thinks Balibo, the movie, will now extend to a generation with no memory of 1975. This renewed focus will also pressure politicians on both sides of politics to not only account for Balibo, but for Australia's wider record on East Timor.

While in independent East Timor, and in newly democratic Indonesia, there is at least a dialogue about the crimes of the past, from Australian politicians and officials there is "an awkward, embarrassed silence", he told The Sunday Age.

The movie and books should also prod the Government to act on the findings of the 2007 inquest. "At the moment, the whole thing sits on the table, not in the too-hard basket, it's the too-sensitive basket," Maniaty says.

"No one really knows what to do about about it and they're hoping Australians have forgotten and that somehow or other, the world will move on and the issue will fade away. But now, particularly with the film, the whole issue will be raised and the Government will have to confront this."

Movie director Robert Connolly says what happened in 1975 is "like a punch in the face for Australians who don't know the story".

The movie tells how another Australian reporter, Roger East (played by Anthony LaPaglia), went to East Timor after the five were killed. He, too, made a fatal miscalculation.

He was the only journalist present when Indonesia launched a full-scale assault on December 7, 1975. The next day he was dragged to the Dili wharf where he and scores of Timorese were murdered by Indonesian troops.

Australians, says Connolly, "can't comprehend that a country could not kick up a monumental fuss over the murder of six Australian-based journalists. People are staggered that it isn't a greater part of our national story."

Like Maniaty, he hopes the film will raise questions beyond the fate of the journalists ­ the "catastrophe that befell Timor and the deaths of maybe 180,000 people".

"If we can't scrutinise, with absolute rigour, an event of that scale on our doorstep, an hour-and-a-half from Darwin, if we can't ask those questions in the toughest way, then we kind of dismiss the scale of that human tragedy," Connolly says.

He predicts new pressure for a judicial accounting of what happened at Balibo, with a fresh focus on the NSW inquest findings and the Federal Government's promised investigation.

The movie script is based on Jill Jolliffe's 2001 book about the Balibo killings. Jolliffe, who has chronicled East Timor since 1975, has substantially rewritten the book, with new chapters on Roger East.

"Aussies believe in a fair go, in justice, a common thread in their history," she says of the continued interest in Balibo. "Journalists also like to look after their own and the profession has behaved honourably in keeping the issue alive, as 'the story that won't lie down'."

The renewed attention might prompt a recognition of wrong-doing by Australian officials involved, from former prime minister Gough Whitlam onwards. But she's not optimistic. The Foreign Affairs Department has remained "unreformed since 1975, pursuing Asian policies based on sand", she says. "Kevin Rudd has proven weak in this respect."

But bringing the killers to justice is the main issue. "The prosecution of war criminals over Balibo is linked to the wider issue of untried war crimes in East Timor," Jolliffe says. "I firmly believe that in both cases they will eventually be in the dock, although it may take a long time."

? Shooting Balibo: Blood and Memory in East Timor, by Tony Maniaty (Penguin), goes on sale tomorrow. Maniaty will be speaking at Readings bookshop, Carlton, on Wednesday at 6.30pm.

? Balibo the movie will premier at the Melbourne International Film Festival on July 24.

? Balibo, by Jill Jolliffe, published by Scribe Publications, will be launched at the festival and published in August.

?The Circle of Silence, by Shirley Shackleton, widow of Greg Shackleton, will be published by Pier 9 next year.

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