November 12, 12 years after

From Manatuto, East Timor

13 November 2003 -- Manatuto, East Timor

November 12th was the 12th anniversary of the Indonesian troops' masacre of innocent mourners at Santa Cruz cemetary in Dili. Mark and I left Manatuto early in the morning for Dili, deciding to visit the spot of the atrocity, to see how people in East Timor remember this day.

(As I write this, sitting in my "office" within the District Administration office, I look out over the ocean and watch the muddy waters of the Laclo River, more than a mile west down the coast, mingle with the blue blue waters of the ocean. The few days of rain last week brought down tons of silt, debris, and pig and cow dung, spewing it out into the previously pristine ocean waters. Is this the end of snorkling? Right now, the ocean looks clear as the Mississippi. I wonder if it would be this way absent the slash and burn agriculture, absent the sheep that keep down the plants that otherwise would anchor the topsoil, absent the cows and buffalo that churn the soil into fine particles of dust, ready to fly down with the slightest bit of water? May be it is an inevitable aspect of monsoon terrain. May be not. Nevertheless, we have the sheep, the cows, the buffalo, the slash and burn agriculture and grazing; the waters turn muddy when the rains come and carry away the top soil: it feed the oceans.)

We joined the crowds standing by the gates of the cemetary waiting for something to arrive, what it would be I wasn't sure. We'd seen a local parade crowding down one of the streets on our way, perhaps we were all waiting for this. In short time, crowds of photographers arrived, wearing the black and carying their humoungous equipment (I was happy to have my little camera which I often regard as too big). A motor cop came squeeling down the street and following him came several white official government cars which promptly disgorged a terse-looking collection of ministers and diplomats. Several more cars followed and the police pushed the crowd back so the officials, including the prime minister standing just a few feet in front of me, could have a front row spot. The photographers clicked away. Up the road came the sound of pounding drums and crashing symbols. In the distance, over the heads of the crowd, I could make out a batton girl standing on top of a base drum, throwing her baton high in the air. The high school marching band processed. The kids looked so proud, what were they thinking of the day when over two hundred of their countrymen and women were mowed down by ranks of unthinking soldiers? In this country, when that number of people is involved, almost no family goes unscathed, most every one present would have lost at least one person from their extended family.

Distracted, I wondered whoever thought up the idea of having the guys with the heaviest instruments -- the base-drums -- running around, up and down between the other members?

After the band passed, from the direction they'd gone, a new procession came along the street: young men in black, faces painted in the spectre of ghosts, carrying a cofin, signs crying out for justice. Leading the procession were a few women wailing the mourning song for all the souls lost to the occupying forces. The international photographers stuck their cameras in these women's faces, capturing on film the displayed agony of the nation grieving those who sacrificed for its creation. The men danced wildly in front of their compatriots, then took a quiet break in the street waiting for some signal to enter the graveyard. The foreign dignitaries stood appropriately solemn, waiting. The Timorese officials looked preocupied. The local crowd joked around in the typical Timorese off-handed way.

From the distance came a sudden pounding of drums, the beating of the nation's heart. The dignitaries stired, the international photographers clicked their photos of an indiferent crowd, used to foot-long lenses stuck in their faces, the sun beat down like it only can in a tropical climate on the equator. Listening to the rumble of the drums and the crowd, I wondered: who could doubt the independence of this nation, question whether they had won freedom and the right to govern themselves?

The coffin-bearing group proceeded into the cemetary, the dignitaries followed, the crowd held back for a moment, then poured into the mass of graves.

A mass of graves it is: there is hardly a patch of gound unclaimed by the headstone or capstone of someone's grave. Strewn facing all directions, aligned in rough lanes, mostly white cement decorated with fresh or plastic flowers, lies a crowded collection of small, family monuments to the departed. Pictures adorned many, proudly portaying young men in uniform. It was a challenge to walk from one end of the cemetary to another without stepping on graves, without trampling the many dried and faded flowers. I was trying to be respectful, not only of the place, but of the event today commemorated.

I was trying to watch the way the local people acted, what they did to commemorate lost friends and family, and was a little surprised to see many happy, smiling faces, to see young men and women joking in the sheltering shade of trees -- I even saw one young couple sitting quite near eachother, engaged in amorous conversation, something rarely seen in public here, even less expected in this place and time. Aside from the women wailing at the front of the procession, there was no open display of grief.

Toward the back of the cemetary is the grave of Gomez, the young man whose funeral train it was that was trapped in the cemetary by the Indonesian troops on that fateful day in 1991. It was toward this grave that everyone wandered, to pay their respect, to mark the occasion. His grave is simple, a white cement slab topped by a white cross bearing his name and the beginning and ending dates of his life. People respectfully waited their turn to place lighted candles or flowers on the grave. The heat was intense, and most people stood off to the side in the shade of a tree to mutter a few prayers. Two sisters came up leading a group of young students in prayer at the grave's side, and then they took turns placing flowers, touching the grave for a blessing, or lighting a candle.

Gomez was a young man of only 23 who died in a fight at the church of Moetel. Suspicious circumstances left many unanswered questions, and many people are sure Indonesian foul play caused his death. When the march from the place of his death to his grave ended in a slaughter, witnessed by several foreign journalists, it was the beginning of the awakening of the world to East Timor's plight. Tragedy on top of tragedy, and the world eventually listened.

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