It was Independence Day when we visited Santa Cruz cemetery; the streets surrounding it were quiet, save for the odd scooter and four wheel drive. Even the omnipresent Microlets, public vans festooned in paint and ornamentation, were few and far between.
As the heat and humidity bore down on us, we circled the block to reach the main gates of the graveyard. Eerily peaceful and deserted that day, sixteen years before this was where one of the most well-publicised acts of violence occurred during the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste, the Santa Cruz Massacre.
In 1991 an impending delegation of journalists, Portuguese politicians and UN representatives was cancelled in the October of that year, due to the Indonesian Government’s objection to what it saw as some of the journalists' support of the pro-independence Fretilin movement. In the month that followed tensions simmered and boiled.
A memorial followed on the 12th November, honouring activists on the sides for both independence and integration, Sebastião Gomes and Afonso Henriques, who died at the hands of Indonesian troops in the last days of the previous month. During the memorial march from Motael Church by Dili’s shore to Santa Cruz, patriotic flags and banners were unfurled, and all accounts describe the peaceful nature of the orderly protest march. That was not to continue, and chaos began unfolding between protestors, police and Indonesian troops as the latter used undue force, beating many in the crowd according to eyewitnesses.
By the time the march had reached Santa Cruz, 200 more Indonesian soldiers had arrived and advanced on the group of East Timorese inside the cemetery. They opened fire on the civilians, who numbered in the hundreds. Over 250 were gunned down and killed amongst the graves. Although the Indonesians tried to justified the bloodshed and attribute it to a misunderstanding, the true nature of the massacre was captured by cameraman Max Stahl, and his footage was smuggled out through Australia to the United Kingdom.
The graves of Santa Cruz are packed in cheek to jowl, and finding your way through the cemetery is a tentative, careful process - made heavier by the weight of history. We were alone but for an old man carefully tending to a grave nearby; a woman and child passed us, her hands wrapped around the legs of two recently killed chickens. We greet them and move deeper into Santa Cruz.
The many epitaphs quietly convey the tragedy and hardship suffered by the people of Timor-Leste during the past decades. The vast majority of the cemetery’s inhabitants lost their lives during the occupation, and the circumstances surrounding each death are protected by the body resting beneath the surface and the family they left behind.
Scattered throughout the larger monuments are the tiny headstones and jarringly small plots that belong to the many infants and children who lived to see but a handful of days.
Each grave is lovingly maintained, kept company by Catholic iconography and candles. The wilting petals of fresh flowers surrender to the harsh sun, their transient nature offset by the resilient cheerfulness of artificial flowers. Unlike the dour, sombre hues I’m familiar with back home, colour is everywhere; licks of pastel paint bloom throughout the cemetery, in the same hues found throughout Dili, and in their quiet optimism communicating the hope and peace that marks Timor-Leste today.