Just weeks after Timor-Leste voted for independence, the town of Suai was visited by a gang of pro-Indonesian rule militiamen who slaughtered dozens of unarmed citizens hiding in a church. Steve Holland meets Manuel dos Santos who, 10 years later, is still waiting for justice--and for his abducted daughter to come home.
Manuel dos Santos is tired of waiting for justice. He just wants his daughter home.
It’s been ten years since Juliana dos Santos was abducted by the men who also killed Manuel’s son, Carlos. Since then, Juliana has been forced to live the life of a sex slave. She now resides across the border in Indonesian West Timor, not far from the remote town in Timor-Leste that was the site of her abduction and a massacre that saw dozens killed.
The date was September 6, 1999, just weeks after the people of East Timor had voted for independence from Indonesia. ’I'm waiting, waiting, waiting,’ Manuel says, as he sits on the dusty veranda outside his home, which is constructed from palm stems. ‘I’m frustrated. I’m waiting for the state to bring justice, but justice never comes. The state and the government never bring justice.’
It seems clear Manuel has been prodded into recollecting his story too many times for his own liking. But he reluctantly agrees to relive the day his family was taken away from him.
‘I went back to the forest. I was going to take my children and my wife, but I couldn’t because the situation with the militia was tight. So I left alone,’ he says. ’My children and my wife all stayed at the church. I went up to the top of the mountain and I heard on the radio communications that the people in the Suai Church and the priests and nuns had all died.’ Carlos and Juliana were Manuel’s only children. ’They took my wife over there for only a month and then she returned alone. My son and my daughter–she didn’t bring them back. My daughter, the militia kept over there.’
Juliana was 15 years-old at the time witnesses say Maternus Bere led the pro-Indonesian rule Laksaur Militia into the coastal town of Suai where it slaughtered as many as 200 unarmed civilians, many of whom were women and children hiding in a church. That’s where Bere’s deputy, Egidio Manek, is said to have found Juliana. He spared her life so he could force her to marry him, and she is now one of his numerous wives (he’s thought to have between three and seven). She is confined to a village in West Timor where she has given birth to three of his children.
Manuel lives on the Timor-Leste side of the border, in a modest house next door to his sister. His home is virtually empty aside from a few chairs and a table. In the main room, the centrepiece is a pin-up board, covered in faded photographs of his daughter and the grandchildren he barely knows. He can’t immediately recall how many grandchildren he has, but looking at the photos he says he has three. He says he can’t remember the last time he saw them.
He points to a photograph of his son, Carlos, as a teenager, which was taken before he was killed by the militia. He then points to a photo of a young, moustached man with a thick, black mane of hair. ’Me,’ he says, raising his eyebrows and giving a rare smile. It’s a photo of Manuel in the 1970s, a young man ready to sacrifice everything for his country’s independence.
Manuel keeps in contact with Juliana by telephone, but says he believes the calls are being monitored and that he cannot speak openly with his daughter. His faith in justice is waning, but he says he still hopes to be able to cross the border and meet with his daughter, even if she is accompanied by remnants of the Laksaur Militia.
Suai is a 30-minute drive from the Indonesian border and the close proximity to the homes of the militiamen who slaughtered hundreds of East Timorese lingers in the minds of Suai’s residents. Villagers suspect foreigners speaking Indonesian have links with militia or Indonesian spy agencies (indeed, some thought this reporter was a Kopassus agent working for the Indonesian army).