Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Faith, Hope and Justice

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.’

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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).

A few months ago, Maternus Bere again crossed the border into Timor-Leste and headed to Suai. It’s not clear why he returned to the town where the massacre he is blamed for took place, but it’s thought he was visiting friends and family.

One local villager was incensed enough by Bere’s return to lead an attack on him. Police arrived, apprehended the former militia leader and took him to the local police station before transferring him to Becora Prison, in Dili, on the other side of the island, to await trial for crimes against humanity.

But Bere’s incarceration was short-lived. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao intervened after the Indonesian foreign minister threatened to boycott an Independence celebration in Dili unless Bere was freed.

‘I then turned to the minister of justice and told her to release Maternus from the Becora jail. The minister reminded me that she could only order such release with an authorisation by the court,’ Prime Minister Gusmao told parliament.

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‘I ordered the minister of justice have Maternus Bere transferred from the Becora prison to the Indonesian Embassy…In view of her refusal, I said “if you don’t do it, I’ll go there and get him myself.”’

The Prime Minister’s role in Bere’s release appears to breach the country’s judicial process, violating the country’s separation of powers.

The circumstances surrounding Bere’s release are being investigated by Timor-Leste’s ombudsman and the country’s highest legal bodies, the Office of the Prosecutor General and the Superior Council of the Judiciary.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Claudio de Jesus Ximenes has pointed to a breach of the separation of powers outlined in the Constitution, noting Bere’s release was not approved by the court.

‘In a democratic state under the rule of law we all have to obey the law,’ he has said.

The Superior Council of the Judiciary has the power to convict anyone found guilty of bypassing the judicial process–a crime that carries a penalty of between two and six years in prison.

Prime Minister Gusmao admitted to parliament he had a political motive for intervening in Bere’s release and said ‘I’m ready to be put in jail [if found guilty by a court]’.

When Bere was handed over to the Indonesian Embassy, many in Timor-Leste feared he would soon be allowed to return to his home in West Timor, concerns that proved well-founded. Less than two months after his arrest in Suai, Bere was back in Indonesia–a free man and wanted felon.

President Jose Ramos Horta stands united with Prime Minister Gusmao in favouring forgiveness over justice. He says the people of his country want to move on and forget the past. The president believes such a course will also ensure friendly relations with Indonesia.

‘A Great Evil Took Hold of Them…’

Sister Elsa Fernandes also favours forgiveness over retribution. She walks around the Suai Church compound. Beneath her feet, under the dry sandy ground, are the bones of the women and children killed a decade ago by the Laksaur Militia.

In the days before the killings, as word spread of brewing retribution by pro-Indonesian supporters, East Timorese flocked from surrounding villages for protection in the House of God. Sister Elsa says both her and the priests told the villagers to go to the mountains–that they were not safe in the church. But the people’s faith and fear kept them there.

However, Sister Elsa was right. The militia showed no mercy. They arrived at the church in the early afternoon and Indonesian Jesuit Priest, Father Tarcisius Dewanto, ordained just weeks earlier, went outside to meet the militia. They sprayed the 34-year-old priest’s body with bullets. He was the first of three priests killed that day, one of whom was decapitated.

When the militia entered the church, Sister Elsa says ‘great evil took hold of them’. When they left, ‘a river of blood flowed from the church’.

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‘They had been praying in the church. Everybody was inside praying and then the militia opened the door,’ she says. ‘They banged on the door, and the door just opened. They started to kill all the people around…The militia said “this is your present for independence.”’

Survivors say the massacre was not confined to the church. Those who fled to another building, an unfinished cathedral in the church grounds, were pushed to their deaths from rafters they had climbed into to escape their attackers.

Armed with simple tools, builders now work to repair the church on the hill overlooking the town of Suai, home to about 20,000 people. In the searing heat, the men labour in bursts, sifting dirt to make concrete, hoisting huge rollers above their heads to paint the high roof. The church and most of the buildings within the compound were almost completely destroyed by fire during the militia’s attack and the decade of deep poverty that followed independence has hindered repairs.

Sister Elsa hoped the reconstruction of the building would be complete in time for the country’s 10-year independence vote celebrations, but the anniversary came and went, and the Church is still not ready for worship. Clasping her hands together, she says ‘next year, we hope for next year.’

Far from Suai, on the other side of the island, behind the walls and razor wire of the United Nations compound in Dili, Louis Gentile, the UN’s Human Rights Representative in Tinor-Leste, also wants justice.

He voices his concerns about Bere’s release and says his freedom has implications that reach far beyond Suai and Timor-Leste.

‘Why do we care so much? Because the whole effort is to deter these crimes in the future, to try and make sure people who perpetrate these crimes, especially those who are involved at a more senior level, are brought to justice,’ he says.

‘And if they aren’t, we know the cycle will continue around the world and that these kinds of violations continue–that the international community is still not able to stop many of these things even when they are ongoing. And that’s a failure of the whole international community.’

Bere, a school teacher before East Timorese voted for independence, is said to have gotten along well with his students. He was a strong supporter of Indonesian rule and it’s believed he was greatly angered by the annexation of East Timor. The half island nation had already voted for independence when he allegedly led his militia across the border. The attack on Suai was brutal revenge.

In 2003 the UN’s Serious Crimes Unit indicted Bere, along with 13 other of the militia, with crimes against humanity of murder, extermination, enforced disappearance, torture, inhumane acts, rape, deportation and persecution. But Bere is yet to stand trial.

‘It’s very sad, and these people have waited 10 years,’ Gentile says.

‘They were beginning to give up there would be any justice at all and they managed to be in a situation when one of the alleged perpetrators of the Suai Massacre was within the hands of authorities. There was the possibility of fair trial.’

The return of Bere to Indonesia all but obliterates the possibility of a fair trial in Timor-Leste. Hundreds of people accused of war crimes there live freely in Indonesia.

‘If there isn’t going to be justice in Timor-Leste, if there isn’t going to be justice in Indonesia, then an international option has to be considered,’ Gentile says.

The establishment of an international tribunal to hear the case against Bere is one of the last resorts for those who stress the importance of justice for the Laksaur Militia’s victims and the country.

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Charlie Sheiner, of Timor-Leste monitoring organisation Lao Hamutuk, agrees with Gentile’s view on the necessity of justice and supports the idea of an international tribunal to bring to account those responsible for atrocities before and after independence.

Sheiner says the ramifications of the lack of justice are evident in the country’s recent history and believes a crisis that emerged in 2006 resulted from a culture of lawlessness.

‘I think it’s very clear. In 2006, there was what everyone here calls “The Crisis”…There were conflicts between the police and military, there were 37 killings before the Australian military came in here and another almost 200 afterwards, which nobody seems to want to remember,’ Sheiner says.

He says many in Timor-Leste don’t have an understanding of justice, or confidence in the country’s justice system, because they haven’t seen it implemented and enforced by authorities.

‘The result of that lack of confidence is that people feel that they can commit crimes with impunity and that people who are victims of crimes feel that they are not going to get justice through the established systems so they have to do it themselves.

‘And this is what people in Suai say now. If you talk to the people in Suai now, they say “the next time a militia leader comes across the border we’re going to kill him…We’re not going to wait for the police and courts to do their process because they are not going to do it,”’ Sheiner says.

‘And that’s not encouraging to those of us who would hope this country can evolve into a peaceful democracy.’

On August 30, East Timor commemorated the 10th anniversary of its independence vote. At least 100,000 people died from fighting, hunger and illness–in excess of what would normally be expected in peacetime–during Indonesia’s 25-year rule.

The former Portuguese colony is still learning to stand on its own feet. But although it relies heavily on international aid, with its vast oil and gas reserves, the half island nation–one of the world’s poorest–has the potential to become prosperous.

Yet the country’s politicians, many of whom are former guerrilla fighters, seem unable to forget the ways of the jungle and demonstrate a respect and understanding for the democratic values they swore to uphold.

A vote of no confidence was tabled in parliament against Prime Minister Gusmao following his hand in Bere’s release, but the Fretilin Opposition’s motion was defeated.

Timor-Leste MP Fernanda Borges served as Fretilin’s finance minister when the party was last in government. She quit the party, believing there was corruption within the administration.

Although she is no longer directly aligned to Fretilin, she backed its push for a no-confidence vote. Borges now leads her own party, the National Unity Party or PUN, and often spends her time away from work driving to rural areas to try and keep in touch with the people.

‘The people have the desire for it [justice], and they aren’t at peace because they haven’t got it,’ she said. ‘It [the Maternus Bere case] has brought a sense of fear in the people that they can’t trust the security sector or the judiciary because it’s tainted by political decisions.’

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Borges believes there’s more behind the desire of Timor-Leste’s leaders to see accused war criminals escape justice than just the supposed desire for forgiveness.

‘I think our political leaders are more concerned about themselves, their personal dilemmas, because they were involved in the resistance. I have to ask them, and I have been asking: what is it that you are afraid of?

‘Because unless there’s something you’re afraid of yourselves, justice for crimes against humanity is something that every human being would want, particularly those that fought this war, that claim to have fought this war,’ she says.

There’s a reluctance to speak of the town’s brutal history, and perhaps the politicians who say it’s time to forget the past and move on are right when they claim to act on behalf of the people.

Yet Timor-Leste is a land of divisions and contradictions, and the actions of the young man who beat Bere when he returned to Suai tell another story. Bere has not been forgotten by everyone, and for some victims justice might be necessary for closure. For Manuel and others, though, the wait for such justice continues.