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Two decades after East Timor’s battle for independence, the smell of smoke in Suai is still vivid

The smell of smoke and decay remained thick in the air four weeks after pro-Indonesian militia stormed into the sleepy coastal town of Suai, barely a week after the East Timorese took to the polls to vote for independence on August 30, 1999.

The rampage was one of the bloodiest retaliation campaigns in the history of the country and, nearly a month later, the fallout could still be seen in the form of torched homes and abandoned food gardens.

The militias had herded thousands of women and children across the border into West Timor, burning houses and destroying any infrastructure in their path.

West Australian international observer and volunteer Murray Thornton had only escaped the massacre with his sister Colleen Thornton-Ward two days prior, on board a small regional plane bound for Dili.

More than 400 Abri army troops, celebrate their departure from Dili, before they are replaced by around the same number of BRIMOB police officers. June 5, 1999.

More than 400 Abri army troops, celebrate their departure from Dili, before they are replaced by around the same number of BRIMOB police officers. June 5, 1999.Credit:Jason South

The pair had spent several weeks in Suai as international observers, ensuring pro-Indonesia electioneers didn’t cross any line and the independence referendum was free and fair.

Four weeks after their rushed departure, and incapable of ignoring the need to help the East Timorese trapped in the militias’ campaign of terror, Murray had returned to Suai as part of a humanitarian aid convoy en route to the country’s south coast.

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The International Force of East Timor, a multinational peacemaking taskforce led by Australia, had only just landed in East Timor but in some towns, like Suai, it was almost too late.

The militias had been ruthless.

“We met up with some of the people that we knew in the first place when we were there as observers and the stories just numb you,” Murray said.

“The out-of-controlness of the whole thing, the smell that hangs over all the burnt buildings; the charcoal burning smell.”

On the morning of September 6, 1999, hundreds of bloodthirsty, machete-wielding militiamen gathered outside the town’s Ave Maria cathedral compound, where nearly 2000 refugees had huddled following a wave of violent attacks by pro-Indonesia gangs.

September 1999: A girl walks by a burning house in Dili, East Timor, two days before the arrival of Australian peacekeeping troops.

September 1999: A girl walks by a burning house in Dili, East Timor, two days before the arrival of Australian peacekeeping troops.Credit:AP

The outcome of the referendum was yet to be announced, but word that Indonesia had lost its battle for autonomy was spreading fast.

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Laksaur and Mahidi militias led by Indonesian Lieutenant-Colonel Herman Sedyono and Suai military commander Lieutenant Sugito jumped the fence and circled the church, armed with M16 rifles and hand grenades.

In a rampage that lasted for hours, the men slaughtered close to 100 civilians and three priests.

Witnesses said it was “war”.

After the killing spree was over, the soldiers piled up the mutilated corpses in front of the church and set them on fire.

Later that night, after survivors had fled to the mountains to hide, militias loaded the charred bodies onto the back of a truck and drove across the border into West Timor, where they buried them in a communal grave at Oeluli beach.

The only trace left of the massacre in Suai was scores of 7.62-millimetre shell casings, discarded shoes, bullet holes, and pools of blood.

An East Timorese child stares at a passing Australian soldier as peacekeepers and UN officials visited a refugee camp in Dare, East Timor, 21 September 1999.

An East Timorese child stares at a passing Australian soldier as peacekeepers and UN officials visited a refugee camp in Dare, East Timor, 21 September 1999. Credit:AFP

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In Dili, where the violence was starting to spread across the city, desperate Chinese, Timorese and Indonesians pushed their loved ones over the airport check-in counter, cash in hand, in a desperate bid to get them on the first plane out of the island.

Murray and Colleen were in a safe house in the city when they heard the news.

They couldn’t believe it. They had only met Father Hilario, the parish’s senior priest, a couple of weeks earlier during a moving reconciliation mass for both sides of the conflict.

Pro-Indonesia militia and independence supporters had marched together to the church grounds to be blessed by the priest and had handed over their weapons as a sign of respect for one another. Those same weapons would kill scores only few days later.

But after soldiers blocked off road access and water supply to the town, tension began to grow.

“Down to the markets, not much there,” Colleen wrote in her diary in August 22, a week before the independence vote.

“The water has not been turned on. Been off since 19th, no food can get through. Things are desperate. It is very difficult without transport.”

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Colleen Thornton-Ward travelled to East Timor with her brother Murray Thornton in 1999 as an international observer.

Colleen Thornton-Ward travelled to East Timor with her brother Murray Thornton in 1999 as an international observer. Credit:Marta Pascual Juanola

In the lead-up to September 6, Father Hilario looked depressed, like he had the weight of the conflict and constant death threats on his shoulders, Murray thought.

“Here’s a man that had committed to staying with his parishioners and protect them and he was getting all these threats from the militia but we didn’t believe that it would happen,” he said.

“We thought it was all propaganda. We read the situation wrong.”

When the militiamen stormed the religious complex, they knocked down the door to Father Hilario’s studio and sprayed the priest with automatic gunfire.

I get teary thinking about it, it was such an emotional time, to see people who are prepared to put their lives on the line for something they really believe in.

Colleen Thornton-Ward

Father Hilario collapsed in the churchyard where he had sheltered almost 2000 terrified refugees for months, his white clerical robes tainted red.

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“It was overwhelming knowing we had been there, seen the people and then knowing what had happened to them,” Colleen said.

Two decades later, she still gets teary reading the diary entries of the days in the lead-up to the massacre.

It was the pair’s second trip to East Timor, after a visit in 1995 to re-trace the steps their father Norman Thornton, a commander in the 2/2 Commando Squadron, who had fought off the Japanese on the island in World War II.

In 1942, he had been paired with a criado – an East Timorese ‘fixer’ by the name of Nicolau Gonzalves – who had kept him alive until they received help from Australia.

It was this debt of honour that brought the pair to East Timor in 1999 to volunteer as observers, and what would continue to draw them back to the island nearly every year for the next two decades.

Crowds give a riotous welcome to Australian troops as they enter the former militia stronghold of Maliana, East Timor on October 6, 1999.

Crowds give a riotous welcome to Australian troops as they enter the former militia stronghold of Maliana, East Timor on October 6, 1999.Credit:Jason South

This year, to mark the 20th anniversary of the August 30 independence vote, the siblings will retrace their steps in 1999 to attend a special mass in Suai.

Homes in the sleepy coastal town are no longer black, and no shells litter the grounds of the new Ave Maria cathedral.

The town is now linked to the rest of the country by an unfinished and ill-planned four-lane highway and a brand new international airport sees one plane a day land in the picturesque south coast.

Much has changed since the siblings first visited the town.

This time, when hundreds storm into Suai it will be to pay their respects to the victims of the massacre.

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