Santa Cruz has become a major symbol of the violence of the Indonesian occupation that lasted almost a quarter of a century.
Portugal’s president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa visited the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, East Timor, on Thursday (May 19), the scene of the massacre of November 12, 1991, recalling that the images of that tragic event were a “spark” that awakened international consciences.
“Suddenly, certain events are a kind of spark that awaken consciences in Portugal and in the world. What happened was appalling. That people who had our solidarity but were very isolated at the level of great world powers, woke up public opinion, people from all over the world and the leaders of those people,” said Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
Accompanied by the Portuguese minister for foreign affairs, João Gomes Cravinho, and by the deputy speaker of parliament, Edite Estrela, the president made a point of crossing practically the entire cemetery to visit the grave of Sebastião Gomes.
The 18-year-old was killed in an attack on the Motael church in October 1991, and thousands of young people gathered in Santa Cruz for a funeral procession in his honour.
More than 200 people died that day and the following and the vast majority of bodies were never recovered, with Santa Cruz becoming a major symbol of the violence of the Indonesian occupation that lasted almost a quarter of a century.
“When we arrive here (…) we feel a very strong emotion because it is seeing the place where everything happened and we imagine how it must have happened and in dramatic conditions,” he said.
That moment (of the massacre), he considered, in which “religion, national identity, spirit of independence and freedom” are fused in the “search for a cemetery to make the last refuge against the invaders”.
“The Timorese resisted, resisted and won”
“All the Portuguese who are over 50, because this happened over 31 years ago, remember what happened here and what came to us the next day. To escape, a handful of Timorese had to take refuge in a cemetery, at the end of the end of the cemetery. The last, desperate cry for defence”, he said.
“One can understand well what the Timorese struggle was to get to where it got against all the odds, all the arguments, all the geopolitics, of the geographical location, of isolation in the world. Despite all that, the Timorese resisted, resisted and won“, he said.
The Portuguese head of state referred to the importance of the images taken by the journalist Max Stahl, considering that, without them, the process towards independence could have taken even longer.
“With what we know today of the Timorese people, we know that they would always reach independence, but how much longer would it have taken? Even then it was another eight years to the referendum, 11 to independence,” he said.
“What would it not take of resistance, deaths, sacrifices, prisons of domination over a very strong culture and national identity,” he stressed.
Prayers in Portuguese, the language of resistance
One of the most powerful moments in Stahl’s images, at least for Portugal, was the fact that survivors gathered in the small chapel of the cemetery and began to pray in Portuguese, the language that became the language of resistance.
“I remember it perfectly. It is a very identifying mixture, history, culture, national tradition and religion in the Portuguese language as a way to reject the language of the invader, the cultural imposition of the invader,” he considered.
Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa highlighted the “respect, admiration and courage” of the people of East Timor, stating that the support given by Portugal during the Indonesian occupation and since then may have served as some “redemption” of some aspects that “did not go well in the decolonisation process”.
“A kind of redemption, at least partial, of our country and our people when, understanding the mistakes made, it aligns itself with the Timorese people, without a doubt, without hesitation, it fights for the Timorese cause, perhaps the only cause that had the support of 100% of the Portuguese in so many years of democracy”, he considered.
In particular, he said, he helped convince the international community to act so that Indonesia would renounce “violating the Timorese people”.
“What was done in that period, in those 25 years, in the period of transition to independence and then in the support that followed, perhaps explains why the Timorese people have such a sweet, brotherly and, despite everything, grateful relationship with Portugal,” he said.
President Marcelo is in East Timor to attend the swearing-in ceremony of newly-elected president José Ramos Horta.