Santa Cruz Cemetery, Dili
An old cemetery in central Dili
, the capital city of East Timor
. It is of special significance to the country's dark 20th century history because of a massacre that took place here in November 1991.
More background info:
The pro-Indonesian militias and the army of Indonesia itself had already committed countless atrocities during their invasion and occupation of East Timor from 1975. The difference in 1991 was that this time Western journalists were present and were able to take video footage. The cameraman was a certain Max Stahl (see under Dili
His footage made it pretty much impossible to uphold the usual propaganda from the Indonesians that they were just reacting to troublemakers in an attempt to restore order or that they were only shooting in self-defence. Max Stahl's footage of the Santa Cruz massacres showed clearly enough that the protesters were peaceful and that the Indonesian Army opened fire unprovoked and proceeded with the killings in a systematic fashion.
Even though it was a political dent in the Indonesian propaganda standpoint it still took several more years, and many more atrocities, before real change came (see East Timor history
). Yet the Santa Cruz massacre was a turning point in terms of world recognition of what was really going on in East Timor.
The protests that allegedly sparked the shootings were accompanying a memorial procession for Sebastião Gomes, who only shortly before, on 28 October, had been shot dead by Indonesians after a clash with protesters at Motael church (see Dili
) in the wake of the cancellation of an international delegation visit. This had upped the hopes of the Timorese for international recognition of their plight and so the cancellation was a great disappointment. But still it sparked the largest protests against Indonesian rule in many years.
The procession that followed a memorial service for Gomes again at Motael church was attended by thousands. But by all accounts (other than the Indonesians') the demonstrators remained peaceful and non-violent, if vocal in their discontent. The only form of provocation was the raising of Timorese flags and pro-Fretilin banners.
As the procession arrived at the cemetery some made their way towards Gomes's fresh grave, many other protesters remained outside the cemetery wall (they wouldn't all have fitted into the cemetery's crammed alleyways anyway). Indonesian military had been watching all along. Then a new contingent appeared and began shooting. In panic, many people fled deep into the cemetery where soldiers kept shooting at them in pursuit. At least 250 Timorese protesters (and one foreign student activist) were shot dead that day, and at least as many were wounded. Amongst those in the cemetery were also two journalists, and Max Stahl as cameraman. The journalists were threatened and beaten up too. But still, they did manage to smuggle the video footage out afterwards.
It was then made into an award-winning documentary in Great Britain
which subsequently caused outrage around the world. One of the most enduring images of the footage later gave rise to the Santa Cruz Memorial Monument outside Motael church in Dili. It has generally become one of the icons of the Timorese struggle overall.
The political fallout for the Indonesians, however, was dire. Not only was there evidence out there now, the military propaganda made things even worse afterwards by trying to justify the massacre in a most clumsy way that was so unbelievable and callous that it made them clearly stand out as the guilty side. Internationally, the incident sparked widespread protests against Indonesian rule in East Timor, even though Western governments hardly changed their general support for Indonesia initially. It took years before that changed at the international political level too.
The Timorese paid bitterly in blood for it, but at least they finally gained some international support for their cause. Eventually, it also contributed to a rise in protests within Indonesia
against Suharto and his brutal regime.
The Santa Cruz massacre thus stands not only as one of the bloodiest single incidents in the Timorese struggle for independence, it is also the most celebrated single event in the commemoration of this dark period. 12 November is a public remembrance day in East Timor
What there is to see: the cemetery is still a regular graveyard that remains in use. There is very little at the cemetery itself that commemorates the events of 12 November 1991. But the grave of Sebastião Gomes is obviously a place of pilgrimage.
There are several other graves that bear Timorese flags, Fretelin/Falintil symbols and even images of machine guns, so there are clear signs that revolutionary heroism is celebrated here in some form.
Otherwise, Santa Cruz is just a very atmospheric, and, from my Western point of view, rather unusual cemetery. There are countless graves that are tiled in bright colours (this must be a Portuguese
influence!). Some are elaborately decorated. Many have photos of the deceased on them and you can spot many an intriguing detail.
Images can illustrate this better than words – so see the photos
in the south of Dili
, on Rua Santa Cruz, about a mile (1.5 km) south of the waterfront and the Government Palace.
Access and costs:
easy to get to from central Dili
Details: From within the city centre of Dili it is walkable, in about 15 minutes from the Government Palace and nearby hotels.
Time required: For just locating Sebastião Gomes's grave you won't need more than 5-10 minutes or so (if you know where to look – see map locators above – or have a guide), but the place is worthy of much further exploration. I think we looked around for at least 45 minutes here and could have spent longer (but it was part of a city tour and I didn't want to over-stretch our guide's patience).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Dili
– the most obvious combination has to be the Santa Cruz Massacre Memorial Monument outside Motael church to the west of Dili city centre. But the Timorese Resistance Archive & Museum
as well as the Chega! Exhibition
are must-sees in this connection too.
Closer by, namely right opposite Santa Cruz is another cemetery, but this is an Indonesian one and as such gets visited much more rarely these days. My guide was barely willing to even acknowledge its existence …
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Dili
- 01 - Santa Cruz cemetery, Dili
- 02 - grave of Sebastiao Gomes
- 03 - martyr of 1991
- 04 - more vestiges of the resistance
- 05 - Falintil and Timor flags with roses
- 06 - machine gun on a tombstone
- 07 - the cemetery is still in use
- 08 - tiled graves
- 09 - elaborate graves
- 10 - cross-carrying
- 11 - protective roof
- 12 - from the cradle to the grave
- 13 - apparently useless medicine
- 14 - holy-house-style tombstone
- 15 - castle-style tombstone
- 16 - gothic-cathedral-style tombstone
- 17 - angel
- 18 - fiddling angel
- 19 - old Portuguese dignitary grave
- 20 - looks like an artillery shell
- 21 - flowers with magnifying lens
- 22 - ossuary
- 23 - souvenir vendor in the cemetery
- 24 - Indonesian cemetery opposite