This article was originally published on our friend, the Generation.
“…We had no sense that they were in imminent danger. After all, we reasoned, what place could be safer than a bishop’s house in a predominantly Catholic country?”1 These were the thoughts of UCLA’s own Geoffrey Robinson on September 5, 1999 when he served for the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) during their referendum. On that day, dozens of militia groups armed by the Indonesian government with machetes and handguns had attacked crowds of East Timorese who had sought refuge in the bishop’s home.2 Those perpetrators came to be distinguished by their red and white bandanas — an emblem for pro-Indonesian rule.
Just days prior, the UN had overseen a vote that resulted in East Timor’s independence from Indonesia, a country that had committed a genocide against them. Massacres took a new turn between January and October of 1999, which were the months leading up to and following East Timor’s vote for independence. Close to 2,000 civilians were publicly decapitated, hacked to death, or killed in other horrific ways.3 Among the many women and girls who were raped, a noticeable amount were members of the Catholic Church. By the time the violence ended, over four hundred thousand people had been displaced.4 Young East Timorese carried the burden of resistance against the Indonesian army and their local proxies for twenty-four years. They were innovative, adaptive, and above all, exceptionally brave.
Prior to 1999, East Timor was a half-island country in Southeast Asia that was colonized by the Portuguese for about 300 years, with a brief interruption by Japan during World War Two. Then, in 1975, neighboring Indonesia invaded East Timor and took control of the country, killing an estimated 20% of their population. Routine sexual exploitation, deliberate starvation, and massacres led to the United Nations declaring a genocide had occurred.
What caused this violence? It’s a good question that requires extensive political and historical thought. In 1975, Portugal relinquished its claim to East Timor, which created a vacuum of power that local political parties took advantage of. Chief among them was Fretilin, a social-democratic party that was heavily influenced by the 1960’s propagation of communism as a fix for colonial-induced violence and inequality.5Their leaders were also just barely in their twenties, which brought a sense of renewed energy and novelty to this movement. Their drive for self-determination compelled them to call for immediate independence.
Three hundred years of brutal colonial rule had finally come to an end. But tragically, that relief was short lived. Just one week following their declaration, President Suharto of Indonesia launched a mass invasion against East Timor, citing communist insurgents and economic instability as their main concerns. Supplementing Suharto’s desire to intervene was East Timor’s enticing oil and natural gas reserves. Remarkably, great powers sat back in silent acquiescence as civilians, nuns, priests, and children became subjected to immense torture that was justified by the Cold War head space of containing communism.
This all compounded in 1991 with the Santa Cruz massacre. Just a few weeks prior, eighteen year-old Sebastião Gomes convened with a group of resistance members outside of Dili’s Motael church, a place heavily monitored by Indonesian authorities. Gomes and his friends peacefully waved their pro-independence flags until the Indonesians began taunting them with the hopes of drawing them to a fight.6 As tensions grew, more provocateurs joined with automatic weapons, and a deadly confrontation ensued. Despite being unarmed, Gomes, who had just turned eighteen the month prior, risked his life for the possibility of ending decades of induced starvation, poverty, and nauseating acts of murder. Like many others that were far too young, his fight ultimately cost him his life, and his body was found near the church early the next morning.
About 1,500 people marched in protest at the Santa Cruz cemetery, where Gomes was buried. Most of their leaders were high school and university students, another reminder that those at the forefront of change in East Timor were incredibly young. They were joined en route by many others who were exhausted by the burgeoning disregard to Timorese life and the lack of foreign intervention. Among them were school children on their way to class. They began to display Fretilin flags and posters of the thirty-five year-old independence leader and future first president, Xanana Gusmão. Their chant, “Viva Timor Leste, Timor Leste…Timor Leste…,” was a merge of consciousness that sent waves of resistance throughout the crowd.7 Upon arriving at Santa Cruz, they were greeted by another 500 activists.8
The Indonesian army arrived at about 8 a.m. and began to fire into the crowds with automatic weapons. Many people sought safety inside the chapel during the course of the massacre. Twenty-six year old British journalist Max Stahl said the chapel was akin to “a 14th century scene of hell.”9 Amid the encircling militias, Stahl took out his video camera and began recording what he saw: teenagers running over one another in a frenzied escape while children fell to their knees in desperate prayer.
He was caught by the Indonesians, but managed to hide the film under a gravestone before they reached him. After retrieving it the next day, he handed it off to his friend who hid it under her dress as she flew from East Timor to Singapore, where the video was eventually aired.10 Stahl’s footage is the only video evidence in existence of this massacre; without his act of bearing witness, and without the incredible amount of bravery by those young East Timorese that day, the world would have remained naive to the atrocities that were ensuing.
Finally, the circumstances on the ground were so horrific that the United Nations had to intervene. In 1999, they orchestrated a referendum where the locals would vote for whether they wanted to be independent from Indonesia. In essence, this was the same as asking if they wanted to be free, or continue to live under the control of those who perpetrated a genocide against them. The foreseeable outcome was undeniable: the locals were certainly going to vote in favor of independence.
This sparked an uproar by the Indonesia army who recrutied and armed militia groups and police forces to target those suspected of voting in favor of the referendum. Just days before the vote, the local militia was setting on fire a neighborhood home, a taxi, and posters of Gusmão. They then started firing at the emerging crowds as pro-integration police officers stood by and watched. One of those officers told twenty-four year old university student Bernadino Joaquim Afonso Gutteres to stop “exciting the people” with his pleas for help. As Gutteres turned to run away from the Indonesians, the officer shot him in the neck, and he fell to his knees.11 Robinson was there in the aftermath, and said “it spoke volumes about the political situation in East Timor in the final days before the vote.”12
An Indonesian military officer had this to say: “We don’t regret anything. What happened was quite proper. They were opposing us, demonstrating, even yelling things against the government. To me, that is identical with rebellion.”13
Perhaps no other moment showed the most harmonious and wide-spread sense of heroism than on ballot day. Many East Timorese had walked miles during the night, dressed in their best clothing, just to arrive by the station’s opening time of 6:30 in the morning. UNAMET reported that about half of all registered voters were in line before the doors had even opened.15 And at the end of the day, a staggering 98.6% had voted (for reference, the closest America has ever gotten to that number was in 1876 when 81.8% of registered voters drew their vote).16 The result? 78.8% voted for independence.17
Contrary to predictions, virtually all registered voters had cast their ballot, without a disruption by any major act of violence.18 Even the most jaded UN personnel and police officers were moved by this colossal act of determination in the midst of such atrocities.
In the aftermath, however, the Indonesians did not respect the vote, and violence of the same nature proliferated. The UN compound in Dili, a former high school in which Robinson and his colleagues were relocated to, came under siege, effectively trapping 500 UN staff and 1,500 East Timorese refugees.19 A surprising decision was made unanimously by the UN Security Council to support an armed intervention and land representatives on the ground. Although long overdue, this, supplemented by unprecedented pressure by international forces, eventually put an end to the violence.
The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) took political and military control of the area. Elections were held in 2001, and a draft constitution was assembled and finished in 2002. On May 20 of that year, East Timor became formally independent, with resistant leader Xanana Gusmão elected as the country’s first president. Four months later, East Timor became a member of the United Nations.
When you first started reading this article, the cover image may have caught your eye. It’s actually more conducive to the story of Timorese resistance and resolve than its initial impression. I first saw it when I read Geoffrey Robinson’s book about East Timor’s referendum, “If you Leave Us Here, We Will Die.” When I asked him if that photo held any significance, seeing as East Timor’s history is heavily weighted with extraordinary acts by young people, even elementary schoolers, he replied that those children were playing in the remains of their home, which became one of thousands that were demolished by pro-Indonesian militias.
They reflect this incredible level of hope and perseverance amid devastation that seems almost inherent to East Timorese. Their youth shows that this has no boundaries.
What this story conveys is that the means of preventing or bringing an end to on-going genocides and humanitarian crises are not exclusive to the acts of major players. It wasn’t necessarily the work of the UN, great powers, or the Security Council that ended this genocide and war. But instead, it was the work of individuals and their incredible tenacity and repeated bravery that caught the world’s attention. They forced powerful leaders to land their feet on the very ground where so many East Timorese had died fighting for freedom. They captivated the world with their resistance, and they took advantage of small moments that allowed for their courage to run free. Today, some young East Timorese are remarkably sowing the seeds of reconciliation while bringing light to this seemingly unknown crime against humanity. While failures of prosecution, economic reconstruction, and a renewed sense of community continue, East Timorese are nonetheless proliferating this incredible message of determination in the face of what seemed to be a hopeless, sempiternal reality.
E N D N O T E S:
 Geoffrey Robinson. “If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die.” Princeton University Press, 2011. p. 162
 Ibid, p. 165
 Ibid, p. 1
 School of Humanities and Social Sciences Staff. Companion to East Timor – FRETILIN. The University of South Wales.
 School of Humanities and Social Sciences Staff. Companion to East Timor – Santa Cruz and the Aftermath. University of South Wales.
 Max Stahl, video footage of the Santa Cruz Massacre. 12 November, 1991 (3:11)
 Companion to East Timor – Santa Cruz and the Aftermath
 Mary Boland. Footage of a Massacre that Changed History of Timor-Leste. Dili Letter: Filmmaker Max Stahl’s Images Ensured an End to East Timor’s Long Isolation. The Irish Times. 10 November 2017.
 Geoffrey Robinson, p. 145
 Ibid, p. 144
 Geoffrey Robinson. History of Southeast Asia since 1815, 9 March 2020.
 Geoffrey Robinson, p. 153
 The American Presidency Project. Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections 1828 – 2012. University of California, Santa Barbara.
 Ibid, p. 156
 Ibid, p. 164