Getting to Dili

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Tuesday, 4 October 2005 – edited 2016

Frenetic writing during the previous month, last minute cleaning up in the first light of morning and remembering to turn off the hot water system dissipated as I emersed myself in unnecessary anxiety as to when the cab would turn up to take me to Brisbane airport. The taxi arrived early and soon I was enjoying a last fag on the footpath outside the terminal. Finally it seemed real that I was heading to Darwin en route for East Timor early the following day. My partner, Penny, was flying in from her home in Sydney and we were to have three weeks together. We had gone to some lengths to ensure we were to travel on the same flight to Darwin.

I was edging my way forward towards the booking counter, when Penny tapped me on the shoulder, saying, “You won’t believe this but I’ve got to go back to Sydney”. On the flight from Sydney, Penny had been reading her Lonely Planet Guide to East Timor and had discovered that before you can get a 30-day visa you must have a valid passport which does not expire for more than six months. Her Australian passport had only four months to run. She had a British passport which she had left in Sydney. As we parted she said, “I’ll see you at the Fannie Bay Motel which I’ve booked by email”.

At Darwin airport I inquired at the information counter for directions to the Fannie Bay Motel only to be told there was no hotel or motel of that name. I had lived in Darwin for 15 years between 1965 and 1985 and had revisited it several times since. I knew the old Fannie Bay Hotel had been wiped out in Cyclone Tracy but I knew the suburb where we were to stay and headed off to locate the motel Penny had booked.
After several unsuccessful attempts to find the right one I eventually managed to reach Penny on the phone at her home and she found her records which gave me the street address of the motel. The website name is different to the one on the building and in the phone book. Yes, they did have a booking for us – so I checked in. Then I headed off to the outer Darwin rural area to drop off some gear with an old mate, Robert Wesley-Smith, with whom I would be staying for a month after the two-week sojourn in Timor.

Upon returning to the motel I settled down with a few beers to await Penny’s arrival on the 11 o’clock flight. She had an hour’s wait for a cab because there was an American warship in town and the time the sailors had to be back on board coincided with her aircraft arrival time.

The ringing of the alarm at 4.15am next day, though necessary if we were to catch the flight, hardly added to our sense of enjoyment. The choice was between instant coffee or abstinence, we chose the latter. A quick shower and we were on our way. The Air North ground staff would not allow Penny to take her small backpack into the cabin. She grabbed her camera out of the backpack and then watched it disappear with her suitcase down the baggage escalator. About ten minutes later she realised that she had left $500 in the backpack but no name or address information.

The one and a half hour flight from Darwin was uneventful. The first high point was the arrival of a packet of potato crisps and a drink. I was excited to see the south coast of East Timor. The last time I had seen it was in 1992 from the deck of the Lusitania Expresso, the international peace ship which had travelled from Portugal in the wake of the Dili massacre. We had intended to lay a wreath of flowers at the Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili. Indonesian warships, aircraft and helicopters turned the ship around at the 12-mile limit.

Flying over the tall mountains of East Timor with their deep ravines and dry river beds is impressive in anyone’s language. From the aircraft windows we could see Mount Ramelau, the highest peak in East Timor. The Timorese say that first rays of sun shine on Ramelau before touching any other part of East Timor. On clear nights, the lights of Darwin are said to be visible from the top of the mountain.

Soon we were on the tarmac and making our way to pay the $30 fee for our visas. The temporary building where visitors go for visas had dangerous broken steps which drives the message home that this was a poor country with much yet to be done. Most of the luggage came off, then a second lot which had my bags. I assured Penny hers would arrive shortly – they didn’t and customs ushered us out of the luggage area. Penny eventually convinced the airline to hand over her luggage. Up to this point it seemed that this was the trip from hell.

A Timorese cab driver had stayed with me while Penny was luggage-hunting and soon we were on our way to the Hotel Turisimo where we booked into an air-conditioned room overlooking the water. Turisimo survived the Indonesian military and militia rampage which occurred in the aftermath of the 1999 independence referendum. This was in no small part due to the negotiation skills of Joao the gardener who has been with the hotel for 35 years and still works there. There has been some building construction but the ambience of the place seems little changed since I was there in 1974.

On the drive from the airport there was less evidence of destruction than I had expected but after a day or so wandering around Dili the signs of the devastation inflicted by the Indonesian TNI and the militias are still quite evident. Even in central Dili, burnt-out buildings lie abandoned and the footpaths are a hazard because military vehicles have crushed sewer covers and ripped up sections of the pavements. People in wheelchairs are safer taking their chances on the streets and they do.

I had a sense of there being some unfinished business from 1992, and we took a taxi to Santa Cruz Cemetery where I hoped to find the grave of Sebastian Gomes, the young man who had been taken by Indonesian soldiers from the church at Motael where he and other students had sought sanctuary. He was subsequently murdered by Indonesian security forces. It was his funeral which had brought all the young people to Santa Cruz Cemetery on the day of the Dili massacre. Over 500 people were killed by the Indonesian m
litary at the cemetery over the following two days.

Penny and I had inquired at Xanana Gusmao Reading Room about how to find Sebastian’s grave – the young man we spoke with there assured us it was not far from the shrine. When we got to Santa Cruz Cemetery we found that it is jam-packed with graves of all sizes and descriptions; some are quite elaborate, many have been constructed by family members with materials available to them, rather than by tradesmen. Some graves were unmarked and some were family plots. Some had flowers on top of them from recent visits and several Timorese families were tending graves.

We proceeded down past the shrine along the most easily accessible path, past workmen doing repairs to some of the graves and clearing up around them.

sabastio-gomes-santa-cruz-cemetaryDown towards the back of the cemetery I looked over to my right to see a simple cross painted white with Sebastian Gomes’ name in black and a record of the date of his death. In the early morning sunshine it was like a beacon. We made our way over to his grave, trying to walk along the borders of other graves. I was surprised how overwhelmed I felt. I recalled much of the film footage I’d seen of the massacre and thought about all the people who had died. I was thinking of the mayhem which would have occurred as people tried to flee the soldiers, and remembering the disappointment we felt on the Lusitania Expresso when Shirley Shackleton cast the wreath from the stern of our retreating peace ship which we’d intended to lay at Santa Cruz. I was thinking about the 300,000 East Timorese who died in the struggle for independence from Indonesia.

As I stood there staring at the grave I was thinking just how impotent repression is in the long run. The Indonesian navy might have been able to turn around an international peace mission at gun point, yet I was standing in Santa Cruz Cemetery some 13 years later, and East Timor was free. I thought of many of the others who had been on the Lusitania Expresso who had been here before me and some who will come later. I remembered others, and Jack Broadman, who was run over and killed as he left a Free East Timor rally, who wouldn’t make it back.