Subject: FC: A conversation amid last year’s violence haunted one UN observer

[Please note: Elwin was a UN-accredited observer with the International Federation for East Timor-Observer Project]

Florida Catholic 
Sept. 21, 2000

Haunting phone call A conversation with a priest amid last year’s violence haunted one U.N. observer.

Stephen Steele
DILI, East Timor

It was a conversation that lasted less than five minutes, but it would have haunted Elwin Wirkala of Shoreline, Wash., forever.

It was the evening of Sept. 5, 1999. Dili, East Timor’s capital, was under siege by militia forces following the announcement that the East Timorese had rejected Indonesian rule.

Wirkala, who was a U.N. observer for the referendum that determined East Timor’s fate, received a call from Father Leon da Costa, schools superintendent for the Dili Diocese. The diocesan offices were under attack and Father da Costa was calling the U.N. office looking for help.

“I told him, ‘I’m sorry father, there’s nothing we can do,’” Wirkala recalled.

Wirkala, a Portuguese professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, was evacuated from East Timor the next day, but was haunted by his brief exchange with the Timorese priest.

For the next year, Wirkala would wonder what happened to Father da Costa.

“He spoke in a dignified tone, very sorrowful but very dignified,” Wirkala told The Florida Catholic of his conversation with the priest.

The conversation was “all the adjectives — poignant, horrifying, heartbreaking,” Wirkala said.

“It was so unjust. Here was a very dignified churchman reporting what happened, hoping that he would get some international assistance, which he didn’t receive,” he said.

Wirkala returned to East Timor Aug. 25 for a pilgrimage of sorts. East Timor was commemorating the first year anniversary of the U.N.-sponsored referendum, and he wanted to be there to find out if the priest had survived.

He found Father da Costa Aug. 30 outside Dili’s Cathedral. The priest had concelebrated Mass with Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo of Dili on the anniversary of the referendum.

“I introduced myself and said, ‘Father, I’m the one who spoke to you Sept.5.’ He reassured me that he understood I did all I could and he said many people died that day,” he said.

Wirkala said he was relieved to find out that Father da Costa was all right, but was disappointed by the slow pace of the reconstruction of East Timor.

“There are so many houses burned out and absolutely nothing is going on. Whole neighborhoods have been wiped out and one year later, they still have not been replaced,” he said.

In a separate interview with The Florida Catholic, Father da Costa said he called the U.N. office and said, “Please save us.”

“I was told, ‘We can’t do anything,’ at that moment, I could not speak. All of us, nobody spoke. Nobody cried. We were too terrified,” the priest said.

Father da Costa said that several minutes after he hung up with Wirkala, militias stormed his second floor office and dragged him and another worker downstairs. The other man was hacked to death by machete on the front lawn of the diocesan office.

“He was killed in full view of his mother,” Father da Costa said. He said he saw 40 to 50 people killed at the diocesan office that day. Official estimates said 10 to 15 people were killed.

“I saw many, many people killed that day by guns and machetes. The militias had only machetes, while the Indonesian military had guns,” he said.

Father da Costa was taken to a nearby church. A friend told him there that he had been targeted for death by the militias. Concealing his identity, he escaped to Kupang in West Timor, and then flew to Macau. “If it was possible, all priests would have been killed. I am sure of that. They also wanted to kill Bishop Belo, but thank goodness, he survived,” Father da Costa said.

The church in East Timor and human rights groups estimate that about 300,000 people were killed or died of starvation and illness during Indonesia’s often brutal 24-year rule. East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and annexed the following year in a move never recognized by the United Nations or the Vatican.

Father da Costa said Wirkala was “very sad.”

“I told him I understood. The United Nations couldn’t do anything, it was too dangerous for them to help us,” he said.

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