Subject: SMH: Timor's mass graves from Santa Cruz massacre to be excavated
The Sydney Morning Herald
Timor's mass graves to be excavated
February 18, 2008
ONE of East Timor's most bloody massacres is finally to be investigated by a team of Australian forensic scientists who plan to excavate a mass grave and identify up to 400 missing people.
TV footage of the slaughter of peaceful protesters by Indonesian troops at the Santa Cruz cemetery in 1991 was smuggled into Australia and flashed around a shocked world, providing the catalyst for the push towards independence for the embattled population.
Now comes the last act in the drama: the hastily buried remains of the dead will be exhumed and attempts made to identify them, in the hope of bringing closure to the hundreds of families still searching for their missing sons, husbands and fathers.
"More than anything, it's an humanitarian project," said the team's leader, the forensic anthropologist Dr Soren Blau, a week before her departure. "There are still a whole number of families who don't know the fate of their missing ones. By investigating the alleged grave site, and identifying any remains, we hope to be able to give closure to those families, which will hopefully help to heal communities of people, and the country as a whole."
Starting days after the bungled attacks on the country's President and Prime Minister which threatens to tip the country back into chaos, the project - funded by the Australian Government aid agency AusAID and with the co-operation of the Timorese Government - is likely to be a delicate one. But Dr Blau, 37, of the Centre for Human Identification at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, with a forensic dentist, a translator and two other forensic anthropologists from Argentina, says she hopes it will be a unifying project for the nation.
"We've held a number of meetings with the families of the missing and at each one, people got up in tears, still crying, 16 years on," Dr Blau said. "They said their sons walked out of home that day, and were never seen again.
"They don't know what happened to them, and need to know. They need to know if they died, and how. If we find their remains, at least their families will be able to take them home, bury them and have a place to grieve, and remember, and move on."
Estimates of the number of dead from that day on November 12, 1991, vary from 200 to 400.
Soldiers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in what was the first public showing in Dili of support for the resistance movement against Indonesian occupation, with banners depicting Xanana Gusmao, who later became the first president and is now the Prime Minister.
The bodies, said to have been loaded on to military trucks, and injured survivors taken from hospital, have never been found.
"The atrocity has huge significance for the Timorese in terms of the move towards independence," Dr Blau said. "Now, with eyewitnesses guiding us to the alleged mass grave, our primary aim is humanitarian, but we will be collecting evidence and what the Government does with that will be up to them."
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