Subject: Timorese families saddened by fruitless mass grave hunt

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Timorese families saddened by fruitless mass grave hunt

Updated September 1, 2008 09:27:15

For the part six weeks, a group of forensic anthropologists from Australia and Argentina have been in East Timor searching for a mass grave allegedly used to bury hundreds of East Timorese killed by Indonesian troops in 1991. The process has unearthed the pain and frustration for victims' families who are desperate to lay their loved ones to rest once and for all.

Presenter: Stephanie March

Speakers: Gregorio Saldanha, former East Timorese youth leader; Soren Blau, Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine; Sancho Gonsalves, who lost his brother in massacre.

MARCH: Gregorio Saldanha was one of the youth leaders responsible for orgnaising the peaceful demonstration at Santa Cruz cemetery on the 12th of November 1991, protesting against the fatal shooting of a pro-independence supporter by the Indonesian military two weeks earlier.

SALDANHA: After the demonstration the Indonesian military made one massacre on us, so more of us was died in Santa Cruz.

MARCH: During the demonstration the Indonesian military opened fire on the crowd.

Victims groups estimate more than 100 people were killed.

Gregorio Saldanha lost dozens of friends on that day and he feels a certain desire and obligation to finally lay them to rest.

SALDANHA: Now we are free, we can move one place to other place because they spend their life for our liberation. So were are the responsible, especially me, I think responsible for me and friends, the survivor to look for them.

MARCH: He is now working together on behalf of the victims families with a team of forensic anthropologists from Australian and Argentina, to find the location of the mass graves where the bodies were dumped.

Soren Blau from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine says they have invested a lot of time talking to victims' families about what they should realistically expect from the project.

BLAU: So we have 17 years since the massacre so in this tropical environment the individuals would be fully skeletonised but there may also be issues of preservation so we talk clearly about even if we could find the remains there is still potential limitations about being able to identify their relatives, so it is always about not promising.

MARCH: After six weeks of excavation at one loacation at Tibar, a half hour drive from Dili, the team failed to uncover any evidence of a mass grave.

This particular site was chosen based on stories told by victims families, members of the Indonesian military, and the people living at Tibar.

Despite the disappointing result of the excavation, many of the victims families refuse to believe that there loved ones bodies' are not located there.

BLAU: There's a huge momentum that's been raised now and the families have taken it upon themselves to keep digging out there. It's a bit haphazard, so we are trying to ask them to talk with the police to record where they are digging and this has been going on for the last week and a half and to date they have found no evidence of any remains.

MARCH: The team explained to the families they can conclusively say soil formations and landscape show there has never been a mass grave at that particular site.

BLAU: But even in the seeing, seeing is our way of thinking, you know we sort of have to have proof. So for them there was an element of deeper deeper deeper and now they have taken it into their own hands and are digging these enormous craters.

MARCH: Gregorio Saldanha has tried in vain to explain to many of the families there is no point continuing to dig at the Tibar site.

One of those who refuses to give up hope is Sancho Gonsalves.

GONSALVES: My young brother, his name is Ulyssis Cipriano Gonsalves. He disappeared 12 November 1991.

MARCH: The victims families have been using their own money to pay for petrol for the tractor to continue digging - no easy feat in a country where the majority of people don't have a cash income.

GONSALVES: Because we got information from the people there because they believe the bodies are there so we don't want to stop the process, we want to continue to find them, so we use every effort to find so we still use tractor to find them.

MARCH: He says the families are frustrated by a lack of government support and funding for their cause, and while some families can afford to pay for the exploration, many can't.

GONSALVES: The other family they say 'why us?' after we already give our family to this struggle, but why we are finding again them? Why didn't the government or state didn't find? Why we give the money to find them? Why not the government? So some of them they upset with this process.

MARCH: Forensic anthropologist Soren Blau says until now there has been little political support to locate the bodies of those killed in 24 years of Indonesian occupation, but a recent visit to the excavation site by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao could change all that.

BLAU: There is frustration and sorrow but I think just that the process has been initiated is a positive thing I hope we can continue to build on.

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