Subject: Balibo Families Call on Rudd to Act Now

Also Truth to tell

The Canberra Times

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Balibo Families Call on PM to Act Now


Relatives of the Balibo Five have only just received formal government correspondence on the repatriation of the remains of the slain Australian journalists, despite Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's promise before the 2007 federal election to pursue the matter.

Shirley Shackleton, whose husband Greg Shackleton was among the five journalists killed when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, slammed the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for being slow to act.

''We finally got letters this week, but this has gone on for two years since they came into power. How would they know [what we want]? The never asked us,'' she told The Canberra Times.

Ms Shackleton called on Mr Rudd to be ''to be the prime minister we elected'' by helping to repatriate the remains. She said one of the last things her husband had told her was that, if he was jailed, to ''get me out''.

''He said to me, 'If I get put into a jail, Shirl, do everything to get me out sell the house'. That's been on my mind for 34 years: 'Get me out.' I believe that getting him out means he doesn't want to be in Indonesia either.''

The letters from the department had stated that until the relatives of the dead journalists agreed what should happen to the remains, the department was unable to act.

The issue has come to a head sparked by the release of Robert Connolly's new film Balibo, which premiered in Melbourne last night.

The film opened nearly two years after NSW deputy coroner Dorelle Pinch found the Balibo Five were deliberately killed by Indonesian troops to cover up the invasion.


The Age

Truth to tell

July 24, 2009

Twenty years after the death of her brother, one of five journalists killed in Balibo, East Timor, grandmother Maureen Tolfree began a painstaking search for the truth. Jo Chandler reports.

ONE day in 1998, British grandmother Maureen Tolfree walked into a Bristol police station in her neatest suit, and waited her turn at the counter to tell the policewoman on duty that she wanted to report the murder of two British citizens. One of them was her brother, Brian Peters. "He was killed in Balibo, in East Timor, 23 years ago."

A big sister might be your fiercest ally, or your most fearsome enemy. She might be both ­ ask anyone who has one. Maureen Tolfree is still the big sister of Brian Peters, though he is almost 34 years dead. Her brother is still 26 years old, still rendered in black-and-white, with the rough beard and rugged attitude of a bold '70s spirit.

The Channel Nine cameraman is forever one of the "Balibo five" ­ the Australian network news journalists slain as Indonesian forces secretly crossed the border into East Timor on October 16, 1975.

He should be 60 this year. Maureen, at 64, is unflinching, dogged ­ traits she by all accounts shared with her brother ­ but admits growing a bit weary. She is still asking who killed him, and who covered it up. Still smacking down any hint that newsman's bravado or foolhardiness might have sealed his fate.

"You make my brother and his colleagues look like idiots, and I'll have your guts for garters," she told the filmmaker who first approached her about turning events at Balibo into a movie. Brian was doing his job, and it was a risky one, she insists.

Over the past 15 years she has chased her brother's ghost from the London Foreign Office to the UN headquarters in New York to the tiny, dusty East Timorese village overlooking the Indonesian border where Peters died with Channel Nine colleague Malcolm Rennie, and the Channel Seven crew of Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart. She pursued his friends to Portugal and Sydney, and championed his cause in church-hall meetings from Belfast to Dili.

"I talked to anyone who would listen, telling the story of Brian and of East Timor." She held a lonely vigil outside Indonesian embassies with her "Toot for Timor" sign; bullied officials into handing over files and formed alliances with revolutionaries, truthseekers and stirrers. Her protectorate grew from brother Brian to embrace the people of East Timor.

She's had just about enough now, she says. She's in another lonely motel room, this time in Parkville, Melbourne, far from home on the eve of the release of the feature film Balibo. It's been, she says, one hell of a ride. It began in earnest in 1994. She was recovering from surgery when she tuned in to a BBC radio discussion about atrocities in East Timor, then unknown to her. "I didn't even know about the Dili massacre." The circumstances of her brother's mysterious death almost 20 years earlier gained new dimensions. The insight hit her so powerfully that the room spun.

To understand that moment, you must understand the childhood where Maureen and Brian Peters were blooded early in brutality. Their mother, she says, was a monster. "She would hold our heads under water … beat us with sticks, torture us." Brian, though younger, would stand up to their mother. They adored their dad, but he was an army man, away from home for long stretches. Undefended, the siblings clung to each other. "We used to sit on the steps and cry and say we were going to run away to Australia, to run away from our mum."

In the end, Maureen, aged 15 and the oldest of four, ordered her mother to go and not come back after another violent outburst terrorised her youngest brother. Thus, Maureen became carer to her three brothers ­ Brian, 11, David, 7, and Gary, 2. At 19, Brian announced "Sis, I'm going to Australia". He lied about his age, and in all likelihood fibbed about his experience. He'd been keen on photography since high school, spent a bit of time in the dark room at the local paper in Bristol, and somehow in Australia conjured this into work as a news cameraman.

ALMOST every week a letter packed with excited accounts of his job would come home to his dad, to Maureen ­ then married with children of her own ­ and to his younger brothers. The last one they received ­ but, it would emerge, not the last he wrote ­ arrived around September 1975. It told an extraordinary tale of Brian's visit to a place called East Timor ­ "we rushed to the globe to try to find it". He'd escaped fighting there in a fishing boat loaded up with women refugees. Also on board, Brian wrote, were his news chief, Gerald Stone, and the boss of the network, one Kerry Packer. Stone wrote, after Packer's death in 1995, that footage from the trip records him and Brian Peters sheltering behind oil drums, with gunfire in the background, and ­ barely audible ­ Packer's voice urging them to safety.

The next news of Brian came at nearly midnight on Saturday, October 18. Maureen was woken by the phone. It was Janine, Brian's former fiance, and she was in tears. "She told me Brian had gone back to East Timor." Then one of his managers from Channel Nine interrupted. There were four newsmen killed, one missing. It was two days before she heard from Gerald Stone that there was no hope. It would be a couple of weeks before it was official. There were great disparities in the accounts of what had happened, but they seemed to matter little given the bottom line. Brian and the others had died, she was told, in crossfire, in a skirmish in incomprehensible circumstances. Her dad had a heart attack. Maureen's hair fell out.

In February the next year, she clipped a story from a newspaper that said that "law and order has been restored in East Timor", and Indonesia would be pulling out by the end of the week. "I thought 'my God, it's just a stupid little war, and all these people killed'." With that, Maureen tried to draw a line and got on with the job of raising her children, grieving for Brian, but paying little heed to the place where he had died.

That was until the day of the BBC radio report, when she heard journalist John Pilger talking about his documentary Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy. He spoke of "genocide", which set her off. She called the BBC and left a message for Pilger. He phoned her straight back.

"People thought I was shocked at the discovery that Brian was murdered," says Maureen. "But it wasn't that. It was that I hadn't helped those people ­ I felt guilty." She tortured herself with the notion that had she asked more questions, made more fuss, history might have taken a different track. Maybe earlier exposure of the story of Balibo would have triggered something to short circuit the years of Indonesian occupation. "Perhaps it's naive to think I could have done something, but it makes me sick to my stomach what was done to those people. I told Pilger this is the beginning for me, I'm going to find the truth now ­ I knew I was going to go on this journey." The education of Maureen Tolfree had begun. She made contact with the other families. She made friends within the East Timorese diaspora. She hooked up with the network of agitators demanding exposure ­ lawyers, journalists and activists. She installed herself in the British Foreign Office and demanded access to files.

For years, strategic and political agendas had conspired to obscure events at Balibo. Serious questions loomed over Australia's diplomatic efforts and priorities. How much did the Australian government know about the October 16 attack, and could it have exerted pressure to stop the invasion? But gradually, the story was emerging.

Inquiries began, two headed by then chairman of the National Crime Authority, Tom Sherman, who would deliver Brian's last letter from Balibo more than 20 years after he wrote it. It was a photocopy ­ the original has never been sighted ­ which surfaced from some lost file. In the letter Brian wrote that he was hungry ­ there was little food in Balibo. He'd been sick from eating bad goat. "The last part of the letter was very disturbing. Obviously he was scared, he said they were being bombarded," Maureen says. "He wrote 'I'm wondering if I am brave enough to go out and film.' Obviously he was, because he was the first to go out and get shot." The picture of Brian's last hours became clearer when Australian journalist and East Timor specialist Jill Jolliffe sent Maureen a documentary recording the harrowing first-hand accounts of witnesses to her brother's murder. He had been executed in cold blood, they said. She took the documentary to the police station when she reported his murder. "Here's the evidence," she told the police. It made its way to Scotland Yard. Soon after, the UN was stirred to action. Finally, momentum was building. Two years later she was escorted to Balibo by the UN. Maureen found herself shaking hands with the Fretilin leader she knew had shaken Brian's hand in the same place, 25 years earlier, not long before his death. She felt him strongly.

Her next move was to report Brian's death to the NSW coroner, as her brother had been a resident in Sydney. Holding an inquest in NSW into the death of a British citizen in a foreign country was unprecedented. Five previous Australian inquiries and one UN-led investigation had shed little light and witnesses were dying. This was her last shot.

Following an explosive eight-week inquest, Deputy State Coroner Dorelle Pinch concluded on November 16, 2007 that Brian Peters and his colleagues were deliberately killed by Indonesian special force soldiers after surrendering.

"They were not armed; they were dressed in civilian clothes," the coroner said. "All of them at one time or another had their hands raised in the universally recognised gesture of surrender; they were not killed in the heat of battle; they were killed deliberately on orders given by the field commander, Captain Yunus Yosfiah." The deaths were a war crime, Pinch said, and would be referred to federal lawyers and police for prosecution. "When she said that they were murdered, it was like a veil coming off me," Maureen says. It was not justice, but it was recognition, and that was enough. "I cried every day for years for that lad and for all the Timorese. But I haven't cried once since the coroner gave her findings."

Jo Chandler is a senior writer. Balibo premieres at the Melbourne Film Festival tonight and is due for national release next month.

Back to July Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu