Subject: E.Timor: Victims' friends show brutal killers the quality of mercy

The Australian 13 October 99

Victims' friends show brutal killers the quality of mercy


TWO and a half weeks ago they were mourning their colleagues, brutally murdered by militia, but today the nuns of Fuiloro mission are protecting their friends' killers from a bloody revenge, as they confess to the crime.

It is early last week at the Catholic mission. In a small steamy room at the rear of the mission hospital, hunched, frightened and sweating, are 17 members of the Team Alpha militia.

The group is responsible for the destruction of dozens of small villages and the town of Los Palos and the deaths of possibly hundreds of people in the weeks after the August 30 referendum results were released.

They are about to detail their role in the slaughter of 12 people, including two nuns and three young seminarians, on September 25.

It is a tale of unbridled savagery and bloodletting, made worse by the irony that the murdered group were planning a mercy mission to aid the families of militia members.

"At first I was very sad, and I kept asking myself all day why would they do this when they know who we are, they know that we do not work for ourselves, but for the people, including them," says Sister Ermelinda da Silva, one of the six nuns who last week protected the militiamen from revenge attacks.

"But then I look at all that has happened in the past week, how we have been able to rescue the refugees from Come. It might not have happened if our friends had not died. Maybe this is God's will."

During several hours of interviews over two days, the Team Alpha members, aged between 19 and 45, cower at each knock at the door or noise outside the small window. For the militiamen to try to escape would mean certain death. Sister Ermelinda repeatedly calls outside for order and calm among the dozens of young men armed with machetes and itching for revenge.

Twenty-two-year-old Amelio da Costa sits with his back to the wall, barefoot, wearing scruffy jeans. A wide-mouthed cartoon Tasmanian Devil on skis crashes through the word "Attitude" stencilled on the front of his grey T-shirt.

There's nothing remotely amusing about the story he tells, the last minutes of the lives of 12 people, two nuns, three young seminarians due to be ordained this month, an Indonesian journalist, two lay church workers and a pair of teenage boys who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is September 25, somewhere about 3.30pm, when a grey Kijang -- a popular model of multi-purpose vehicle in East Timor -- carrying eight people rounds a bend 1km west of the hamlet of Lautem. The road is blocked by trees and rocks, forcing the vehicle to stop. Moments later, shots ring out.

"The driver was the first to be killed and then the sister sitting in the front seat beside him was shot at," recalls da Costa who, with a dozen other militiamen, including his brother, Paulo, laid the roadblock and hid themselves and their mini-bus from view.

"The sister did not die, so someone pulled her out on the ground and started to hit her with a machete and knives. The other people in the car were very afraid and started to run out of the car and they were killed one by one."

He remembers there were no screams or cries as the group tried to flee.

Six militiamen he says were armed with SKS assault rifles, open fire into the fleeing passengers.

Indonesian journalist Agus Mulyawan tries to reason with the militiamen.

"The journalist put his hands up and said 'I am an Indonesian journalist', but he was shot," says da Costa, who claims not to have participated in the killings and to have been ignorant of the plan to kill the clerics. The carnage continues for several minutes as each of the survivors is hunted down and killed; shot or hacked with machetes.

Finally there is only one survivor: 69-year-old Italian-born Sister Erminia Cazzaniga, who had served in East Timor for more than 30 years.

"I don't think she was shot," da Costa says. "But she was slashed on the side, her back and legs.

"I was very afraid. Three men took her down to the river. I saw her hands in the air and she was praying. Then the men all shot her."

The occupants of the vehicle now dead, there remains one more item to deal with: a lone witness, a teenage boy they have tied to a tree.

As the Team Alpha minibus, driven by Paulo da Costa, had made its way to the site where the ambush was to be laid, they had chanced upon two teenage boys wheeling two 50kg bags of rice along the highway in a wooden cart. "When they saw us they ran, one down the road and the other into the river. We tried to shoot him, but missed," Amelio da Costa says. "We ran into the water and chased him through the woods. My brother (Paulo) caught him. He was shot. I cannot say how many times. The other boy was captured and tied to a tree."

The slaughter of the clerics complete, the militiamen now turned their attention to this surviving teenager.

A man identified as Horatio cuts off one of his ears before repeatedly hitting him with a machete.

Although gravely injured, the boy is not dead when the men throw him into the river. To ensure his death, they throw a grenade in after him.

Back at the road, the bodies of the dead are loaded into the vehicle, which is pushed into the river, where it remains today, only its roof visible, tethered to a tree by a length of black rope. On the other side of the road, about 50m away, the tree where the teenage boy was held captive bears out the truth of da Costa's tale: marks of numerous strikes, about chest high, from a machete.

The room at Fuiloro mission is deathly quiet now. Amelio da Costa turned himself over to the Falintil on October 2. His brother, who caught the boy running through the woods, was shot in the forearm by Falintil during a major gun battle in Lautem on September 27. After several days hiding, he surrendered and was treated at the hospital in Los Palos before being transported by Interfet troops to Baukau on October 1.

During an interview at the Baukau hospital, Paulo da Costa denied any involvement in the Lautem killings. He claimed his injuries were caused during a car accident, a suggestion a Western doctor who treated him called "a joke".

"He has a bullet wound in his arm that is very distinctive," the doctor said. "From the injury, we know he was carrying a gun and that it was raised in a position to be fired. I have seen this injury before."

In separate interviews, the da Costa brothers and fellow Team Alpha militia members, 23-year-old Benedito Miranda and Jose Valente, all identified the same people as the leaders of the Team Alpha cell that ambushed the Kijang: Joao (Johnny) Marques, Manuel da Costa, Joao Lemorai and a man named Horatio.

Amelio da Costa said he buried Horatio after the battle at Lautem along with six other militiamen. The whereabouts of the other men are not known, although Falintil in the Los Palos area say that Marques has said he is prepared to surrender.

All 17 men from the Fuiloro mission have been transferred to a central containment area in Dili along with dozens of other militiamen.

The Team Alpha members have asked to remain in custody beyond the maximum 96 hours that Interfet is allowed to detain them, Interfet commander Major-General Peter Cosgrove revealed last Wednesday.

"I cannot say that I want revenge against these men, the men who committed this horrible crime," the Bishop of Baukau, Basilio Do Nacimiento, said during a recent interview in his study. "But, I keep thinking to myself, why, why, why do this thing? These are good people. Why kill them?"

The militiamen interviewed for this article offered no answers to this question, but after 15 years in East Timor, Fuiloro mission's Father Joseph Vattapurranbil feels he's qualified to point the finger at the true culprits.

"The Indonesian army is responsible for this," he says. "We know a number of those boys (militiamen). They are poor, illiterate people from small villages who were promised money, new homes and a good job if the militias won."

The coral surrounding the eight fresh graves at the Fuiloro mission is blinding white in the afternoon sun. The heat quickly dries out the flowers that are replaced every day from clippings taken from nearby bushes.

The five clergy members' graves are marked by crosses and a small wooden plaque with their first names: Erminia, Celeste, Fernando, Jacinto and Valerio. Agus Mulyawan's cross reads, "Wartawan, R.I.", meaning Journalist, Republic Indonesia.

Nineteen-year-old Titi Sandora, a nurse from Los Palos, is buried here, as is a man in his early 20s named Rudy, who lived in Baukau. The remains of the two teenagers were recovered by their families and buried.

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