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Timor-Leste's bloody sunrise

  • 23 August 2019


'Even if I die, I am going out there to vote' — a Timorese friend told me of the determination of his 84 year old mother in the face of the intimidation by militia during August of 1999.

Long lines formed early at polling stations across Timor that Monday 30 August 1999. It should have been the brightest dawn of long delayed democracy. Instead it was a bloody sunrise. The vote's unmistakeable result opened the way for three unrelenting weeks of savage slaughter and destruction that only began to diminish with the arrival of Interfet, the peace keeping force. Then thousands of Indonesian soldiers withdrew and Timorese danced in the streets. Conservatively, 1400 are estimated to have died in those weeks, including two Jesuits, some diocesan priests and several Canossian sisters.

In the first week of September, as violence escalated across Timor, my fellow Jesuit Steve Curtin and I were in Damak, Nepal, visiting our teams working with Bhutanese refugees. Steve was the Asia Pacific Director of Jesuit Refugee Service, and I was then its International Director. We called Dili to speak with Jesuit Fr Karl Albrecht.

A German by birth, Karl spoke English with an Irish lilt because he had studied Philosophy in Milltown Park, Dublin. For many years a missionary in Indonesia, he took the name Karim Abie when he gained Indonesian citizenship. He was sent to Timor in the late 1980s, and witnessed the Santa Cruz massacre in November 1991. Karl's understanding of Indonesia's role and of the part that he could play in Timor dramatically changed at that moment.

For years he had been the JRS Director for Timor. That August and early September he was moving around fearlessly to defend and rescue people, challenging machete wielding militia and distributing food when the markets had closed. Karl told us of the mayhem in Dili and on the road to Ailieu. We were the ones to tell him of the killing in Suai on 6 September of Tarcissius Dewanto, a young Javanese Jesuit on his first mission, hardly six weeks after his ordination as a priest. That news had not yet reached Dili.

On 11 September at night, Karl was himself shot dead by an unknown intruder at the Jesuit house in Taibessi. No realistic investigation was ever possible, except to identify the bullet that killed him as Indonesian issue ordinance. Karl was then a couple of days short of celebrating 50 years