A memorial at St John de Barito commemorates the victims of a massacre in 1999 (Photo by Siktus Harson)
Jose Nunes Seraun, 53, is easy-going and quick to smile, but he still finds it difficult to speak about his past.
Fifteen years ago, he survived the infamous Liquica massacre, suffering a horrific injury to his neck from the blow of a machete.
“I can still feel the pain all over my body. Every time I remember it, I shiver,” Seraun told ucanews.com, while showing the 10-inch scar ringing his neck.
On April 6, 1999, pro-Indonesian militia forces from the Besi Merah Putih (meaning “red and white iron”) surrounded the St John de Brito Church in the village of Liquica about 30 kilometers west of the capital Dili, where Seraun and others had taken refuge.
He was holding his three-year-old son — who also survived — when armed civilians, police and soldiers attacked with guns and machetes, killing as many as 200 people on the spot.
Seraun told his story to a group of journalists and rights activists last month and said that despite the painful memories, his ordeal would not end until those responsible for the massacre were brought to justice.
The UN Transitional Administration in East Timor began in 1999 to restore order and help the country transition to independence. It established the Serious Crimes Unit to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offenses, and the Liquica massacre became a principal focus of investigations.
In 2002, an Indonesian court sentenced Eurico Guterres — considered to be the primary suspect in the Liquica attack and other massacres — to 10 years in prison. He served only two years of his sentence before being released.
“I think it’s an indication that the governments of Timor-Leste and Indonesia are not serious about prosecuting such cases,” says Emilio Barreto, 45, who also suffered multiple injuries to his head and chest in the Liquica attack.
“Eurico was not the only bad man involved in the attack. There were a number of army and police mobile brigades firing guns at the people [in Liquica], but they have not been tried in court.
Barreto blames the government of Timor-Leste for prioritizing its political agenda over the implementation of recommendations by the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), established by the UN to report on human rights violations during Indonesia’s occupation. The commission’s term ended in 2005, after which it submitted a comprehensive report to the government.
More than 100,000 people died during the Indonesian occupation, out of which 18,600 were killed or disappeared and more than 84,000 died from hunger or disease from 1974-1999.
The commission urged the government to implement a program of reparations for victims, “including those who live in extreme poverty, or who due to misunderstandings are shunned or discriminated against by their communities”.
Jose Nunes Seraun shows the ten-inch scar that remains after he was struck by a machete during the Liquica massacre in 1999 (Photo by Thomas Ora)
Seraun and Barreto say they are helpless in seeking justice for past crimes but that the time has come for the government and parliament to fully implement the commission’s recommendations.
Sisto dos Santos, coordinator of advocacy programs at the Dili-based non-governmental organization HAK Foundation, agrees. He says reparations are meant to support the victims, but they cannot replace or eliminate the responsibility of perpetrators.
“The problem is that the government of Timor-Leste does not have the capacity or political will to address past crimes,” says Sisto, adding that the situation has worsened since the UN ended its supervision of the country in 2012.
Sisto says that under the leadership of Timor-Leste’s first president, Xanana Gusmão, the country was too concerned about the politics of reconciliation and improving relations with Indonesia and other nations.
“The fact that Timor-Leste is economically still dependent on Indonesia may be a reason not to make truth-finding a priority,” he says, adding that there seems to be an internal consensus among government leaders that the right time will eventually come for prosecutions but that there are more pressing needs in the meantime.
Carmelita Moniz, president of the parliament’s Commission A, which oversees political and human rights disputes, denies that the government lacks the political will to address past crimes. She says a draft law on reparations has been the subject of numerous debates since the commission was created in 2009.
“But the more we debate about it, the more we find it very discriminative and it disunites us [parliamentarians],” Moniz told ucanews.com.
She pointed to the issue of sexual abuse by Indonesian soldiers as an example. Moniz says such a law is problematic because it would have to specify the people who need to be helped.
“Raped women would suffer more, or their relatives would bear the burden if the government made public their true identities. So the commission has stopped debate on the law,” Moniz said, but added that the government remains committed to helping victims through coordination with government agencies and nonprofit organizations to establish assistance programs.
Muniz says that parliament is more likely to establish a memorial law that would see the building of memorials across the country to honor victims of wartime violence.
Parliamentary discussions are expected to begin next year to accelerate the memorial scheme, which would see victims’ names engraved at specific sites of past crimes, Muniz said.
President Taur Matan Ruak has also stated that the government sees no need for a reparations law and that the government does not have the financial resources to compensate all victims of atrocities, according to a local media report earlier this month.
Advocates for the rights of victims, however, say that such a law is vital for ensuring the government’s commitment to helping victims, but that in the meantime the most important thing they need is economic support and development.
“In our encounters with victims, we discovered that all they need at this time is an improvement in their economy,” says Manuela Leong Pareira, executive director of the Asosiasaun Chega Ba Ita (ACBIT), a human rights group founded in 2010.
To this end, ACBIT works with government agencies and the Ministry of Social Affairs on outreach programs that include the building of new homes, counseling services and grants for starting new businesses in 13 of the countries districts.
“We continue to discover new people in this category [victims suffering dire economic circumstances] in the districts that have never been documented. So we complete their data in order to get them government assistance,” Pareira said.
ACBIT also runs empowerment programs for young people, which include the creation of a curriculum based on the CAVR report called Chega for use in elementary and high schools.
“I would say that Chega [the commission report] is not only a recommendation for governments but a good source for teaching the younger generation so they can remember what happened in their country,” Pareira said.