19 August 2009

Remains identified as Dili massacre victims

The Age Remains identified as Dili massacre victims Lindsay Murdoch, Darwin August 19, 2009 - VICTORIAN forensic experts have identified the remains of three victims killed in an Indonesian army massacre 18 years ago in East Timor.

Confirmation of the identities ends an agonising wait for the victims' families, who have been searching for their loved ones since Indonesian soldiers opened fire on East Timorese mourners in Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery on November 12, 1991.

It followed years of preliminary detective work into accounts of what happened to the victims and forensic investigation by a team of experts led by Dr Soren Blau, a forensic anthropologist at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine.

Up to 200 people are believed to have been killed during a funeral for a man killed by Indonesian soldiers.

But until Timorese investigators and the forensic team unearthed mass graves at Hera, 15 kilometres east of Dili in March, none of the bodies of the victims had been found.

Sixteen cadavers were exhumed and brought to Dili, where Dr Blau's team has identified three of them, confirming the rest were massacre victims.

Gregorio Saldana, a former East Timorese parliamentarian who was shot and injured during the massacre, is expected to announce the results of the project at a press conference in Dili tomorrow amid preparations for events across the country to mark the 10th anniversary of the August 30 referendum in which Timorese voted to breakaway from Indonesia.

Mr Saldana last year formed an organisation known as the 12 November Committee that gathered evidence from family members on the numbers of those killed in the massacre and the possible whereabouts of their bodies.

Dr Blau's team became involved when the Federal Government's AusAid provided funding as a humanitarian and training exercise, despite continuing sensitivities in Indonesia over the massacre, which provoked international outrage.

The Indonesian government initially claimed that only 19 people were killed. Later it put the figure at 50.

Mr Saldana's committee has a list of 74 confirmed deaths.

The massacre was a turning point in East Timor's struggle for independence. Video taken by British journalist Max Stahl showing young teenagers smeared in blood and praying for their lives shocked the world.

The discovery of the victims' remains came after methodical digging of other sites failed to find any victims.

The breakthrough came when a local gravedigger had testified that the army had forced him to bury the massacre victims in the local cemetery.

Dr Blau had enlisted Argentine forensic scientists and local police, health and mortuary workers to clear the sites of possible graves and dig for bodies.

She and her colleagues spent months preparing families of the ''disappeared'' victims for the reality of the search.
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