Santa Cruz – 30 years on

November 12, 2021 marks the 30th Anniversary of the Dili Massacre


Timorese people commemorate the anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre.
Many mourners carry photographs of loved ones who died or disappeared. UNMIT Photo/Martine Perret

A delegation from the Portuguese Parliament was expected to arrive in Dili in November 1991. Demonstrators painted banners and placards in the grounds of the Motael Church in Dili.  An altercation with the Indonesian military had taken place there on 28 October and one of the group’s members, Sebastião Gomes, was shot and killed.  Click here for a 2 page graphic.

For various reasons the visit of the Portuguese delegation was cancelled, but on 11 November the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture was in Dili.

The young people decided to proceed with a demonstration to commemorate the killing of their friend Sebastião.  They attended Mass at the Motael Church on the morning of 12 November, and then headed for the cemetery, two kilometres away.

Indonesian military, police and intelligence agents watched the march from the Motael Church. Some more Timorese joined the group along the way and still others gathered at the cemetery itself. Banners were unfurled calling for the UN’s intervention, supporting Xanana Gusmão and self-determination.

Once the unarmed and peaceful group arrived at the cemetery soldiers opened fire with automatic weapons. Many young ones fled into the grounds of the cemetery or into nearby houses. Soldiers surrounded the area, killing previously unharmed or lightly injured people by bayonetting them. They also went house-to-house, searching for the protesters. 

A British cameraman and film maker, Max Stahl, was at the cemetery that day. He filmed much of the event, smuggling it out to the BBC the next day. News of the massacre at Santa Cruz circulated around the world quickly and led to a dramatic rise in solidarity action.   Click here for 15 minutes of Max Stahl’s footage.                                                                  

In the years that followed, November 12th became a rallying day for East Timorese and human rights activists in countries throughout the world, with anniversaries being marked by demonstrations and vigils. The massacre ultimately contributed to the collapse of Indonesian control in Timor-Leste, which then became independent in 2002.

More resources:

Background video (4 minutes)

CAVR Report     (Go to page 115)

ETAN Fact Sheet

ANU Networked Governance of Freedom and Tyranny

Office for Justice, Ecology and Peace (Australian Catholic Bishops Conference)
Contains background, prayer, Christopher Willcock’s “Plaint over Dili”.