By Lily Mulholland
‘Is the padre here?’ I ask.
The old man nods.
‘Can we see him?’
We landed on Suai beach yesterday to find a gutted village. Only one or two buildings still had a roof, many were burnt to their foundation. Now we were looking for the priest, hoping he’d speak enough English to tell us what had happened.
The man leads us across the busted concrete quadrangle that runs adjacent to the cathedral. The building wears the unmistakable imprint of war. Bullet holes puncture the facade in a poor man’s filigree. The charred remains of the doors swing from their hinges. Chunks of masonry are missing. Of the congregation there is barely a trace.
Stooped and bent, the man takes us past the cathedral entrance and down its far side to the original church. Its walls look like the jagged teeth of a dinosaur, the frame like the ribcage of a rotting whale. The roof has been torched. Outside the small church three timeworn women are singing a dirge in low but strong voices. They do not look up at our approach.
‘Estes soldados querem ver o padre,’ says our guide. One of the women acknowledges the man and stands slowly while the others continue singing. The woman looks at us, turns and enters the burnt out shell. We follow her and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in protest. Fingering the trigger of my Steyr, I step through the charcoal doorframe, followed by Sal, my cameraman, and Bob, who is doing audio.
The woman stands in front of large piles of debris that litters the building’s floor.
‘Está aqui,’ she says. She points to a mound at her feet. I look and see human bones, ash, burnt timber and other detritus.
‘Militia?’ I ask.
‘Sim, a milícia disparou no padre,’ she answers. The militia had killed the padre.
‘Obrigada senhora.’ I thank her and motion for Sal and Bob to follow me back outside.
‘Do you want any of this on film boss?’ asks Sal.
‘No, we’ll leave it for the news crews – they’ll get here this arvo if the intel’s right. Let’s get back to HQ and see the int guys. I reckon the special ops guys went through here too fast to get this level of detail.’
I don't mention this is an international media story waiting to happen. More evidence that the Indonesian-backed militia were ruthless in their killing spree. Not what the fledgling peace process needs. We have a matter of hours before this story hits the wires.
We nod to the old fella and start heading back on foot to HQ, just up the main road in what had been the Indonesian-run court house. We don't get far before we notice a young man watching us from the trees beyond the church compound. We head over to where the guy is squatting.
‘Bom dia. Você fala o Inglês?’ Right now I’m glad I’d memorised the basics from the Portuguese conversation guides thrust at us on our way out of Australia. No doubt my accent stinks, but the East Timorese seem to get the gist of what I am saying.
‘Yes, speak English senhora.’
‘You want to tell us something?’
‘Sim. Have you in catedral?’ he asks.
I shake my head.
‘Yes. Need you see,’ he says as he stands up. ‘Come.’
We follow the man back toward the cathedral. My neck hairs are dancing again. I signal the boys to look lively as we enter through the broken doors, wondering what the hell we are going to see. We’ve already found a dead priest.
Once inside, it became clear why the building appeared so war-ravaged from outside. It wasn’t finished. What looked like explosives damage was incomplete masonry. Rudely constructed bamboo scaffolding sections the nave, with platforms of varying heights blocking the apse from view.
The man hovers at the base of a bamboo tower, looking pale, ghostly. I look at him and, though he says nothing, his eyes travel upwards, along the line of scaffold. My eyes follow and, as I become used to the dim light, I make out a dribble line of what looks like dried paint coming from one of the platforms. I check out the other towers and they too are painted red. I realise it isn’t paint, but blood. Lots of it.
‘Fifty, senhora.’ My guts drop.
‘Who killed them?’
‘Militia. Found them in church, hiding. Santuário,’ he says, tears tracing rivers down his cheeks.
‘They were seeking sanctuary?’
‘Sim senhora.’ This wasn’t a fight. It was slaughter.
‘Where are the bodies?’
He crosses himself at this question. I know it was blunt, but I had to get answers and fast. We are overdue. They’ll be prepping a search team back at brigade headquarters and the last thing I want is for my guys to cop the embarrassment of being ‘rescued’.
‘Militia took them. Burned them.’
‘In the church?’
I thank him and we walk out blinking into the sunlight. Bob and Sal don’t speak as we head back. I understand. Families who’d been living next door to each other for generations had turned upon each other. How could the East Timorese coexist peacefully after this? While our peacemaking force has brought an end to the killing, it can’t resolve the real issues. The Indonesians were gone, but they made sure all they left behind was a divided people.
As we pass the HQ perimeter guards, a boy, no more than eight years old, calls out to me.
‘Hello missus! Lolly?’
I toss him a muesli bar. It isn’t what he wants but it won’t rot his teeth either. He grins and gives me a cheeky wave.
I smile. After all that has happened around him he can still laugh. Can that be enough?
This story is based loosely on memories of my time in East Timor in 1999. You can read about the fact behind the fiction here and here.