Christopher Johnson, Associated Press dispatch, 14 October 1999
SUAI, East Timor (AP) – Australian peacekeepers on Thursday investigated bloodstains, bullet holes and two human skeletons found at two Roman Catholic churches where the Vatican says pro-Indonesian militiamen killed more than 100 people.
The peacekeepers said evidence found at the Ave Maria and Nossa Senhora de Fatima churches, as well as accounts from witnesses, indicate some victims died while trying to flee the gunmen. “This was clearly a massacre,” said Lt. Damian Hill, an Australian peacekeeper who interviewed dozens of residents after they returned to this southwestern town from the mountains where they sought refuge during the violence. However, only two human skeletons have been found so far at the churches, where the Vatican has accused the militiamen of killing dozens of civilians, including three priests.
East Timorese independence movement leaders and human rights activists have accused the militias of massacring civilians and then disposing of the bodies. The search in Suai is part of an effort by peacekeepers and relief agencies to try to determine the scale of the slaughter that followed a vote for independence in an Aug. 30 referendum.
No one disputes that the vote set off a rampage by Indonesian forces and allied militias that destroyed many cities and towns and left hundreds of thousands citizens homeless. But the number of victims found so far is nowhere near the thousands of dead that international organizations and Timorese activists estimated were killed. U.N. and peacekeeping officials have said the true scale of the killings will only be known once they gain control of more of East Timor and search the many destroyed towns. So far, about 8,000 peacekeepers have been deployed in Dili, the capital, and several other major cities, but they have not reached remote villages and hamlets.
Australian Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, the peace force commander, proposed Thursday that a buffer zone be created along the border of East Timor and Indonesian-controlled West Timor to prevent further clashes between his men and Indonesian forces. Reacting to an Associated Press report, Cosgrove said dozens of militiamen who fled to West Timor after the peacekeepers arrived may be returning to East Timor to try to launch a guerrilla campaign against the peacekeepers. At a news conference in Dili, Cosgrove said his forces have now established a headquarters in Suai, which was a major militia stronghold before the referendum.”We’re starting to find bodies, bodies that have been dead for some time,” said Cosgrove, adding that only about six had been found so far. “We have found some (graves) that contain more than one person. But we haven’t found graves with hundreds that have sometimes been referred to.”
Streaks of blood and at least 60 bullet holes found on scaffolding surrounding the 70-foot-tall steeple at the Ave Maria church indicate some people were killed while trying to escape the Sept. 6 attack. “It looks like people were shot from two separate points below while trying to escape up the scaffolding,” said Lt. Troy Mayne of Australia.
Looking at upper floors of the steeple, the peacekeepers found a rosary, three M-16-type bullets and a large blood stain. At the neighboring Nossa Senhora de Fatima church, two sets of burned bones were found. Bloodstains in a muddy stairwell also suggest corpses may have been dragged down a flight of stairs from rooms where victims were hiding during the attack, and later disposed of.