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Interviews : Alberto Ricardo Da Silva

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Interviewed August 2010

Bishop Alberto Ricardo Da Silva is the Catholic bishop of Dili, the capital of East Timor. In 1991, he was a parish priest who gave sanctuary to student activists who were threatened by the Indonesian military because of their support for Timorese independence. In November of that same year, his church was surrounded by the military-organized mobs, and one of the student activists inside the church, Sebastião Gomes, was taken out and shot to death.

On November 12, 1991, Father Da Silva said a funeral mass for Gomes. The funeral procession from the church to Santa Cruz Cemetery turned into a peaceful protest demonstration, with several thousand men, women, and children waving banners and chanting pro-independence slogans. After the procession had entered the cemetery, the military opened fire, killing an estimated 250 mourners, including children in their Catholic school uniforms. A videotape of the attack was smuggled out of the country, and the Santa Cruz massacre focused the world’s attention on East Timor, substantially increasing pressure on the Indonesian government to respect the Timorese people’s right to self-determination.

In the weeks after the massacre, Father Da Silva was subjected to repeated harsh interrogations by the military authorities. He was accused of being the “mastermind” of the demonstrations, although he insisted that he was interested only in his religious ministry, not in politics, and that this ministry had included Timorese of all political persuasions as well as Catholic members of the Indonesian military. Nevertheless, he was repeatedly threatened with imprisonment or worse. In order to get him out of harm’s way, his church superiors assigned him to study in Rome. He returned to Timor after several years and was consecrated as bishop in 2005. 

There appeared at that time, the idea, that Timor was part of Indonesia, that it was the 27th Province of Indonesia. So there was no hope. The United States was pro-Indonesia and allowed the Indonesian military to invade Timor and the USA was silent about it, as if it was something normal that occurred in daily life. Australia recognized the integration of Timor into Indonesia. So it seemed that there was almost no hope [for Timor’s independence].

Everyone said to us through their efforts, through their politics, the international community: “It is best for you Timorese to be one with Indonesia, you have no problems, your hopes to develop and achieve your future aspirations to become a nation will be realized, but with Indonesia.” This was the plan, the general programme. But we saw that the people did not want this. The people continued to desire self-determination. So there were persecutions, especially against the youths. Many youths were apprehended, interrogated. Many of them went missing. Even the little children, there were not many hopes for them, they went to school, but they learned Indonesian.

Now, at about this time, not just me, but other priests in the country too, having possessed such clear understanding, we continued to perform our duties. And the people came to us, especially those who were persecuted, and especially the youths. The youths were in most danger and faced more difficulties - they were arrested, tortured; some went missing, and those who were under these situations, sought out the priests [for protection], and the same things were happening in the mountains too.

Now, I was in Motael and Motael is not a very strategic place; it is small and it is close to the Indonesian military headquarters so I was surprised that these youths chose it as their hiding place. There were no space to sleep, it was difficult to eat, but they were determined to stay there, and I could not evict them.

I had to be with them there, give them protection, but it was a very dangerous task. Dangerous because the Indonesians could have accused me, could dislike (prejudice) me because of this, and I was afraid that they would kill the youths in front of me. But at the same time, I could not avoid that situation. I had to receive the youths and protect them, even if it was difficult.

So this is to illustrate the involvement of the Church [in Timor’s struggle for independence]. And then, the problem kept escalating… until the night of 28 of October (1991) when people assaulted, broke into Motael late at night. At that time, we were all very perplexed and one of the youths who were staying with me were killed on the spot. His name was Sebastião. He was killed right there, and everyone were filled with fear. I had to stay up until the morning, in order to protect and hold up the youths whom the Indonesians wanted to apprehend. At that time, the corpse of Sebastião was still there, and in addition, they killed one more person, a youth named Afonso, who was not part of the group of youths who were protected by me, no. He was separate from that group.

Until the morning, the situation was very tense. I had to go to the police [station] to file the report of the incident and at the same time protect the youths who were under threat. That was the morning, already in the following morning. And then we managed to say Mass for both youths who were killed, the other one was actually a pro-Indonesian youth, but [the requiem] Mass was said for both youths, by the priests, and so both were interred peacefully. So we interred the youth Sebastião peacefully, we said our prayers as Catholics, and all went well.

After one week, according to our customs and the universal customs of Catholics around the world, on the 7th day, a week after the burial of the dead, Mass is offered for the repose of the soul. The Indonesian spies already knew what they were going to do to me at that time. They had been suspecting me for some time, and now things had reached that point, that situation, when that Mass was said. Now, normally, every Monday, I, at Motael Parish, say requiem Masses for all the departed souls - every Mondays. Now, coincidentally, that fateful day happened to be the7th or the 8th day after Sebastião’s death also – his one week anniversary – so I was asked to offer that requiem Mass for Sebastião. Just as normally on Mondays I say requiem Mass for the departed souls, that Mondays, I said the Mass for the soul of Sebastião. And because of that, many people came to attend the Mass. Very many indeed.

Now, that Mass of that morning of 12 November (1991) was attended over-flowingly by youths, everyone was attentive and prayed with a lot of devotion, prayed Mass with a lot of faith, the ceremony of the liturgy was carried out very beautifully until the end. And when Mass ended, all the youths moved to the street, gathered in front of the Church, to make a procession towards the Cemetery, as is customary in Timor. In front of the Church. Meanwhile, I went to take my breakfast, in order to start my work in my office.

I ate quickly, drank my coffee, and just as I was about to get out to get into the car to go to work, I heard gun shots. They fired a lot of gun shots. And people ran to me said, “dear father, dear father, people are shooting at the kids, shooting at the youths over there.” I was shocked, because I had earlier seen their extraordinary amount. So, I was hurrying to get into the car and go see them. But before I managed to get into the car, another car pulled up - it had brought the wounded ones. In Motael I ran a poly-clinic, so I had medicines and I had nurses. I had to go back to the house in order to take care of these kids. Female, male, many came, many were wounded, some were seriously wounded, female and male, they were also traumatised.

After probably two days, I received an invitation, no, not an invitation, a summon. A “panggilan” in Indonesian, meaning it was an official call, I was being summoned officially to be interrogated by the military. I did not know how to speak Indonesian. I could only speak a little bit of Indonesian. Some of my colleague priests, when they saw the envelope which contained my summon, said to me that it was “resmi” or “official”. And then it also said “subversive” – in the Indonesian usage, ‘subversive’ indicates highly dangerous or very serious crime. I may have to face the Tribunal, or I may be sentenced to death. I did not understand the Indonesian language, so I thought there were no problems, I thought they just wanted to talk to me and that will be it. But, no.

I went there from 7 am until night time. I was interrogated five times. The interrogation happened as follow: I was confined in a cell, and was interrogated from morning to night time, in one position, without moving. Because the accusations were very serious, that I was the one who organized the entire events of 12 November [1991] as well as other [related] crimes. There were numerous accusations against me. There were witnesses, agendas and documents as well as photographs. I had to answer, answer, answer, answer, answer until midday, when they gave me food to eat in that same position, then followed by more interrogations and I had to answer till night time.

So it was a very difficult time, and the entire Dili was filled with terror and fear. Now, the allegations that were made was that the Indonesian [soldiers] had opened fire on the youths [in the Cemetery] because eight armed Timorese youths first opened fires at the Indonesian troops, and the Indonesian troops fired back in reaction. But no, everyone knew that that was not the truth. Photographs of the events showed that the youths arrived [in the Cemetery] and displayed the banners and flags prior to entering the cemetery, standing on top of cars, on top of the perimeter walls. There was also a young journalist from Malaysia, who was also shot dead [in Santa Cruz Cemetery].

So I was subjected to intense interrogations five times, and was also obliged to sign a document declaring the authenticity of my statements. I was afraid. I did not understand Indonesian. I had to ask the help of a clever priest, who comprehended the Indonesian language, to come and read my statements in front of the Police/Intelligence officers. After he read everything, he told me that I could sign the document. Only then was I able to sign [peacefully]. 

East Timor is a country of 1.1 million people in the East Indies. After Portugal announced in 1975 that the colony would soon become independent, fighting broke out between rival Timorese factions. The Indonesian Army invaded and occupied East Timor in December of that year, and a few months later the country was formally annexed by Indonesia.

The Indonesian occupation was marked by repression and brutality. The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly were denied throughout Indonesia at the time. Timorese who were suspected of harboring “separatist” sympathies—particularly those suspected of association with the small but resilient guerrilla resistance movement—were routinely arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Extrajudicial killings were common. The 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, in which Indonesian troops killed an estimated 200 men, women, and children who had participated in a funeral procession for a pro-independence activist, focused world attention on the continuing denial of democracy and self-determination in East Timor. The massacre and associated events also highlighted the importance of the Catholic Church, both as a focus of Timorese identity and as the only institution that could sometimes afford a measure of protection from government-sponsored violence.In 1998, shortly after the fall of the Indonesian dictator Suharto, the new President B.J. Habibie announced a “consultation” by which the people of East Timor would be permitted to choose either autonomy within Indonesia or outright independence. The consultation took place in the form of a U.N.-supervised referendum in August 1999 in which 79 percent of the voters chose independence. In the weeks after the announcement of the vote, the departing Indonesian army and its associated Timorese militias destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure and killed over a thousand people. That December a United Nations peacekeeping force was established, and a U.N. mission administered the country until the restoration of independence in 2002. East Timor and Indonesia are now both multiparty parliamentary democracies. 

More from Alberto Ricardo Da Silva

Bishop Alberto Ricardo Da Silva: Santa Cruz Massacre Tells how, as the parish priest who said the funeral Mass that preceded the Santa Cruz massacre, he was accused of “subversion” and harshly interrogated by the Indonesian military. Bishop Alberto Ricardo Da Silva: Necessity of Unity “Unity” means “a single determination to defend the dignity of the people, to uphold the value of the people itself.” Bishop Alberto Ricardo Da Silva: The Pope Comes to Timor Recalls the reactions of the Timorese people and of the Indonesian government when Pope John Paul II said Mass in Tetum, the indigenous language of East Timor. More + Bishop Alberto Ricardo Da Silva: Human Dignity His efforts as a priest in occupied East Timor to minister to the spiritual needs of Timorese parishioners and Indonesian soldiers, while insisting on respect for the dignity of each human being. Bishop Alberto Ricardo Da Silva: Journey of Faith “The closer I got to the people, the more I understood that they had a desire inside of them. . . . They wanted self-determination.”