Santa Cruz Memorial Day


Friday 12 November is a public holiday in Timor Leste. One of the bloodiest days in their history, it is the anniversary of the Santa Cruz Massacre. It is a day dedicated to the victims of the most significant slaughter in the struggle for independence. Candles are lit in memory of the Santa Cruz dead, their link to freedom not forgotten.

Timor Leste’s leaders Jose Ramos Horta and Xanana Gusmao encourage their people to forgive the perpetrators of the violence inflicted upon them over many years. They consider that the country cannot move on and develop whilst harbouring any hatred. This is not an easy task. It is costly, painful and difficult. There might be forgiveness - but the people will never forget. Many Timorese remain prisoners of past events. The Catholic Church and the culture of forgiveness play an important role in reconciliation processes at the community level. It is important to look forward with positivity, however, it cannot be ignored that incidents such as this massacre shaped the newly independent nation. It is an independence that was achieved through the sacrifice of those that suffered as a result of that day.

The Catholic Church was regarded as a safe haven by the Timorese. On 28 October 1991, many people sought refuge from the violence rife in Dili in the church of San Antonio de Motael. The army stormed Motael. Sebastiao Gomes, a student activist was shot in the stomach by an Indonesian soldier in front of many incredulous witnesses. On the morning of November 12th there was a memorial Mass at the Church followed by a procession to the cemetery for the laying of sweet flowers. (At a burial there is the laying of bitter flowers, two weeks later when grief has lessened there is the laying of sweet flowers.) This peaceful memorial procession developed into a pro independence demonstration. Pictures of Xanana Gusmao were held aloft and banners calling for self determination and independence waved amongst the sea of people.

Indonesian troops opened fire upon this peaceful procession of thousands as it entered the cemetery. 271 people were killed, 382 wounded, and 250 disappeared. The massacre at Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili on 12 November 1991 was by no means the largest such occurrence during the 25 year occupation. It did not compare to the scale and brutality of other massacres:  Dili in December 1975, Matebian in 1979, Lacluta in 1981 or worst of all, Kraras in 1983.  However, it became internationally notorious when video footage filmed by foreign filmmaker Max Stahl put the atrocities out there in world view. Public outcry ensued as the world witnessed Timor Leste’s struggle for freedom. Ali Alatas, former foreign minister of Indonesia, called the massacre a "turning point," which set in motion the events leading to East Timor's coming independence.

There is no formal monument to mark the site yet. The bodies of the victims were removed and have never been recovered. For the Timorese, the massacre is exacerbated by the victims not having burials. Santa Cruz Memorial Day is a national holiday when families spend the day together in remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives on November 12th 1991 for Independence.


Timor Leste Facts

12th November 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre 271 killed (at least, some people say that it was more like 400) 278 wounded 103 hospitalized 270 “disappeared”

Tetum Word of the Week: Kalma Relax