This blog post reflects and reports on the power of eyewitness video that played a crucial role in exposing the brutality of the Indonesian occupation in East Timor. Arul Prakkash, WITNESS’ program manager for Asia-Pacific recently spoke with British filmmaker Max Stahl about his role in documenting and preserving footage of the Santa Cruz Massacre, and how his visual account helped propel Timor-Leste back into the spotlight of the world.

Twenty-five years ago, on 12 November 1991, a cacophony of rifle shots disrupted a nonviolent memorial march in Dili, the capital of East Timor. Over 1,000 East Timorese had just attended a funeral mass at the church of San Antonio de Motael. The crowd – students, workers, farmers, villagers, mothers, sisters, children – were making their way to the Santa Cruz cemetery to honour a youth killed by Indonesian troops.

Within minutes of the crowds reaching the cemetery, the US-trained elite Indonesian military unit opened fire. The massacre of the people at Santa Cruz, which resulted in over 200 East Timorese being killed, with the many wounded trampled and left to bleed by the roadside, demonstrated to the world the stark brutality of the Indonesian government under its then president Suharto.

The Backstory

“No matter how many people you terrify or kill, you are not going to win that argument. You may silence people or obliterate them, but you won’t win the argument. And the audio-visual media became the crucial way in which the voices of these people that were otherwise silent were suddenly heard.”

— Max Stahl, in October 2016 video interview

The invasion of East Timor by Indonesia began on 7 December 1975, nine days after the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente or FReTiLIn) unilaterally declared its independence from Portugal. The Indonesian government was supported in its atrocities by Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the USA. On 17 July 1976, Indonesia declared East Timor its 27th province.

A Portuguese parliamentary and media delegation due to arrive in East Timor in October 1991 cancelled its visit, following the Indonesian government’s objection to Australian journalist Jill Jolliffe being included in the contingent. The visit would have coincided with the arrival of the United Nations’ (UN) Special Rapporteur for Human Rights on Torture, Pieter Kooijmans, to East Timor. Disheartened activists, who were eager for the world to know of their resistance to being occupied, clashed with Indonesian troops soon after. Independence activist Sebastião Gomez, along with a few other young activists, had obtained sanctuary inside the church two weeks prior to the delegation’s cancellation. Gomez was captured and killed at point-blank range.

“I had been involved with guerrilla struggles in filming… I was curious how a small country like this could survive so long and so isolated… I also wanted to make a film about something fundamental… something I had pursued all my time as a filmmaker, which was a simple question: why would people sacrifice their own lives for something else, in particular, for something for which they themselves would not benefit from?”

— Max Stahl, in October 2016 video interview

Image credit: Arul Prakkash

When the funeral procession for Gomez finally reached the Santa Cruz cemetery, the throng had burgeoned to nearly five thousand, many of whom were carrying banners and signage in support of Timorese independence. Among the crowd were independent US journalists Amy Goodman (Pacifica Radio) and Allan Nairn (the New Yorker) who had come to East Timor to document the visit by the Portuguese delegation that never came. Up until then, the occupied land was of little or no interest to global media. In its history of being occupied by foreign powers, East Timor saw the most violence under the rule of the Indonesians. Torture centers were rife. Entire villages were massacred. Forced evictions were commonplace and the evicted were left to starve without a roof over their heads. Political prisoners were publicly executed and journalists were banned. The rest of the world had received no news of the occupation, and East Timor quietly disappeared into the faint and tattered tapestry of forgotten territories.

“I believe, personally, that the core of this was that the Timorese, not only from the images of the Santa Cruz massacre, were able to show that their values, what they were fighting for, what they were demanding, were shared values. These values were recognisable to people abroad, in countries thousands of miles away, who had no direct knowledge of the story, but who shared values of decency, basic values of peaceful, self-determination, the right for life, the right for people to carry on with their lives, without being abused or murdered, and their coherence as a community… To show that this is what they were standing for, and to show that so many of them had died, and had died under this banner for the right to their dignity, their right to self-determination – they felt it was the same.”

— Max Stahl, in October 2016 video interview

Preserving Audio-Visual History

When the Indonesian troops finally left East Timor in 1999 after the UN intervened, mass genocide across the land amounted to almost 200,000 Timorese lives lost. This colossal number was more than the 40,000-70,000 lives lost during the Japanese occupation of West and East Timor until the end of World War II in 1945. British journalist and former war correspondent Christopher Wenner, who was witness to the Santa Cruz massacre as the Yorkshire Television cameraman bearing the more popular moniker Max Stahl, has committed his life to Timor-Leste, his home over the past 25 years. His documentary In Cold Blood: the Massacre of East Timor was aired around the world and contributed to changing the destiny of a nation’s people who regard him as a hero.

“For 16 or 17 years or so there was absolutely nothing on East Timor, not only in Europe where I was from, but pretty much everywhere on television. So it was a story which was totally off the agenda – there was no story. And I had to not only make the film, but I had to put the story on the agenda and that was extremely hard to do. And when I was here, I was working in a situation where there was an enormous trenchant here. People were afraid… If I talked to somebody or somebody talked to me… they would be arrested afterwards, interrogated and if they were lucky they would be released and they’d put their name on the list. And if they were unlucky it would be worse.” 

— Max Stahl, in October 2016 video interview

The Max Stahl Audio-Visual Archive Centre for Timor-Leste (CAMSTL) was established in 2003, and is recognised as being closely related to the independence and foundation of Timor-Leste, which occurred in 2002. The centre’s documentary collection comprises of nearly 5,000 hours of audio-visual material since November 1991 recording Timor-Leste’s journey to independence. As a repository of documentary heritage, UNESCO formally included it into the Memory of the World Register in 2011.

“… without the audio-visual media it is very difficult to think that this would have happened… The ability for the public outside the country to connect to East Timor through the audio-visual… came during the massacre. But also the resistance fighters, the students and the young people that were here against all levels of intimidation, that ability in the end transformed the situation. It didn’t do so on its own. It did so because there were some very skillful and determined representatives of East Timor abroad… it did so because the leadership inside, the people in the mountains, the people who were in prison and the students and so on, were very disciplined in one important aspect – they focused on their core values and their core struggle, and not on revenge or stuff that would have added to the confusion and noise around the basic issue which was always clear – it was the country that had been invaded, occupied, and the people were not given the opportunity, as they were supposed to do, to give their consent.”

— Max Stahl, in October 2016 video interview

CAMSTL continues to make an important contribution in communicating the stories of people who paved the way for the birth of the world’s youngest nation. The centre is also a training ground for young filmmakers interested in socio-political issues and struggles of resistance.


Meghana Bahar, is WITNESS’ Social Media & Communications Consultant for Asia-Pacific.

Part two of this two-part series is coming soon! Stay informed through WITNESS Asia-Pacific’s Facebook and Twitter platforms.

WITNESS trains activists to archive and preserve their video so that human rights abuses cannot be denied or forgotten over time. Check out WITNESS’ Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video available in English, Spanish, and Arabic.

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