A week ago I was wandering around down-town Dili with a mate looking for food and people to eat it with. The local restaurants were closed so we picked our way through Dili’s chaotic early-morning traffic across to the grounds of the Palácio do Governo, a block-long complex that houses government and ministry offices and the Timor-Leste Parliament and faces the beautiful Dili harbour.
I was in Dili for a few days to catch up with some friends, watch the progress of the Parliamentary elections and to visit a country I’d never been to that despite living an hour’s flight away in Darwin for nearly thirty years.
Before I left Australia I’d read a report in the Jakarta Post from 21 June with the headline “Mass grave found in grounds of Xanana Gusmao’s Dili office“.
Twenty four bodies were recovered on Wednesday from a mass grave that was accidentally found in the garden of the office of Timor Leste’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao in Dili last week by several construction workers. The workers were digging the ground to construct pipes for the park’s new water fountain … A number of technicians from Bantuan Tenaga Kerja Group, a water construction company, initially found 13 bodies that were buried in a 3 square-meter hole about 2 meters deep on Monday last week.
This was followed up a week or so later by a piece in The Economist that repeated the Post’s error that the bodies had been found in the ‘garden‘ of Xanana Gusmao’s ‘office‘.
I’ve been back from Dili for a few days now and hadn’t thought about the mass grave for a few days until last night when a report came in from the Jakarta Globe that a total of seventy two bodies – up from earlier estimates of thirteen, twenty four and fifty two – had been located in the mass grave outside of the Palacio.
Superintendent Calisto Gonzaga of Timor-Leste’s Criminal Investigation Service told AFP that new bones had been found last Monday and that the tally of bodies from the mass grave had climbed to seventy two.
Gonzaga said that he suspected the bones predated the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste in 1975.
Back to my visit to the site just over a week ago.
At the front of the Palacio we found a memorial commemorating the five-hundredth anniversary of the death of Infante D. Henrique, aka “Henry the Navigator“, the father of Portugese oceanic exploration.
That memorial is nothing special in itself but it was surrounded on three sides by a two metre high corrugated iron fence. On the western side the fence had been taken down and revealed a large excavation around the base of the memorial that was more than two metres deep in parts.
Swathes of red cloth were draped over a large section of the hole.
We took a few photos and moved on for beer, food and good company. A few days later we heard that a photographer had had his camera seized while photographing this site, so I am unsure of many – if any – photos of this site are in circulation.
Superintendent Gonzaga said that he suspects the remains predated Indonesian occupation, perhaps as long ago as World War II, when Timor was occupied by the Japanese.
Timor police would engage a forensic team of experts from Australia, Malaysia, Korea and Thailand to investigate the mass grave.
Professor Damien Kingsbury from Deakin University had earlier commented that if the bones were not Timorese, they were most likely of Chinese origin.
I’ll keep you posted on developments.