Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Dec 4, 1995
Published on: The Age
1 min read
The Balibo Five, and the journalist who searched for them: Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and Roger East

By WILSON da SILVA

Two Timorese men who say they witnessed the killing of the Australian journalist Roger East in East Timor 20 years ago have said they are prepared to give evidence to an inquiry announced on Wednesday by the Foreign Minister, Senator Evans.

The inquiry will probe the deaths of six Australian-based journalists, five of whom were killed in the Timorese town of Balibo on 16 October 1975. Mr East, a freelance journalist, was the only foreigner in Dili, the East Timorese capital, on 7 December 1975, the day Indonesian forces invaded the former Portuguese colony. 

According to several published accounts including reports by Amnesty International and one prepared by the former Australian consul to East Timor, Mr James Dunn, Mr East was executed by Indonesian soldiers on the pier of Dili harbor the day after the invasion.

One of the Timorese men, who identified himself only as Mr Chong, said through an interpreter that he was among a group to be executed with Mr East, but he escaped.

The second witness also said he saw Mr East gunned down at the pier. He asked not to be named and said he would assist the inquiry if his identity could be protected.

The Federal Government inquiry, headed by the retiring head of the National Crime Authority, Mr Tom Sherman, is to start in February and report by May.

There has never been an official explanation of Mr East’s death. As late as 1980, Australian authorities said they were still “seeking an early reply” to their requests for information on his fate.

The second witness said that on 8 December 1975 he watched soldiers arrive at the pier with a white man and scores of Timorese prisoners.

“He had a white shirt and khaki-brown shorts,” the man said through an interpreter. “He wore thongs and glasses. His hands were tied behind. They turned him toward the sea and the man turned back.

“He talked or argued with the Indonesians. They hit him with guns, but he kept talking. I didn’t understand (what he said). They used automatic weapons. It wasn’t just one soldier, it was three or four who fired. There were many killed. The pier had lots of blood.”

Mr Chong said he was part of a work gang conscripted by Indonesian soldiers the day of the invasion. The gang was ordered to clear from the pier the bodies of those who had not fallen into the sea after being shot. Most of the work gang was also gunned down, he said.

Just as the last of them were to be executed, an Indonesian officer took three of them out of the line-up and ordered them to dig graves for about 60 Indonesian soldiers killed in the invasion, he said.

Amnesty International reports corroborate aspects of the account. A 1985 Amnesty report names 28 people reported to have been executed at the pier, including Isabel Lobato, wife of the Fretilin president, Nicolau Lobato; the Timorese poet Borja da Costa and Mr East.

Mr Dunn, the former consul, has interviewed a number of survivors who escaped to Australia and Portugal after the invasion, and has published some of the most detailed accounts of the events surrounding the invasion.

“He (Mr East) was dragged, according to eye-witnesses, by a group of soldiers,” Mr Dunn told The Age. “He was cursing them . . . They got him to stand at the end so that when the bullets hit him he would fall into the sea. But he turned around and shouted, ‘I’m Australian, I’m Australian, I’m Australian.’”

Mr East’s sister, Mrs Glenise Kathleen Bowie, a Sydney pensioner, said she hoped the inquiry would shed light on her brother’s death and perhaps lead to some justice.

“I’d like to see it explained. I’d like to see them (the soldiers responsible) identified . . . and maybe imprisoned, “ Mrs Bowie, 69, said. “They were war crimes. It was just cold-blooded murder.”

Her brother, Mr Bill East, 76, a New South Wales farmer, said it astounded him that the Government was only now taking an interest.

“It’s 20 years now, and what they’re endeavoring to do I don’t know,” he said. “They didn’t give a bugger (then).”