Visits to Balibo April/May 1976
1. Background to Visits
- Following agreement by the Indonesian Government and the Provisional Government in Dili to a request by the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Department of Foreign Affairs instructed the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta to send the following Embassy officials to Timor to conduct as full an enquiry as possible into the deaths of five journalists from Australia presumed to have occurred in the village of Balibo (East Timor) on 16 October 1975:
- Mr A. R. Taylor, Counsellor
- Mr D. C. Rutter, Consul
- Mr R. K. Johnson, Third Secretary
2. Factors affecting the Visits
- The Australian Embassy Jakarta has no diplomatic or consular accreditation in East Timor which is formally Portuguese Territory. Portugal has no effective presence, influence in or access to the territory. The team had no authority to insist on the provision of witnesses or persons with knowledge relevant to the deaths.
- Because of the political situation in East Timor the team had to use Kupang, Indonesian Timor, as its base for the enquiry. This situation also inhibited the team's access to some persons who may have been able to assist the enquiry.
- The team relied on, and received, the cooperation of the authorities in East Timor and in Indonesia for access to East Timor and transport.
- About six months had elapsed since the battle in which the journalists were presumed to have died. It was stated to the team that many East Timorese, some of them still unidentified, had been killed since 11 August 1975. While regretting the deaths of the journalists East Timorese leaders said that the situation in East Timor had not allowed them to give the journalists' deaths special attention. Also it was pointed out that at the time of the Balibo attack Apodeti and UDT had been separate entities.
- The team based its findings on information obtained during its two visits to Balibo.
3. Outline of Program
- The team arrived in Kupang on 28 April and travelled to Balibo the next day arriving at 0950 hours. In Balibo it held discussions with Mr Lopes da Cruz, Vice Chairman of the Provisional Government of East Timor; Mr Thomas Gonsalves, Commander of the Apodeti forces at Balibo on 16 October 1975; and Mr Travares, Commander of the UDT forces at Balibo on 16 October 1975.1t also examined the Chinese house/ shop in which four of the journalists were said to have died (hereafter referred to as 'the Chinese house') and had a close look around the village. The team also took photographs. It left Balibo at about 1220 hours to return to Kupang.
- On 9 May the team returned to Balibo at 1100 hours. Discu sions were held with the Raja of Atsabe; Mr Mario Carrascalao, Chief of Protocol of the Provisional Government; Mr Thomas Gonsalves; and Mr Travares. Before leaving at 1430 hours the team further examined the Chinese house.
- The team returned to Jakarta on 10 May.
4. Presence of the Journalists at Bilbao
- The team is unaware of any claim that the journalists were not in Balibo on 16 October 1975. There was no suggestion during the team's visit to East Timor that the journalists had not been in Balibo, or that they had not died there.
- Mr Lopes da Cruz and Mr Thomas Gonsalves said that there was no possibility that any of the journalists had been held prisoner at any time by UDT or Apodeti forces.
6. Bilbao: the Village
- Photographs 1 to 4 (Annex C) give an idea of the size of Balibo. The town is surrounded by hills. It contains a fortress (photographs 5 and 7) and a few houses/ shops (photograph 4) at the junction of roads to Batugade, Cova and Maliana (photograph 3). It is about eight kilometres inland from Batugade. The coast at Batugade is clearly visible from the fortress at Balibo (photograph 9). There is a small school which did not appear to have been used for some time. There are several house/shops, all, the team was told, previously operated by Chinese. (On one the words 'HOTEL MIMOSA' were visible on 29 April-see photograph 6.) Three of them were structurally similar to the one in which the remains of the four journalists were said to have been found. They and other buildings showed signs of burning.
8. Bilbao: The Chinese House
- The house in which about fifteen bodies were said to have been found is at the junction of the roads to Cova, Maliana and Batugade.lt is built of cement and cement bricks with a red cement floor. It has three rooms. When the team saw the house a narrow room had been partitioned off between the shop and the storage room on the side nearest the road to Batugade. (Mr Lay Kam Nhag said on 9 May that there had been no such partition in the room when he had left Balibo.) There was a small bathroom off a narrow passage at the back of the house. The wall of the passageway opposite the entrance to the bathroom was completely blackened. Photograph 23 shows that the wood of the bathroom window at the back of the house was severely charred.
- In the team's opinion the damage to the inside of the house was consistent with the claim that there had been a fire there and that the contents of the house, including such items as the wooden roof beams had smouldered for some time.
9. The Attack
- Mr Thomas Gonsalves said that the Apodeti/UDT attack on 16 October 1975 had been planned to take the Fretilin forces in Balibo by surprise: the Apodeti and UDT forces, numbering about seven hundred, and wearing blue and khaki uniforms respectively, had gone along the border and attacked from the direction of Cova, rather than from Batugade which had already been taken by the anti-Fretilin forces (see map at Annex B).
- The attack had come from the two hills on either side of the Cova road. The Apodeti forces, under the command of Thomas Gonsalves, had attacked over the hill on the eastern side of the Cova road (photograph 26) and the UDT forces, under the command of Travares, had attacked over the hill on the western side. (This latter hill-see photograph 27-extends right along behind the school building, which is behind the Chinese house in which the fifteen bodies were said to have been found.)
- The Apodeti/UDT forces had had weapons captured from Fretilin when Batugade had fallen. They had had sixty to eighty millimetre mortars, automatic weapons and rifles. Mr Thomas Gonsalves said they had also had bazookas, but these had not been used in the attack. The Apodeti/UDT forces had also been strengthened before the attack, according to Mr Carrascalao, by the arrival of UDT troops from Los Palos.
- On 29 April Mr Thomas Gonsalves said that the attack had started in dawn light at about five o'clock on the morning of 16 October 1975 and had lasted possibly for about two hours. On 9 May he said that the attack had begun at five o'clock and had lasted for precisely fifty-seven minutes.
- Mr Thomas Gonsalves explained that information had been received that the Fretilin forces defending the town were in the fortress, and thus the attack had been directed there. As the advancing forces had moved towards the fortress however, unexpected resistance had been encountered from the Chinese house on the corner as well as from the fortress. Therefore it had been necessary to direct mortar fire against the corner house. Resistance from the house had ended about twenty minutes after the start of the attack when an incendiary mortar fired over a high tree from the Apodeti position had struck the house causing it to burst into flames.
- About thirty mortar shells (not all incendiary) had been fired by the Apodeti and UDT forces during the course of the battle, and more than one had landed in the vicinity of the house. Mr Lopes da Cruz and Mr Thomas Gonsalves said that there had been no shelling of Balibo from Indonesian ships at sea.
- Fretilin had resisted from the fortress with fire from mortars and automatic weapons. When the combined forces had found that no more resistance was being encountered from the fortress they had moved up into the fortress.
- Mr Thomas Gonsalves and Mr Travares said that they had neither seen, nor heard reports about, anyone escaping from the corner house, although they admitted that this might have been possible. Mr Thomas Gonsalves stated that anyone, apart from the Apodeti!UDT forces, seen moving in the town would have been shot at during the attack. It was not known whether any people in the house had been killed before the mortar shell struck. Mr Thomas Gonsalves said he had not recognised anyone in the house during the battle or seen what they had been wearing.
- Mr Lopes da Cruz, the Raja of Atsabe and Mr Thomas Gonsalves all said that they had not known of the presence of Australian journalists in Balibo prior to the attack. Neither Mr Thomas Gonsalves nor Mr Travares knew how many Fretilin soldiers had been in Balibo, but Mr Thomas Gonsalves said the Fretilin force had been quite small.
- Mr Thomas Gonsalves and the Raja of Atsabe said that the invading forces had directed heavy fire against the escaping Fretilin soldiers, many of whom had escaped through the bush at the back of the fortress, in the general direction of Atabae (see photographs 9-11). Mr Thomas Gonsalves said that the Fretilin forces had not fired mortars at Balibo as they retreated.
- When the fortress had been captured the Apodeti!UDT troops had set about securing Balibo and had not given any attention to the burning house. After the battle, the seven hundred Apodeti/UDT troops had camped outside the village, in the hills, for security reasons. Mr Thomas Gonsalves said that the burnt remains of sixteen rifles, some FBP automatic weapons and one mortar had been found in the Chinese house some days after the battle.
- No bodies had been found in the administrator's house, Mr Thomas Gonsalves said. Fretilin troops had abandoned the position, leaving behind three mortars and some Mauser rifles. None of the people to whom the team spoke knew how many people died in the battle. There had been bodies in the street and in the bush around the village. Some reports had put the deaths at between one and two hundred. They had been Fretilin soldiers.
- About fifteen bodies had been seen in the burning Chinese house, and some of them had been recognised as European. Apart from those seen in the Chinese house and the one found in the woods (see Section 11 below), no European bodies had been among those found.
10. Reports of Indonesian Involvement
- The team asked on a number of occasions about reports in Australia that the journalists had been shot by Indonesian troops or by Indonesian volunteers. Mr Thomas Gonsalves, Mr Lopes da Cruz, the Raja of Atsabe and Mr Carrascalao all denied that any Indonesians had been involved in the attack on Balibo. Indonesian volunteers, they said, had joined Apodeti/UDT troops only after the declaration of integration on 30 November and the request for assistance by these parties and by Kota and Trabalista. Mr Carrascalao and Mr Lopes da Cruz said that before the Balibo attack many weapons had been captured from Fretilin at Batugade. Apodeti!UDT had also been strengthened by the arrival of a UDT force from Los Palos.
- Mr Gonsalves and Mr Lopes da Cruz said that the inside of the Chinese house had not been cleaned until the inhabitants of Balibo returned. This, Mr Travares said, had been about the end of November.
- The Raja said that no remains had been collected from the house when he had visited Balibo with Mr Lopes da Cruz and Mr Jose Martins. When the Indonesian Government had asked for any remains and personal effects he had asked that the remains be collected. He had been given the remains at the time when he had learnt of the European body in the woods, the documents and the camera. The situation in Balibo at the time had been very confused and he did not know who had collected the remains. The Raja could not be certain that the remains passed to the Indonesian Government were those of the five journalists.
Based on its discussions and observations in Balibo on 29 April and 9 May the team concluded:
- The situation at Balibo and in the border area around Balibo on 16 October 1975 and in the following weeks was confused. As the Apodeti and UDT personnel to whom the team spoke saw it this situation did not allow them to give special attention to the deaths of the journalists and subsequent requests for information.
- The account given of the circumstances of the deaths of the journalists said to have been in the Chinese house, while vague on several important points, had a certain plausibility.
- The account given of the collection of the remains and personal effects lacked clarity and seemed incomplete, particularly as regards identification.
- There was no evidence to suggest that the five journalists were not in Balibo when it was attacked on 16 October; nor that they did not die during the battle that day.
- Persons to whom the team spoke had not known that there were Australians in Balibo at the time of the attack and had assumed that all persons in the town at that time were Fretilin supporters.
- There was no incontrovertible evidence about exactly how any of the five journalists died. There was no explanation as to why the fifth body was apparently found apart from the other four.
- Evidence that there were the remains of five European bodies and that they were the remains of the journalists was circumstantial. It was based on:
- absence of any evidence that other Europeans were in Ba1ibo on 16 October;
- reports that the journalists were missing and in Balibo on that day; and
- discovery of the camera, documents and other items belonging to the journalists.
- It was not established that the remains handed to the Ambassador in Jakarta on 12 November, were, in fact, the remains of the five journalists.
- Because of the absence of any substantiated evidence about exactly how the journalists died, it was not possible as a result of the visits to Balibo to comment authoritatively on other accounts about how the journalists died. However, Mr Syddell's version2 of the deaths was highly improbable.
The people to whom the team spoke in Balibo denied Indonesian involvement in the attack on Balibo on 16 October 1975.
R.K.JOHNSON Third Secretary
[NAA: A1838, 3038/10/1/2, iv]