The site of the murder of five international journalists working for two Australian
television networks in East Timor
in 1975. They were brutally massacred by the invading forces from Indonesia
to stop any independent coverage of their aggression reaching the world. Shamefully, the Australian government, who supported the Indonesians at the time, did nothing to save the journalists but everything to try and cover the story up as long as it was possible.
More background info:
The so-called Balibo Five were journalists who all worked for Australian TV networks and had all been based in Australia
prior to coming here. But only two of them were actually Australian citizens, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart, the others were Gary Cunningham from New Zealand
as well as Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie from Great Britain
They had been sent to East Timor
to cover the simmering conflict in the tumultuous year of 1975 when Portugal
aimed to release its old colonies and left-leaning pro-independence parties in Timor clashed with pro-Indonesian factions, while Indonesia
itself meddled in it all in its own way, mainly by covert incursions from West Timor to intimidate those who were pro independence and to support and train Timorese militias who were fighting against independence. All this was even before Indonesia launched its full-scale military invasion in October that same year.
Following up stories of such incursions, the five journalists made their way to the border village of Balibo and from here they witnessed the growing military build-up to the invasion. They liaised with one José Ramos-Horta, later to become the main spokesman for the resistance in exile and after independence even president of the new state of Timor-Leste
. Back then he was still a Fretilin leader on the ground and he escorted the journalists to film the assembling of Indonesian navy ships off shore. This footage was the last material shot by the Balibo journalists that got out of Timor. Ramos-Horta himself took the material to Dili.
Meanwhile, the five journalists staying behind in Balibo shacked up in a house by the main square. Seeing the signs of an impending invasion, Greg Shackleton painted a crude Australian flag on the wall (hence it's also become known as Balibo Flag House) to mark it as the base of foreign journalists. As such they thought they would not be targeted. How wrong they were.
clearly did not want to risk any independent media coverage of their invasion – or else all their pretexts and cover stories would collapse. But what's worse, even for the Australian government, who knew of the invasion plans (and approved of them), these journalists were just pawns in a game that was of greater importance (cf. East Timor history
). So the pawns could be sacrificed.
On 16 October the Indonesian military launched an attack on Balibo, four of the journalists surrendered but were shot as they did so and the fifth was stabbed after he'd tried to hide inside the house. They were unarmed and wearing civilian clothing, and their role as foreign journalists had been made as clear as possible. Yet the Indonesians couldn't care less. They even tried to cover up the incident by undressing the corpses and putting them in military uniforms and placing weapons next to them to make it look like they had been taking part in Falintil's guerrilla fight. Later they would claim that the journalists had got in the way and were accidentally killed in crossfire.
government participated in the cover-up. It took decades before they changed their official line and admitted to their complicity in the incident and allowed any inquests into the story.
Some say the five men partly had themselves to blame for taking such a risk getting in the line of fire of the Indonesian invasion, that they'd been reckless or at least naïve. After all, the five journalist had all been young men in their twenties.
Another, more senior Australian journalist, Roger East, who tried to investigate the death of the Balibo Five was executed by the Indonesians on Dili
wharf, quite openly, almost publicly that is, together with some 200 Timorese, on 8 December 1975. His body was apparently disposed of in the sea (reminiscent of the same strategy in Chile
in the 1970s of making people “disappear”). East is sometimes referred to as the “forgotten” sixth Balibo journalist killed in 1975.
It was only around the time of the vote for independence, the subsequent chaos in East Timor and the international intervention that finally led to the creation of independent Timor-Leste that the story of the Balibo Five re-emerged and caught the public eye. At the same time Australia had changed its tune and was now actively helping East Timor on its way to independence, after previously always having toed the line of the Indonesian side.
Still, none of the perpetrators were ever held accountable. Yunus Yosfiah, the Indonesian special forces captain who led the attack on Balibo and, according to eyewitnesses, oversaw and actively took part in the execution of the five men, later became one of the most decorated generals in the Indonesian
Army and in 1998 and 1999 even served as Minister of Information!
Meanwhile the relatives of the murdered journalists kept campaigning for recognition of the case. In 2007 an official inquest confirmed the story that the five men were unarmed, had identified themselves as journalists and were in civilian clothes. In effect this amounted to stating that the Indonesians were guilty of a war crime then – which had probably been ordered from the highest levels. But that was as far as it would get. Without any real judicial consequences.
Several books have been written about the case and in 2009 a full-length feature film was released that was based on the story of the Balibo Five, as told by the journalist Jill Jolliffe in her book “Cover-Up”, published in 2001. The film is simply called “Balibo” and was directed by Australian Robert Connolly.
The Balibo Flag House itself had meanwhile been identified as a heritage site worthy of preservation. The government of the Australian state of Victoria set up a trust to purchase and refurbish the site. In October 2003 it was opened in the presence of relatives of the Balibo Five as well as the Premier of Victoria and both Xanana Gusmão and José Ramos-Horta.
What there is to see: The building as such is still there and was substantially renovated a few years back. When I was there it looked like it had also just received a fresh coat of paint and brand-new looking bunting in Timorese colours was draped along the edge of the roof.
Next to the entrance is a glass panel on the outer wall onto which a replica of that famous Australian flag that Greg Shackleton had painted on the wall in the futile hope that it would provide some protection (see above
Inside the house is a small exhibition consisting of a few text-and-photo panels. These recount what happened here, as far as that is possible, provide background information about the Balibo Five (and the sixth journalist, Roger East) and the aftermath of the incident, including the story of making the building the memorial that it is today.
In addition there are panels about those Timorese who were killed here in 1999 in the retributive violence unleashed by the pro-Indonesian militias in these parts (cf. also Liquica and Maubara
The flags of Timor-Leste
, New Zealand
and Great Britain
hang from the ceiling and on a small table a kind of combined book of condolences and visitors' book is provided next to a vase of fresh flowers. It all would give the place an almost chapel-like atmosphere were it not for the two large panels listing various organizations' and companies' names and logos. These had probably provided funding and thus wanted their names shown in return. Fine, but it reminded me somewhat of the manner in which sponsors' names are pushed in your face by similar panels at large sports event.
In a little side room there are two computer workstations, but they were not switched on so I didn't check out what may have been on them for further study. There were no staff anywhere to be seen during the time of my visit.
On a tais-covered table by the exit a donation box is provided, and in front of this was a folder with laminated newspaper cuttings that mostly reflected the coverage of the story of the Balibo Five in the Australian press.
The square outside the Balibo Flag House is dominated by one of those Indonesian “Integration Monuments” which you can still find all over the country. This is a particularly drastic one depicting a rather white, bearded man with a flag and broken chains (or in this case rather ropes) around his bare chest, in the typical manner in which the Indonesians
tried to glorify their annexation of East Timor
as a “liberation” of its people. Local graffiti sprayers made their opinions of the monument clear, though: I saw several skulls and crossbones on the black wall at the base of the monument!
On the hillside behind the Indonesian monument stands a newer one listing the names of the “martyrs” killed here by pro-Indonesian militias in September 1999.
There are still several ruins of houses around, mostly just empty shells, but at least one of them had a sign outside that seemed to promise EU funding for development … Not far from the square, there is supposed to be Balibo Fort, a former Portuguese customs and border observation post, but I did not have a chance to visit it myself.
The name “Balibo 5” is also applied to the open-air cafe directly adjacent to the Balibo Flag House. You can also find it in the form of graffiti in various places in the village as well. The Balibo Five story seems to almost define the local identity here.
Even though the commodification of the place is not especially rich and elaborate it is still one of the most significant places a dark tourist can go and visit in East Timor
. It's a bit of a pilgrimage trek to get there, but recommended!
on the main square in the small village of Balibo in the westernmost part of East Timor
near the Indonesian
border, a good ten miles (15 km) drive from the border town of Batugade or 80 miles (125 km) from the capital Dili
Access and costs: quite remote, but not too difficult to get to by car, preferably as part of a longer guided tour with a driver; otherwise free.
It's best and easiest to get there by private transport, either a car with a driver/guide or self-drive hire car or motorcycle. The roads from Dili
to Balibo aren't so bad and were actually undergoing upgrading at the time I was there.
By public transport you could get the bus from Dili to Maliana and have yourself dropped off at Balibo … but then you face the problem of onward or return travel.
When driving yourself, take the main coastal road west from Dili
and pass through Liquica and Maubara
and proceed in the direction of the border town of Batugade. In Batugade turn left at the main square (right would take you to the border crossing point) and carry on along the increasingly winding road uphill to Balibo's central square. The Balibo Five Flag House is the first on the right – impossible to miss (just look for that flag!). Driving time from Dili
should be between three and four hours.
Admission free; but you are encouraged to put a donation in the box provided that looks like a radio. The donations are to fund community projects in the Balibo subdistrict.
Opening times: Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12 noon and from 2 to 5 p.m., Sundays open only from 10 a.m., closed on public holidays.
Time required: not long, between 10 minutes for a quick look, and maybe 30-45 minutes if you want to read everything.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under East Timor
– Aipelo, Liquica and Maubara
are all by the main coastal road you'd have to take to get to Balibo from Dili
, so these places would make most sense as stopovers en route, especially if you then travel onwards south into the highlands.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under East Timor
- 01 - Balibo Five House
- 02 - replica flag painting
- 03 - exhibition inside
- 04 - information
- 05 - flags united
- 06 - computer stations
- 07 - donations box and folder with newspaper cuttings
- 08 - Balibo Five cafe next door
- 09 - Indonesian integration monument just opposite
- 10 - memorial to victims of the 1999 violence
- 11 - ruin
- 12 - another ruin - but European help is in sight
- 13 - local legend