Victor Valley College Tropical Research Initiative
Herpetofauna of Timor-Leste
Phase VII

Balibo, Bobonaro District

One of the places we wanted to visit from an historical perspective was Balibo, a name synonymous with struggle, freedom and personal sacrifice. It was here that the best known attrocity of the lengthy Indonesian annexation of East Timor took place in 1975, yet the world looked the other way and Australia may even have colluded in the execution of its citizens.

Balibo is quite close to the Indonesian West Timor border, maybe 5 kms, and the border is even closer as one drives from Maliana to Balibo. It comprises simply a dried river-bed.

The Indonesian West Timor border in the distance
click to view enlarged scene


Map of Balibo and Fiuren
mouse-over to view Google Earth satmap
click to view large topomap


Before we get into the herping near Balibo let me provide an historic background. After the Portuguese left East Timor in 1975 the country only enjoyed a few days of independence before the Indonesian invasion. First, using plain-clothed special forces and militia, Indonesia created the impression of civil strife in Timor-Leste. Second, the apparent instability and the specter of a communist take-over were used as excuses to send in regular troops and parachutists along the north coast. Cross-border skirmishes in October 1975 were filmed by five TV journalists (two Australians and one each from New Zealand, England and Scotland). The five were captured and summarily executed by the Indonesians and became known as "The Balibo Five". They became a powerful symbol of the struggle for independence. The world ignored the escalating situation, the atrocities and the murders, even after a sixth Australian journalist, Roger East, was murdered by Indonesian troops in December 1975 while investiating the disappearance of the "Five". The story is told in the book Cover Up (by Jill Jolliffe) and the movie Balibo (starring Anthony LaPaglia). You cannot visit Balibo without visiting the Flag House, refurbished in memory of the fallen journalists and the Timorese men from Balibo who died in the struggle to regain independence, a struggle that took 24 years, and then some.

Indonesian symbol of unification,
the Timorese painted the red and white flag black when the Indonesians left
Balibo town
Memorial to fallen Timorese


Balibo Flag House, formerly the Chinese House Inside the Flag House
The protective glass over where the Balibo Five had written AUSTRALIA and added a hand-drawn
Australian flag on the wall of what they dubbed the Australian Embassy
The memorial to the Balibo Five
Greg Shackleton painting the Australian flag Gyton Grantley as Greg Shackleton in Balibo

The film Balibo
click on the poster to learn more


These are the names of the murdered journalists:

Balibo Five

(l-r) Cunningham, Rennie, Shackleton, Stewart, Peters

Gary Cunningham aged 26 - New Zealander (Seven Network, Melbourne, cameraman)
Brian Peters aged 29- English (Nine Network, Sydney, cameraman)
Malcolm Rennie aged 21- Scottish (Nine Network, Sydney, reporter)
Greg Shackleton aged 28 - Australian (Seven Network, Melbourne, reporter)
Tony Stewart aged 21- Australian (Seven Network, Melbourne, sound recordist)
and of course

Roger East

Roger East aged 50 - Australian freelance journalist


These are the names of the Balibo men who also died during the struggle to re-establish independence and who are remembered in the Flag House:

Carlos de Carvalho
Cornelio Galucho
Benjamin Lucas
Francisco Rosa Maia
Aleixo Pacheco
Francisco Paicheco
Gabriel dos Santos
Patrício dos Santos
Zeca dos Santos do Silva

Balibo Five executed, soldier admits (Brisbane Times December 8, 2009)

JAKARTA: An Indonesian officer present when five Australian-based newsmen died in Balibo in 1975 says they were executed and their bodies burned to hide evidence of the invasion of East Timor.

The account by Gatot Purwanto, a former Kopassus officer and intelligence commander in East Timor, is the first time a senior Indonesian has admitted there was intent behind the killings of the so-called Balibo Five and the destruction of their bodies.

''If we let them live, they would tell everyone it was an Indonesian invasion,'' Colonel Purwanto told Tempo magazine.

''If they died and we abandoned them there would be evidence that they were shot in territory controlled by Indonesian guerillas. So the simple way was to eliminate everything. We just claimed not to know anything.''

Colonel Purwanto was a junior officer in a special forces unit when the five newsmen - Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham, Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters from Channel Nine - were killed.

The newsmen from the Seven and Nine networks were in the border town of Balibo to record the secret invasion.

Colonel Purwanto's comments came amid intense interest in the killing of the newsmen in Indonesia after the banning last week of the movie Balibo.

The action of the censors ensured an otherwise obscure film became headline news.

The interview also coincides with an Australian Federal Police investigation into possible war crimes committed at Balibo.

The investigation is targeting Yunus Yosfiah, the Kopassus commander who was accused by the NSW coroner in 2007 of ordering the murders and personally undertaking some of the killings.

Colonel Purwanto's interview is, at times, contradictory and full of gaps.

He says Jakarta did not approve the killings and that General Yosfiah is innocent.

He insists that, contrary to the findings of the NSW coroner, gunfire came from near the building where the five Australians were being held. This is part of the official Indonesian account that the men were caught in crossfire.

But Colonel Purwanto repeatedly uses the Indonesian word dieksekusi - to execute - to describe the deaths and reveals that the newsmen were ''captured alive''. This contradicts the Indonesian version of events.

He also talks frankly of the motivations of the Indonesian forces. ''If they were not executed, they could be witnesses to the fact that the Indonesian Army had invaded Timor.''

He also tells of the gruesome job of disposing of the bodies to destroy any evidence that the newsmen had been in Balibo.