Journalist Who Filmed Santa Cruz Massacre Dies
Updated: Nov 15
“When the Indonesians began shamelessly killing, stabbing, beating, of course, I had to film.”
Max Stahl, a British journalist who filmed the Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor and “changed the destiny” of the former Portuguese colony, died nearly 30 years later, reported Jornal de Noticias (October 29).
Stahl died in a hospital in Brisbane, Australia, after a lengthy battle with throat cancer on October 27, according to BBC News (October 29). He was 66. The second president of Timor and 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jose Ramos-Horta, announced the news on Facebook, reported Correio da Manha (October 29).
He adopted the name, Max Stahl, for security reasons when he returned to East Timor in 1999. He was born Christopher Wenner in the United Kingdom. After acting in the Dramatic Society at Balliol College of the University of Oxford, he joined the popular British children’s program, Blue Peter, for two years. He had a role in the 1984 Doctor Who adventure, The Awakening. He did return to Blue Peter in 1983 and 1998 to celebrate the show’s birthdays. Then, in 1985, he began his journalism career as a war correspondent in Beirut.
A father of four, he ran his own production company while working as a journalist.
Stahl began his connection with East Timor three months before the massacre in August 1991. He had been granted Timorese nationality in 2019. The state decorated him with the Order of Timor, which is the highest award that can be given to a citizen.
On November 12, 1991, Indonesian security forces and police fired indiscriminately in a cemetery in Dili to disperse a peaceful demonstration of 3,000 mostly young people, some in school uniforms. The protest had been triggered by the death of Sebastiao Gomes, a youth who Indonesian troops had killed in a church, where he and about 20 other opposition activists had been hiding days before, reported Amnesty International (November 21, 1991).
Correio da Manha reported:
“When the Indonesians began shamelessly killing, stabbing, beating, of course, I had to film,” said Stahl, who had entered the country as a tourist but was filming a documentary for Yorkshire Television. “For me, it was not a choice.”
At the cemetery, the Indonesian military killed 74 people. In the following days, more than 120 people died in hospital or by the persecution of the occupying force, reported Jornal de Noticias. Most bodies were never recovered.
American journalists, Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn witnessed the massacre. Goodman is now a host of the TV, internet and radio show, Democracy Now! and Nairn’s writings have focused on U.S. policy in East Timor, Indonesia, Haiti and Guatemala. As Stahl filmed the massacre, Goodman and Nairn tried to shield the Timorese by standing between them and the soldiers, who began beating Goodman. When Nairn tried to protect her, the soldiers beat him with the butts of their M-16s, a U.S. military armament, fracturing his skull.
Stahl’s film brought the eyes of the world and its indignation to East Timor’s fight for freedom from Indonesia, which claimed that it championed anti-Communism and anti-colonialism.
“Up until Santa Cruz, there was so much denial in the international community about what was happening, “said Dutch journalist, Saskia Kouwenberg, who hid the videotape in Australia to prevent it being confiscated by the authorities, who strip-searched the camera crew in Darwin, having been tipped off by Indonesia. She sewed two large knickers together, scratched the inside of her nose until she cried and let blood spill onto the fabric, where she placed the film, according to Diario de Noticias (November 11, 2016).
“Here, we had an example where the Indonesians said nothing had happened, and the images showed the opposite: that something big had happened.”
At first, Indonesian authorities described the massacre as a spontaneous reaction to violence from the protesters or as a misunderstanding.
Kouwenberg said: “These images made a big difference, especially in Portugal because people in the chapel and cemetery were praying in Portuguese. And in a few days, every house in Portugal would light candles for Timor, committing themselves not to leave Timor again.”
Solidarity groups organized in Portugal, Australia, Japan, Germany, Malaysia, Ireland, Brazil and the United States.
The Portuguese government amplified its diplomatic campaign for East Timor, which declared itself independent from Portugal in 1975 but, then, was invaded by Indonesia. It tried, unsuccessfully, to apply pressure on its fellow European Union members. However, some member states such as the United Kingdom had close economic relations with Indonesia, including arms sales, and were reluctant to jeopardize the relationship.
The U.S. Congress voted to cut off funding for training of Indonesian military personnel, although arms sales continued to the Indonesian National Armed Forces. In 1999, President Bill Clinton cut off all U.S. military ties with the Indonesian military.
In Australia, there was criticism of the government’s recognition of Indonesia’s sovereignty over East Timor. The government had been promoting increased ties with the Indonesian military at the time of the massacre. However, in 1999, it temporarily cut off military ties in response to the violence after that year’s independence referendum.
The massacre is commemorated as a public holiday in East Timor, which voted overwhelmingly in a United Nations referendum for independence from Indonesia in 1999. Indonesian-backed militias killed 1,400 Timorese and pushed 300,000 into West Timor as refugees. After a U.N. transition period, East Timor was recognized as an independent nation in 2002.
Max Stahl is second from the right.
Stahl’s massacre footage was shown in In Cold Blood: The Massacre of East Timor on Britain’s television network, ITV, in January 1992. The documentary was the winner at the inaugural Amnesty International UK Media Awards in 1992.
Moving on, he began work as an investigative journalist and film-maker working in Latin America, the Caucasus, the Baltic and the Balkans, according to BBC News.
In 2000, he received the Rory Peck Award, the world’s leading prize for independent camera journalism as well as awards from the New York Film Festival and the U.K. Royal Television Society, reported BBC News.
The first president of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao, lamented the death of Stahl, remembering that the journalist’s work “changed the destiny of the nation”, reported Correio da Manha. In a card sent to Stahl’s widow, Gusmao underscored the fact that the film of Stahl “exposed the repression and brutality” of the Indonesian occupation.
“Few people have been able to make such a significant contribution to a nation,” he stressed, affirming that the journalist “was loved by the Timorese” and that the country “is in mourning”.
The Portuguese state highlighted the “fundamental role” of Max Stahl in the “fight of East Timor for self-determination” in its condolences to his family. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also wrote:
“Our condolences to his family, friends and, also, the Timorese people who lost someone who gave an inestimable contribution to their history.”
The Portuguese began to trade with Timor in the early 16th century and, eventually, colonized it. Skirmishing with the Dutch resulted in an 1859 treaty in which the Portuguese ceded the western half of the island. Japan occupied East Timor during World War II, but Portugal resumed colonial authority after the Japanese surrender. Following Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in 1974, the country began a process of decolonization, which included East Timor. Indonesia took over, brutalizing the country.
Stahl was the third of four sons of Michael Alfred Wenner, a British author, company director and diplomat who served as ambassador to El Salvador (1967-1971) and Gunnilla Stahle, who was Swedish. A painting of Wenner sits in the National Portrait Gallery.
Before attending Oxford, Stahl was educated at Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit boarding school in Lancashire. Founded in 1593, the school’s motto is Quant Je Puis (As Much As I Can).
Surely, he lived up to his school’s motto.