British journalist Max Stahl died at the age of 66. Images he made of a massacre during a freedom demonstration in East Timor were crucial to the countrys struggle for independence. On the island, he is still honored as a national hero.
Stahl initially worked as an actor and presented the BBC childrens programme Blue Peter between 1978 and 1980. He later discovered that conflict journalism was better: in his career he would report on the civil war in El Salvador, the break-up of Yugoslavia and conflicts in South America.
In 1991, he moved on a tourist visa to East Timor, which had been occupied by Indonesia in 1974 when Portugal retired as a colonizer. There Stahl filmed the funeral of an activist in the capital Dili to a protest against the occupation — and Indonesian soldiers intervened hard.
“I was just setting up my camera when I heard a wall of sound: at least 10 seconds of uninterrupted gunfire,” Stahl told the BBC in 2016. “The soldiers who had arrived had opened up close fire on the group of thousands of young people.”
Stahls horrific images show how the masses of people are bumping over each other through the graveyard gate to escape the gunfire. People are looking for cover behind sores, hopping wounded by statue, or lying dying on the ground. Later, Stahl secretly filmed the military combing out the cemetery.
He noticed that the attendees were looking for him: “They showed me their injuries. They wanted the world to see it. The dying thought their own deaths were less important than the fact that their death would be meaningful.” An estimated 200 people died in the massacre.
Smuggled out of the country
Before Stahl himself was arrested, he hid his film material in a grave. Dutch journalist Saskia Kouwenberg would later smuggle it out of the country in her underwear. “It took me four days to get from Dili to Amsterdam,” she once told the CCeit Radio 1 Journal. “I literally had to fight myself into the plane because the Indonesian military were pulling me down the stairs.”
The horrific images made a deep impression in the West: for the first time Indonesian repression was shown on the island. Kouwenberg: “Before that, it was always denied by the Indonesian government: it was not easy, everyone exaggerated. But the images of young people walking bleeding to a chapel praying in Portuguese made an incredible impression.”
Advocacy organizations for East Timor were set up worldwide, Western governments began to put pressure on Indonesia, and in 1996 activists José Manuel Ramos-Horta and Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo received the Nobel Peace Prize. The island regained its independence in 2002.
Stahl became a citizen of East Timor in 2019. He died of cancer in an Australian hospital.
Former President Ramos-Horta calls him a true hero of the struggle of independence. “His film brought our message to the spotlight around the world. Politicians took it for us afterwards. Just because one man risked his life filming up close what was going on.”