The “Balibo Five”—30 Years Later

Shirley Shackleton—whose husband, Australian journalist Greg Shackleton, was murdered in East Timor in 1975—has been asking the same question for 30 years: “I want to know what happened to my husband and his colleagues,” she says. “Why were these people murdered in cold blood?”

Shirley Shackleton—whose husband, Australian journalist Greg Shackleton, was murdered in East Timor in 1975—has been asking the same question for 30 years: “I want to know what happened to my husband and his colleagues,” she says. “Why were these people murdered in cold blood?”

In October 1975, five Australia-based journalists—Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart (Australians), Gary Cunningham (a New Zealander), Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters (from the UK)—were sent by Australian television networks Nine and Seven to East Timor to investigate attacks along the border with Indonesian-controlled West Timor. Their assignment was to cover what was then emerging as the largest story in the region: The collapse of decolonisation in East Timor and the threat of invasion by neighbouring Indonesia.

The five journalists were murdered by Indonesian forces in Balibo on Oct. 16, 1975. Shirley Shackleton and the relatives of the other journalists had to wait a month before they knew the fate of their loved ones, and it was a further three months before Shirley realised Greg had been murdered. The Australian government was slow in confirming their deaths and only did so after an outcry by the Australian people over the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. The deaths of the “Balibo Five” have been a source of controversy ever since. Shackleton says this is because the Australian government fears Indonesia. In effect, she says, the controversy threw the blame back on the journalists for their own deaths. “Both the military and the politicians blamed the journalists for doing their job, and they are still [blaming them]. They say they shouldn’t have been there.”

One way Shackleton dealt with the grief of the loss of “her best friend” and the father of their son was to decide early on not to publicly do what she calls the “hearts and roses of the grieving widow”. She believed this would detract from the real issues and put the attention on herself rather than on the people of Timor. Over the past 30 years, Shirley has channelled her energy into helping the people of East Timor and its independence. During the 27-year Indonesian occupation of East Timor, which began in December 1975, at least 200,000 East Timorese were killed. (One estimate puts the toll as high as 308,000, a number that represents 44 percent of the population.)

One for avenue of Shackleton’s energy has been to join with others—the Victorian government, World Vision, the Nine and Seven networks, Multiplex, the Australian Peacekeeping Force in East Timor and private benefactors—to refurbish the house where the journalists were staying before they were shot. The house—called the “House of the Flag” (because her husband had painted an Australian flag on the side of the house), and now formally known as the Balibo Community Learning Centre—now houses a crèche and a café and offers programs such as sewing, computers, mechanics, literacy, sport, music and woodwork for young people. It is surrounded by basketball courts and a soccer field and has contributed greatly to the village of Balibo.

Shirley Shackleton is immensely proud of this achievement, and proud that a sign of hope has transpired from such tragedy. This has occurred despite the nightmares, and despite the negativity she has received over the 30 years. In addition to dealing with her own grief and that of their young son, Shackleton also often experienced cruel and vindictive public criticism. Gough Whitlam, then Prime Minister of Australia, made a public statement that Shirley Shackleton “had no rights, as she wasn’t even with him”. (Shirley and Greg had separated before Greg went to Timor.) Neither the fact that Greg and Shirley were best friends—nor that, together, they had Evan, their young son—seemed to enter Mr Whitlam’s mind. Others alleged that Shirley was “an Indonesian hater”, which she says is far from the truth; that she was bitter and twisted, and an eccentric. (She freely admits to being an eccentric.) She claims she has been lied to by the Indonesian government, the Australian government and the British government—the latter after she met Anthony Wedgwood Benn (a member of the British Labour party at the time) who took her to lunch at the House of Lords in London. It was there, she said, that “Tony admitted that he had lied over the journalists in Balibo, lied about the village, lied about the Timorese, because that is what his government told him to do.”

Evan Shackleton was just seven years old when his father was murdered. He was initially unwilling to accompany his mother to Balibo for the opening of the Community Learning Centre in 2003. At the insistence of his wife and his boss, Evan attended the opening ceremony with other family members of the Balibo Five. There, Shirley recalled, “he cried, as we all did at the ceremony”. Shirley reported that “on the way back he said, ‘I am a new man’. He is not touchy feely. The next day he came rushing into my room and he said ‘I didn’t have a nightmare mum’. He had been having a recurring nightmare since Greg was murdered and they stopped the day he went to Timor.”

“He never told me about the nightmares, but I knew. I thought, I don’t want to put him through the trauma of talking about it unless he wants to. I didn’t know they had affected him so deeply, I didn’t realise they were that bad.” “After (going to Balibo), he also decided to go out on his own and start his own chambers as a lawyer, and he says that it is directly because of going to Balibo – it was a kind of resurrection. He now has his first house and he is just ecstatic. For me, it is truly joyful to see him like that.”

However, the story of the Balibo Five is far from finished. There has never been a full judicial inquiry into their deaths. On Dec. 8, 1975, Roger East, an Australian journalist who had gone to Timor to report on the deaths of the Balibo Five, was shot dead on a wharf in Dili, along with many Timorese, as part of a mass execution. In 1999, Sander Thoenes, a young Dutch journalist went to report on the continued struggle of the Timorese people. He also was shot dead in Dili. There has never been a full enquiry into either of these deaths and significant questions about these murders remain.