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Review: At the scene of the crime

Review: At the scene of the crime
Published: Dec 16, 2012

Essays, reflections and poetry on East Timor, 1999-2010


Helene van Klinken

If you want to learn more about Timor Leste, Pat Walsh is well worth learning from. He has been passionately and fully engaged with East Timor since the invasion by Indonesia in 1975. The value of this anthology of writings lies in what we learn from the author’s perspective on many of the pressing issues facing East Timor. Initially I was a bit confused about how the ‘bits and pieces’ (poems, reflections, essays and reports) in his book fitted together, but gradually the picture came into focus. Reconciliation is a thread that runs throughout and is what spoke most to me.

For Walsh, recording the past and preserving the truth is essential for long-term reconciliation, and this book is part of his personal contribution to this end. With equal engagement he continues to work for the preservation of archives: in Timor-Leste he envisages a sort of ‘Timor Ark’ like ‘Noah’s biblical ark, to bring together material from a time of near extinction’; and he is currently assembling brochures, pamphlets, films from Australians, covering the same period.

Walsh’s commitment to reconciliation led to his involvement in setting up and advising the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR), 2001-2005; then with the Post CAVR Technical Secretariat, 2005-2010. Indeed this work crowns his life of activism and advocacy for human rights, a commitment that was acknowledged earlier this year when he received the Order of Australia (AM) in the Australia Day 2012 Honours Awards.

No foreigner is more passionate or knows more about the CAVR and its final report, Chega! than Pat Walsh. About one third of Scene of the Crime refers to the CAVR. However, it does not give an insider’s account or a detailed analysis; rather, the reader is given a taste of its essence by an authoritative connoisseur who brings the CAVR to life in an accessible way. This is useful as the full text of the original report runs to 3,500 pages. The information is presented as the scripts of presentations in various forums and also as private reflections with entries following a strictly chronological date of writing. Again reconciliation is highlighted.

In 2008, at Trinity College, Dublin, Walsh talked about the special status of reconciliation and the reference to the CAVR in the new constitution of the new country of Timor-Leste. It is unique in history and gives the CAVR the mission of contributing to the creation of a new society based on the ideals of reconciliation. In Melbourne in 2009, addressing the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Walsh pointed out that one reason Catholic East Timorese are able to understand reconciliation is because they relate it to the Catholic rite of confession.

Other texts offer insights into not only reconciliation but also tolerance, the need to address human rights abuses and impunity. From them we also learn much about the author. These texts are equally interesting for those who know Pat Walsh and those who don't, and for those familiar with East Timor and those who are not. They come in the form of personal stories, letters, poems, project ideas and proposals.

We get a glimpse of a man who, when he sees a need, responds concretely. On one occasion he and his wife Annie, were out walking when they came across a group of dislocated families. The leader of the group, Dominggos Monteiro, had dreamt the previous night that help to get new homes was on its way; a dream the couple of course generously and diligently helped to fulfil.

Walsh’s ideas and suggestions are all about helping to build and heal community. The steps needed for implementing the ideas are often worked out in the smallest detail. Rehabilitating the old Indonesian-era tennis courts was a particular passion. He thought back to the tennis courts in small country towns of his youth in Victoria. Every town had one and everyone was welcome—they created community. He has a well-thought-out list of challenges and an honour board of founding members. One idea which did not get up was his suggestion for a parallel Olympics in Dili, to be held at the same time as the Sydney Olympics in 2000. In his musings he outlined the rationale, budget, and a list of sports, including children’s games – marbles, kite-flying and pushing a tyre – a favourite game of Timorese kids. He even suggests a logo, a child running with a tyre, and not five but thirteen interlocking rings, one for each district!

Despite the fair amount of advice Walsh offers (such as to churches to stay out of politics), it is done in a spirit of humility, and deep respect for the Timorese shines through. The failure of the UN Transitional Administration, the governing authority until full independence in 2002, to include East Timorese in any significant way in decisions about the formation of their new administration caused him deep pain; as did the lack of resources it provided to its East Timor partner, the CNRT (National Council of Timorese Resistance), such as for its Baucau office.

He also respects Indonesians. He does not hesitate to take to task a few Australian friends for their careless, indeed misleading, references to Indonesians in their recent publications – concerned that such thoughtlessness will not help the process of reconciliation. It was his love for Indonesia and dedication to human rights in that country that led him to co-found this magazine in 1983. I am sure that Indonesian readers will respond warmly to the Indonesian translation of his book. On the cover is a photo Walsh took of a brilliant sunset looking west from Dili towards Indonesia, because the light there represents for him positive change in Indonesia towards East Timor. I found particularly intriguing a chapter about Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), who later became the first president after the end of the dictatorship. In the mid-1990s he visited Melbourne and Walsh describes guiding the almost blind Gus Dur over uneven Melbourne footpaths to clandestine meetings to discuss ways to resolve the impasse in East Timor.

The book is peppered with Walsh’s wry sense of humour. He wanted to give a packet of cigarettes to Father Peter, his prospective host when he first went to Dili in 2002, but the horrific warnings of the dangers of smoking on the boxes available in Darwin airport were rather off-putting – he settled on one with the warning, ‘smoking when pregnant harms your baby,’ as the least detrimental to his celibate mate!


The author’s small selection of poetry which ends the book gives us a glimpse of the source of hope and deep spirituality that drives this remarkable man. Themes include empathy, wonder and re-birth: on reflecting in a dark place, ‘the mind is unhitched to gallop and frolic like a pup’; on a refreshing swim in the beach off Dili, he is ‘carried away from the hurting land to float under ploughed paddocks of snow’; on contemplating the image of a young girl, ‘Number 9,’ in the Tuol Sleng museum in Phnom Penh, ‘I expect to relate and understand, but dumbstruck I have nothing for you … Number 9...what should we do to make up to you?’

The book ends with the poem 'Walking up Golgotha', a challenging climb following the Stations of the Cross up the hill called ‘Golgotha’ near the author’s home in Dili. He likens this climb, which ‘squeezes out sweat like blood’, to the struggle of the Timorese to reach their land of hope, while stretched out below is the ‘scene of the crime’. At the end of the book I felt that I too had been on a journey. He helped me to look with different eyes and a changed heart at the scene below. In relation to Timor-Leste, political analysis can be depressing, economic and social statistics bleak; this book gave me a different way of thinking about commitment to truth and reconciliation. It was deeply moving, and inspired hope.

Pat Walsh, At the Scene of the Crime: Essays, reflections and poetry on East Timor, 1999-2010, Mosaic Publishing, Northcote Vic., 2012. It is also available in Indonesian, Di Tempat Kejadian Perkara: Tulisan, refleksi, dan puisi tentang Timor-Leste, 1999-2010, Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, Jakarta, 2012. For updates on Timor and Indonesia you can also visit Pat's website,

Helene van Klinken ( volunteered briefly at the CAVR in 2003 and is the author of Making them Indonesians: Child transfers out of East Timor, Clayton Vic., Monash University Publishing, 2011.

Inside Indonesia 110: Oct-Dec 2012

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