Love and the constant crusader

Shirley Shackleton has spent 20 years seeking justice for a brutal crime that continues to influence how Australians view Indonesia. 

He is preserved on film as forever young. His last photos show his dark good looks as he talks to the camera in front of a thatched hut; it was a microphone, not a gun, that he carried off to the war that killed him. But she is a grandmother now, greyed, rounded, wrinkled. “Someone described me recently as Greg Shackleton’s mother,” Shirley Shackleton says placidly, not offended by the mistake. “And I thought, `Yes, I’m getting older, but he always stays the same’. ” She insists that inwardly, too, she has changed and moved on from that terrible time. Monday will be the 20th anniversary of the day her husband, Greg, and four of his colleagues, members of two Australian-based television news teams, were murdered by Indonesian troops invading the East Timor town of Balibo. At the time Indonesia was denying plans to take over the territory but Timorese were alleging that troops had already crossed the border. The journalists had gone to find out the truth.

Shackleton agrees to interviews to help publicise the continuing misery of the Timorese, but is angry that the media have frozen her in time as something she has been determined not to be: a weeping widow, a cob-webbed Miss Havisham whose life stopped when she lost her one true love. She says that she doesn’t need sympathy but the Timorese do. Look to the needs of the living; there is nothing to be done for the dead.

But Shirley Shackleton’s dead husband, and the Timor issue itself, are not yet buried. Her widowhood, and her insistence on taking a public stand against Indonesian abuses to the north, have helped keep the Timor debate in front of Australians.

The events that ignited her fury 20 years ago the slaughter of non-combatants by a foreign government and the refusal of her own to protest about it are in the past. But the policies that led to the deaths of at Balibo Indonesia’s determination to suppress Timor and Australia’s commitment to countenancing it continue to cause suffering.

And Shackleton, like an enraged prophet of the Old Testament, will not cease her public denunciations. Recently it was to a class of primary school children. “Can anyone tell me of any country on Earth that would allow another country to come in and take over? Can you imagine that happening here? Would your parents just say, `Oh, they’re going to take the house, the school, your clothes, your toys, but that’s all right, just let them do it?’ They said, `No!’ I said, `Well, that’s what your government wants you to think happened in Timor’. ” Then she made half of the students sit down and told those standing, “You’re still alive; they’re all dead. That’s what happened in Timor.” She will not go away; she will not temper her words. Perhaps for Indonesia, the biggest mistake at Balibo was killing a man loved by someone as determined and as bloody- minded as Shirley Shackleton.

Shackleton lives on her own, except for the occasional guest, in a battered weatherboard close to town. It overflows with the clutter of a busy life. She is small, intense and voluble.

Words pour from her in torrents, seeming to reveal all but somehow leaving a sense something is sheltered inside.

Her days are full. She has just finished writing the first of a trilogy of novels, she’s fighting the Grand Prix at Albert Park “It’s just like East Timor; those bastards believe they can take what they like and to hell with the consequences for the people” and there is the campaign to free Timor.

This year she has talked about Timor in Perth, Brisbane and Canberra; Sydney is next, and she expects invitations from Japan and Portugal.

While grief has not frozen her, there is no doubt the killing has been a defining event in her life. “Sometimes I think I didn’t really grieve properly at all,” she says. “Sometimes I think there’s a big dark hole down there and one day there’s going to be hell to pay.

“But I can tell you this: if you can even imagine a role for yourself in that state you’re in, whether it’s full grief or part grief, then you’re on the way to good mental health.

And the role I saw for myself was to never ask for publicity, and never to cry in public, but to ask questions that any Australian had the right to ask what happened to my husband and his colleagues? and to give out information (about Timor) as I
have received it.”
She will always wonder how much Greg and the others suffered, and heard one horrific story on her 1989 visit to Timor that she lowers her voice to repeat: “They hung them up by their mouths and threw short knives at them and built fires under them. I was told that story by two different Timorese, and two priests that I mentioned it to said it was common there now, to put fear into people. `It’s nothing for us to come out in the morning and find someone hanging from a tree outside his house in that way, penis and ears cut off, bleeding to death . . .’ ” James Dunn does not believe the news crews died that way: “I think she goes a little overboard in some things,” he says. But Mr Dunn, a former Australian consul to Timor and author of Timor: A People Betrayed, says he has an affection for Shackleton and her work and that she has been significant in helping keep the Timor issue alive in Australia.

“I think Shirley’s important in that she’s the blood link with the (journalist) victims. Of all the relatives of the victims, she has been the most continually outspoken; the passion has never subsided.” The Shackleton marriage had not been a bed of roses. They were separated when Greg went on the Timor assignment, but undecidedly so. They married when he was 20 and she was 33 and had a child soon afterwards; their son Evan went to his dad’s 21st birthday party. She still thought of Greg, then 28, as her best friend, and he was insistent that they not seek the finality of divorce.

Before he went to Timor he made her promise to sell the house to raise money to free him if captured. “And he knew I would. That shows the closeness of the relationship, that he would even ask.”
There has been no funeral, no grave, no big inquiry; no formal moment of farewell or finality. The only certainty is that whatever happened was painful and unjust. It leaves Shackleton with no shields against the similar ways in which the East Timorese suffer now.

“What does it matter how terrible it was for me?” she asks fiercely. “It was terrible, but I was still eating, I wasn’t getting raped when I walked out of my front door, I didn’t say goodbye to my son every morning and wonder if I would ever see him again, which is what’s happening in Timor.

” Shackleton says she talks about the past only if asked.
She has seen what happens to people who let it eat into their lives. The deaths might have been at Balibo but the consequences have fallen like dominoes in lives in Melbourne. Greg’s uncle committed suicide; so did his mother. “(She) committed suicide not because Greg was killed but because Australian politicians obviously didn’t give a stuff.”
She does not believe that there is any purpose to the death and destruction that events in Timor have brought to her family: “If there is, it’s a very shoddy purpose.” But she sees a certain serendipity to some events. As a result of an interview she did with the BBC, she met a man from Yorkshire Television.

Because of what she told him he went to Timor, made a documentary and left a young cameraman there on salary. The cameraman’s film of the 1991 massacre of Timorese civilians in Dili’s Santa Cruz cemetery was flashed around the world.

What would it take for her to let Timor go? The Indonesians out, she says. And it would help to lay Greg’s ghost if the men who killed him had to face court to explain their actions: “Proper respect must be paid, and the rule of law observed.

” And if Timor were free? She might go over and help them rebuild. She might go to Iran; she’s always had a fondness for their nomads. Wonderful weavers.

As we leave her house she notices a cat on the footpath, padding about in the self-contained way that cats do. She scoops it into her arms, suddenly full of concern. “I haven’t seen this one before. And where do you live? The tag says number 36, I’ll just make sure the owner knows it’s out . . .” The world has no knights on white chargers, but there are always the Shirley Shackletons.

First published in The Age.