For some it’s a news event; for others, a wrong that has never been made right. But for Anne E Stewart, the recurring stories of the Balibo Five – now the subject of a feature film – strike agonisingly close to home.
My oldest brother Tony was our father’s son, tall and lanky. Both were great sportsmen. Dad barracked for the St Kilda footy club; Tony for Collingwood. They were just starting to enjoy a regular game of tennis, followed by a few beers. Now that Tony had left home and was a young working man they were starting to become good mates.
Tony emulated my father in other ways, too. They were both charming, the life of the party, and shared dozens of sayings, phrases of rhyming slang and quips. I remember how, in moments of happiness shared with family and friends, Tony had inherited one of Dad’s sayings: “You wouldn’t be dead for quids, would you Harry?”
His tragic murder, at an inconsequential little crossroads town in East Timor called Balibo, on 16 October 1975, has made a mockery of the saying ever since. Whenever I hear it I still think of Tony.
I come from a big, loving, extended family – mum and dad, brothers and sister, aunties and uncles, dozens of cousins… Tony’s death is counted amongst other family deaths: my dad, Noel, And mu mum June, have gone; so too grandparents and cousins, too young.
But Tony, the lad from North Caulfield, has earned himself a place in the annals of Australian history and we have all had to endure the retelling of the story over and over again. Countless newspaper headlines and articles; the same haunting passport photo of Tony looking so stern; and, year after year, reports, books, academic research, different suppositions about their torturous deaths. Now there’s a major motion picture.
One evening, just the other week, I self-consciously walked the red carpet with Anthony La Paglia and Robert Connolly, star and director of the movie Balibo at the opening night of the Melbourne International Film Festival. It was an event I hadn’t looked forward to: just another occasion to be endured. I’d already seen the film, with a cousin, Jenny. We sat together, bawling. “What gonzos!,” she said of the self-assured media men.
Now I have some perspective, it’s the mythic proportions that unsettle me. Tony as hero?
We know he was a hit with the ladies. I received an email from a long-lost admirer the other day, prompted by this latest round of media hype: “Not only was he drop-dead gorgeous, but so bloody funny...” She recalled Tony’s love of Monty Python, their renditions of the dead parrot sketch and “usually being too drunk to sing all of the philosopher’s song.”
I can picture him mimicking Monty Python.
I also remember that he had a filthy temper, probably brought on by his partying ways. Sometimes Mum had to shield us from a clip across the ears if we dared to sneak through the bathroom to the toilet while he was having a shower. And, one night, the rotten mongrel patiently waited for over half an hour under my bed. When I reached out to turn off my reading-light he grabbed me by the arm. I nearly died of fright.
A warrior for truth and justice… Tony?
There is a scene in the movie I can’t forget. Tony, played by Mark Winter, is the last to die. Sitting terrified in a back room, knowing all his colleagues have just been murdered, clutching on to a can of film, I would have had him murmur the word “Mum”.
It is a thought that has haunted my mother since Tony died. June was a student of World War I history. She recalls an Australian war artist commenting: “the worst thing about the battlefields was hearing grown men cry out for their mums”. She often thinks of his terror, realising he was about to die, and wonders if he called out to her in his final moments. He was just a young man; 21.
Why didn’t they leave?
The Australian Government sent the families a letter recently. Too little, too late, I say. After years of abandonment and silence and lies, a year and a half after a coronial inquiry in New South Wales officially pronounced them murdered, it was a gruesome, detailed listing of issues related to DNA testing and repatriation of the Balibo Five. Charmingly grotesque and so thoughtful after all these years.
One of the other relatives has said that if “there’s a speck of her husband’s remains she wants them home”. Also a huge public event. I don’t feel the same way and I’ve sent government officials several more questions to ponder.
A ceremony in East Timor in 2003 seems such a good place to leave their memories, with the house where they stayed refurbished as a community learning centre for the people of Balibo and a memorial to honour my brother and his colleagues.
Still, Connolly has done a mighty job. The movie reminds us that even though six white men were killed, nearly 200,000 East Timorese have died since the invasion. The people of East Timor still desperately need our support.
Anne E Stewart, a storyteller based in Victoria, is the sister of Tony Stewart, the sound recordist for HSV 7’s team in Balibo in October 1975.
Reprinted from the Big Issue 2009