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East Timor’s stolen children

Thousands of East Timorese children struggle to make sense of their transfers to Indonesia during the country's fight for independence.

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East Timorese walk along the beachfront in Dili, April 20, 2012. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

DILI, East Timor, and Jakarta, Indonesia — Not until she was at the deathbed of the man presumed to be her father did Alexhia Cordova da Silva’s life start to make sense. 

Raised by an elite political family in Jakarta, da Silva had endured years of hushed rumors about her dark, Melanesian features at social events. On the street, “slumdog” and “monkey” were regular taunts.

And then in his last breaths, her father revealed the secret: She was East Timorese, snatched away from her mother and father when she was only 24 days old. 

From 1975 to 1999, Indonesia fought a brutal war to suppress East Timor’s independence movement and control the former Portuguese colony. A reported 183,000 died from fighting, starvation and disease during the war and human rights abuses were widespread.

But this had little relevance to da Silva until her family bombshell hit. And at 19, she reacted as any angry and emboldened teenager might. She ran away from home, left her law degree and Islam in the dust and made contact with the East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão via Facebook. He became personally involved in locating her family.

“It was like an electric shock,” says da Silva of first meeting her mother. “She told me she always knew I would come home.”

With family connections in the banned independence group Fretilin, da Silva’s illiterate parents say they feared for their lives if they didn’t sign a document handing over custody of their daughter.

“They were under pressure,” she tells me in a café near her Jakarta university, “My mother said to me, ‘I knew you’re were going to be a smart girl so I wanted you to have a good future, that’s why I gave you to someone rich.’ And OK, I can accept that.”

Educated abroad and blessed with political connections that, somewhat ironically, led her back to her East Timorese family — da Silva is one of the lucky ones.

Some 4,000 children were transferred from East Timor during the 24-year occupation. Many of the Indonesian soldiers, civil servants and religious organizations that took in the children were motivated by altruism, genuinely wanting to help. But some were treated as pseudo-slaves, raised by soldiers who had murdered their parents. Others were confronted with the unfamiliarity of strict Islamic boarding schools. 

Many of the children sent to Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia were very young and from poor and remote parts of the country. In many cases, their parents were coerced into handing them over on the promise they would receive a good education.

More from GlobalPost: East Timor is changing, but not fast enough

Sjamsul Bahari's mother permitted him to be sent to an Islamic boarding school in Bandung, West Java, in 1998. Nine years old at the time, Bahari was able to remember his mother and send her annual letters, but many others were too young.

“Lots of the children were only 2 or 3 years old, so they found it difficult to tell who they were,” he explains during a tense interview overseen by two East Timorese Islamic leaders at Dili’s An Nur Mosque.

Getting an Islamic organization to acknowledge that children were contentiously removed from their parents, forced to convert to Islam, and then shipped off to Indonesia is an undeniably fraught exercise. The issue is even more sensitive because East Timor is predominately Catholic.

But Bahari admits that in Indonesia, many of the East Timorese were stressed and unhappy. In the mid-1990s, he wrote to the organization that had sent them, the Nasrullah Islamic Welfare Foundation (Yakin) in Dili, for help. They never replied. No one helped and no one was ever responsible for the ones that ran away.

“That is the tragedy of it. In a lot of cases [the children] just disappeared and nobody knows where they are,” writes Helene Van Klinken in her recently published book, "Making Them Indonesian: Child Transfers out of East Timor," which offers the first comprehensive account of East Timor’s so-called "stolen children."

A secret military document suggested that soldiers should help promote the transfer of children in order to spread Islam in East Timor and that such “suggestions” were difficult for parents to deny. Dr Klinken also notes that the transfers were “conducted in a low-key, almost secretive manner”