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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.

and almost certainly would have raised eyebrows if the children transferred were from wealthy and influential families.

Besides the one secret military document, the removals were arbitrary and never state policy, although it was former Indonesian dictator Suharto that started it. A year after Indonesia had invaded, 23 Timorese children were taken to meet the president and his wife at their private residence in Jakarta.

“The children became, on behalf of the East Timorese, putative members of his [Suharto’s] family and by extension of the Indonesian family,” explains Klinken.

The East Timorese rejected Indonesia’s annexation, which was never recognized by the UN, but was supported by the US ostensibly to keep a key submarine passageway out of Soviet control. 

Klinken suggests the resistance to Indonesian occupation may have inspired Suharto’s unofficial hearts and minds campaign.

The children sent to Islamic boarding schools were expected to return to East Timor and spread the Islamic faith. Others were raised with the expectation they would later promote East Timor’s integration with Indonesia.

Such motives echo the forced removal of Aboriginal children in Australia and babies during Argentina’s dirty war, observes Klinken.

“Young children were the target of these transfer projects as they are impressionable and easily manipulated to serve political, racial, ideological and religious aims of the power holders to civilize and assimilate, incorporate and dominate, as well as to weaken the group to which the children belonged,” she writes.

To be fair, da Silva admits she would possibly be dead or “married and pregnant” rather than foreign-educated and trilingual if she hadn’t been raised in Indonesia. Still, that doesn’t seem to make it less disorienting.

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“I like Indonesia, but I don’t really love it. I think that’s because I am not really Indonesian, I just have my life here,” she says unsteadily.

The 19-year-old hasn’t spoken to her Indonesian mother since she ran away from home late last year, and she doesn’t exactly fit in with her dirt-poor East Timorese family either.

Her parents and more than 10 siblings live in a remote village six hours drive from Dili, a world away from Jakarta’s mega malls and traffic jams. On top of that, da Silva can’t even converse directly with her father. He only speaks Tetum and Portuguese, not Bahasa Indonesian.

It’s a dislocating experience that human rights advocate Vitor da Costa knows well. When he returned to East Timor in his mid-20s, his grandmother cried at first sight of him, but they could only understand each other after they found a translator.

Before meeting his extended family (both his parents had died) he couldn’t return to the village until they had performed an animist ritual to revive him. Believing he was dead they had already built him a tomb and carried out the funeral rites.

“Somehow I could feel that they were my family,” says da Costa slowly, “although now I have to learn how to be an East Timorese again.”

These days he works with a Jakarta NGO that helps to reconnect separated family members from his homeland.

The cases of child transfers are just one example of the rights abuses that scar East Timor’s past. During the occupation, crimes against humanity and rape were widespread, and between 100,000 and 200,000 East Timorese were killed.

But almost no one has been held accountable. The country’s reconciliation process is widely perceived as a sham, purely diplomatic exercise. With the exception of a few high-profile cases, it is unsurprising then that little has been done to help transferred children find their Timorese families.

The case of East Timor shows that compromising justice for stability has become a political and economic trade-off. In a country of more than 1 million, where 41 percent live below the poverty line and the majority survives off subsistence farming, East Timor’s leaders have repeatedly espoused arguments in favor of development over due process.

That development, along with the security of the impoverished and underdeveloped nation, is premised almost entirely on a stable relationship with Indonesia – its largest trading partner and giant land-linked neighbor.

Yet the reality is that holding rights abusers to account would mean very little to people like Bahari. Nor to the mothers that seek him out at the Dili mosque with photos of their lost children.

For da Silva, meeting her family has been justice enough. Now 21, she hopes others will be able to have a similar experience.

“Even if it is just for one hug, one kiss; one look in the eye.”