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In Indonesia, a generation of 'orphans' from East Timor

East Timorese parents try to find their children, three years after Jakarta's brutal withdrawal from the former Indonesian province

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Augustina Soares, 11, and Christina dos Reyes 10, who met in a West Timor refugee camp, say they're very happy to be in Java. But there is a striking similarity to the way they answer questions on the subject of home and their families.

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"We'll go home when we graduate from school,'' says Augustina.

"That's right,'' says Christina. "We'll go home when we finish school." A third child, a boy of about 10 who has drifted over from the dancing, chimes in: "If we go home too soon, we'll never be smart.''

Both girls say it's much safer in Java. "Maybe if it was safe, I would go home for a visit,'' says Augustina.

The children's future is uncertain, since the whereabouts of most of their parents, almost all of whom signed their children over to the foundation when they were living in overcrowded, disease-ridden refugee camps in West Timor, aren't known.

Pasqual Soares Pinto and his wife, Teresa Mascarinahas Trindade, are one of the success stories.

They felt they had no choice but to give their children up when Soares approached them in November 1999. They had been living in West Timor's teeming Noelbaki refugee camp. There was little food and less clean water, and they watched in horror as dozens of their neighbors' kids succumbed to malaria, diarrhea, and malnutrition.

Mr. Pinto says Soares promised to get his children – Lidya, now 13, and Gilberto, now 8 – into a good Catholic school in Java. "I felt sick to be sending my children away ... but I felt good that I was taking my children out of danger."

The couple returned to Viquegue on the eastern tip of the island, in February 2000, but had lost track of Soares. After a year, they despaired of ever tracking down their children. Then in early 2001, they heard from a friend that the UN had united a neighbor's family. With help from the UNHCR they traced the children to convents in Java, where they'd been placed by Soares. After six months of negotiations, he released the children.

"I had cried so much,'' says Mrs. Trindade, the children's mother. "I couldn't be happy without them."

The parents say they are satisfied that the children were well looked after while in Soares's care.

Ulterior motives?

Soares's past ties have fed rumors that he's interested in more than the children's welfare.

His uncle Abilio Soares, whose portrait hangs proudly in the foundations small Jakarta office, was the last governor of Indonesian East Timor. Earlier this month, Abilio was sentenced to three years in jail for failing to take action to stop crimes against humanity in 1999.

Some have speculated that Soares wants to bring up children who will oppose East Timorese independence – a claim that isn't hurt by the banner in his Java office celebrating "integration" day.

"Maybe the idea was for them to go and help [reclaim] Timor back some day,'' says the UN's Mr. Ngaotheppitak.

Soares denies the allegation. "East Timor is finished for me,'' he says. "I have no political agenda – only my responsibility to these children."