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

Maya Friera's letter home is filled with reassurances for her parents. The 8-year-old promises she's studying hard and saying her prayers every day.

What she'd most like from home, she says, is a picture of Mom and Dad. "It's been a long time since I came here,'' she says, sitting under a pavilion at the Wonosobo, Central Java, orphanage she shares with 52 other East Timorese children. "I miss them."

Maya is one of an estimated 1,900 East Timorese "orphans" separated from their parents in September 1999, when the former Indonesian province voted for independence. In response, the Indonesian military drove 200,000 East Timorese from their homes into Indonesian West Timor, dividing thousands of families.

Though international attention has focused on Indonesian courts' faltering effort to account for the brutal withdrawal, the children's stories are a reminder of the lingering wounds left by Indonesia's 25-year occupation of the tiny country.

More than distance separates many of these children from their parents. Maya – along with 156 other children – is in the care of the Timor Hope Foundation, which has farmed out children to various facilities in Java. The foundation is run by Octavio Soares, an exiled East Timorese who supported the territory's integration into Indonesia. The political ties of the foundation have led to suspicion and angry confrontations between Soares and the United Nations, and in a few cases, delays in reuniting children with parents.

"Some of these kids are a little brainwashed. They've been told that life in East Timor is horrible, so they're so worried about what could happen to them if they go home," says Choosin Ngaotheppitak, a representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jakarta.

The commissioner is currently helping 22 East Timorese parents who've responded to a radio and information campaign to reunite with their children. Over the past year, 21 children have been returned to their parents.

Dr. Soares claims that he has a legal right to keep the children, based on documents the parents signed when he took custody. Moreover, the foundation and its supporters in the East Timorese exile community say many of these parents don't really want their children back.

The UN, he says, fails to understand East Timorese culture, in which it is common for families to give up children to those who can better provide for them.

"The UNHCR has been spreading bad stories about me,'' says Soares, who delayed the return of 18 children for more than a year until the Indonesian government intervened. "The UN doesn't care if these kids go to school. They want to send them back into terrible conditions."

Uncertain future

Arid and poor, East Timor is a tiny land of 700,000 people that saw most of its infrastructure disappear during the Indonesian withdrawal. The young nation is short of members of almost every profession, including teachers.

All signs are that the children are well treated at the Wonosobo facility, a simple three-building complex amid the terraced rice paddies of central Java. While the younger boys play soccer on a dirt lot after school, a group of boys and girls practice a line dance to an Indonesian disco hit.

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.

"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."

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