Subject: Exclusive: Timor's stolen children abandoned

The Age Wednesday 25 October 2000

Timor's stolen children abandoned



Photo: Agony of separation: Seven-year-old Nersia Emaculada De Nercio holds photos of her family.Picture: JASON SOUTH

Nersia Emaculada De Nercio sits on the edge of a bed in the dormitory of an orphanage she shares with dozens of other children in central Java. She clutches the tattered photographs that are now the only link she has with her family, somewhere hundreds of kilometres away in the squalid refugee camps of West Timor.

Asked about her parents, seven-year-old Nersia proudly holds up the photographs. She says her father's name is Anthony; she cannot remember her mother's name.

Nersia is one of 130 East Timorese children taken from their parents in the camps of West Timor in the violent aftermath of the Indonesian withdrawal from East Timor last year and placed in poor orphanages in Central Java.

Humanitarian investigators and other sources have told The Age the children were relocated by pro-Jakarta Timorese who plan to indoctrinate them as political activists to push for East Timor's reintegration with Indonesia.

Investigators believe the children are among as many as 1000 separated from their parents at the height of the violence in East Timor last year and later from refugee camps in West Timor. Investigators fear many of the children have been forced to work in Indonesian factory sweatshops, plantations or as prostitutes.

The Age has found 130 of the children - aged six to 17 - living in primitive orphanage shelters under the supervision of caring Catholic nuns and volunteers who struggle to provide food, clothing and medicines to look after them.

The children, many of them deeply traumatised, have been told they will not be able to return to Timor to see their parents for three years. Even then, they would have to return to Java to continue their education.

In one of the orphanages 57 boys are living in one room under a leaky roof. Twenty-three girls are packed into three rooms in a tiny house. For 80 children there are only four toilets and several cooking pots.

Parents in the West Timor camps were persuaded their children would receive a better education in Java. They agreed for the children to go at a time of chaos and fear for the future, UN officials and humanitarian workers say.

Some parents have complained to the UN that documents were thrust on them to sign. The arguments of the men who arranged the separations were similar to those used by white Australians to separate Aboriginal children from their parents early this century. The separations go against the spirit of UN conventions protecting children.

The children, weeping and distressed, were left without prior arrangement with Catholic Church officials in the Central Java city of Semarang in November and on Christmas Eve last year after travelling from West Timor by passenger ferry.

Nuns at the orphanages say many of them suffer nightmares and are deeply unhappy. But the orphanages are managing to provide the children with a basic education and care despite an acute lack of resources.

The church fears the children will be politically manipulated and has tried to restrict visits by the men who brought them.

Brother Paulus Mudjiran of the Semarang Catholic bishop's office said the church felt trapped because it did not want to get involved in East Timor politics.

"Our job is just to care for the children," he said. "We are quite aware that others may have plans for the children. In order to minimise any political manipulation we try to minimise contact between those who brought them and the children."

The men who arranged for the children to leave their parents are closely linked to pro-Jakarta militia responsible for violence and intimidation in the West Timor camps.

One of them is Octavio Soares, a prominent Timorese student activist based in the Central Java city of Yogyakarta. Speaking by telephone from West Timor, where he is visiting the camps, Mr Soares said yesterday he arranged for the children to be sent to Java so that they could get a proper education.

"They lost everything in the war," he said. "They lost their country. I just don't want the children to lose their future. To be honest, I was in a blank when I brought the children to Java. Fortunately, some nuns agreed to take care of the children, it was just a spontaneous idea. Don't get me wrong. I did this for strictly humanitarian purposes."

Mr Soares denied he intended using the children for political purposes or to train them to be militia or soldiers to fight for the return of East Timor. "That's naive, so stupid," he said. "If I have such a bad intention, why did I not buy weapons in the first place instead of spending the money on transportation and study for the children?"

Mr Soares said he wanted to provide an education for at least 1000 Timorese children. "They will be given proper education for at least nine years so that they will become a full and better person who can fight for their own political rights when they grow up."

Mr Soares said he planned to bring more Timorese children to Java. "The plan has been delayed because I still need to obtain formal permission from the parents. I don't want to be accused of kidnapping other people's children. So many parents want me to bring their children to Java for study, but I do not have enough money to support them."

Mr Soares said he obtained money to bring the 130 children to Java from the Indonesian Government-sponsored National Foster Parents' program (GNOTA). The program was launched by former president Suharto's daughter-in-law, Halimah Bambang Triatmodjo.

Mr Soares is a nephew of the former Jakarta-appointed governor of East Timor, Abilio Soares, who faces charges over last year's violence and destruction. Abilio Soares' wife chairs the GNOTA program for East Timor.

Many pro-Indonesian Timorese groups have not given up hope of East Timor again becoming part of Indonesia. Militia leaders continue to demand that parts of East Timor be partitioned and returned to Indonesia so Timorese who voted against independence can live there.

"There is a plan for East Timor to come back to Indonesia even if it takes 20 years or more," a source who knows Octavio Soares said. "The plan is to use these children to help that cause."

Francisco Tilman, 12, told The Age at Saint Thomas' orphanage 50 kilometres south of Semarang that he was unhappy and missed his family, especially his five-year-old sister Juleta. He never got the chance to say goodbye to her.

"Octavio (Soares) got mad when I said I wanted to go home," Francisco said, looking away and fighting back tears. "I wrote a letter to my parents but they never replied."

Humanitarian workers believe many of the children's parents do not know where their children have been taken. Most of the letters the children have written to their parents have gone unanswered.

Alda Pereira, 13, who is also at Saint Thomas' orphanage, said she greatly missed her family. "I can only see them after three years," she said.

But Alda's father, Agabioto Dos Santos, pleaded in a June 16 letter for her to be brought home. "If the child does not want to stay there it is better to ask the orphanage to return her to her parents," Mr Dos Santos wrote in the letter that reached Alda. "Please, we want our child to come back to us."

Sister Maria Francine, a nun at St Thomas', said the children have had difficulty settling down. "When it was raining and there was thunder one of them yelled to the rest, `Get down.' They all dived under tables," she said.

Some of the children were suffering malaria, tuberculosis and other illnesses when they arrived. "Many still talk in their sleep in their language (Tetum)," the nun said. "Often they yell and scream and fight each other."

But last weekend, during a rare two-day stay at a church camp, the children of Saint Thomas' were worried about 13-year-old Paulina Soares. A friend from another orphanage told her that her father, a former East Timorese soldier, had died two months ago. She became hysterical and refused to eat. She stared sadly into space as other children tried to engage her in games and other activities.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose representatives have twice visited the children, revealed after being contacted by The Age on Monday that it wants to contact the parents and arrange for the families to be reunited.

But the withdrawal of UN and other international aid workers from West Timor after the September 6 killing of three UN staff has frustrated the plan.

"The principle of family unity is central to this," said Peter Kessler, the UNHCR's spokesman in Dili. "The UNHCR will support efforts to reunite these children with their families in either West Timor or East Timor."

An unknown number of the children's families who were in West Timor have returned to UN-ruled East Timor. Six families have contacted the UNHCR in Dili and asked for their children to be brought from Java. The UN has confirmed they are among the 130 children in the Java orphanages.

Mr Kessler said that because the UNHCR could not now work in West Timor, where 120,000 people in the camps are being held virtual hostage, Indonesian aid workers with access were being asked to try to track the families of the children. The UNHCR would also try to trace other parents who had returned to East Timor, Mr Kessler said.

Soni Qodri, a Jakarta-based humanitarian worker and investigator, told The Age that Indonesian non-government organisations believe up to 1000 children have been separated from their parents and brought from East and West Timor to various parts of Indonesia.

"We fear many of them are being mistreated, such as being forced to work in sweatshop factories, plantations and prostitution but evidence is difficult to obtain," he said.

Two months ago Mr Qodri went to an orphanage in the East Java town of Situbondo where he heard East Timorese children had been taken. It was early morning when he arrived, Mr Qodri said, and no supervisors were about. He asked a boy about seven where he was from. He replied, "East Timor."

But another boy, aged about 12, came up and punched the younger boy. "You are from Kupang," the older boy said, referring to the West Timor capital. The younger boy was then dragged indoors. Later, supervisors at the orphanage denied any Timorese children were there.

The UNHCR has been told the Jesuit Refugee Service has traced 16 East Timor children to an orphanage in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan.

Mr Qodri said it was wrong for any children to be uprooted from their parents no matter what the circumstances.

"The children have been taken from their families and culture and are under the influence of others," he said. "UN agencies and the Indonesian Government should immediately take steps to trace the parents and reunite these families. I am very concerned these children will fall victim to certain political groups."

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