Subject: BBC: The lost children of East Timor

Page last updated at 11:09 GMT, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 12:09 UK

The lost children of East Timor

By Lucy Williamson

BBC News, East Timor and Indonesia

The road to Joachim's house lies through East Timor's eastern mountains. An eight-hour drive down rutted jungle tracks littered with the ghosts of Indonesia's occupation.

Here, a decade ago, East Timor's guerrillas fought their long battle for independence. Now, the Jurassic plants stand tangled in the sunlight. Clumps of bamboo, the height of several men, creak and sway under the wide blue sky.

This is still one of the world's wild places. No phones here, no e-mail. Here, if you have a message to deliver, you deliver it in person.

And today, the Red Cross has a message for Joachim Rangel. It is the result of three years work - searching for his missing sister, Maria.

It is not good news - they have not found her. I watch Joachim's face flicker with grief. It is often the hope that hurts.

The last time Joachim saw his sister was in 1977. He watched her board a military boat with two other children, under the care of an Indonesian soldier. She never came back.

"He told us he'd keep in touch," Joachim tells me, "[that he'd] send Maria to school, and one day bring her back. But there's been nothing. So he lied to us. We feel very bad about it. We think about her a lot."

'Prickly business'

The family had pinned their hopes on the Red Cross tracing Maria inside Indonesia.

"So what will you do now?" I ask Joachim.

"That's just it," he says "I don't know."

Thousands of children were taken from East Timor during Indonesia's occupation. Some were formally adopted, others simply smuggled out in shipping crates at the end of a posting - like illicit souvenirs.

There is little paperwork, and in the brutal chaos of conflict, permission can be a slippery concept.

Finding them means finding the men who took them. But delving into the behaviour of Indonesia's soldiers here is a prickly business.

Village of Widows

The road into Kraras smells of mint - giant stems of it circle the village. The land here is unsettling - somehow too empty, as if human life were clinging on in clumps.

Kraras is known as the Village of Widows. In 1983, that is pretty much what it was.

Fourteen Indonesian soldiers had been killed by Timorese independence fighters in the village. Revenge was swift. The soldiers' comrades rounded up all the men and boys they could find - around 150 of them - and marched them down to a nearby river.

They lined them up against the bank and fired. All but three were killed.

More than one hundred thousand people died during Indonesia's 25-year occupation of East Timor, which ended in 1999.

The current presidents of both countries have said they want to draw a line under the question of who was responsible by blaming institutions - not individuals. The future is what matters they say.

Delicate balance

But friendship brings its own burdens.

"Indonesians themselves are the ones who will re-open the past chapters of their history," the East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta told me, "but on Indonesia's clock, Indonesia's agenda, Indonesia's terms".

Pushing for an international tribunal, he says, would be "stabbing [his] Indonesian friends in the back, because they have done their best to reconcile with East Timor".

But moving on is not always so easy.

Nestled in a rural village, I found something that shows exactly what missing children do to families. It was the grave of Victor Battista - a Timorese boy taken to Indonesia when he was just eight or nine years old.

But it is a grave without a body. Victor is not buried in East Timor, his relatives were just so desperate after waiting years for news, they built the grave to try and put an end to the story - and somehow, bring him home.

Unable to connect

Except then Victor really did come to visit. And that posed a bit of a problem:

"Traditionally when you've made the grave for someone," his cousin Antonio told me, "it's impossible for him to come back. If Victor does come back here permanently, we'll clean up this grave or he'll get sick, or even die when he comes home".

And so, on his brief momentous trip home, Victor never saw his father's village, or stepped onto his family land. The years of waiting had simply been too long.

But then the idea of actually living in Timor is complicated for Victor anyway.

He might long for what he has lost, but the Jakarta street where he grew up is home now. It is where his friends are, where the neighbours nag him about getting married.

Compared to this, he says, Timor did not feel like home at all:

"It was very hard to relate to my family there" he tells me. "Sometimes I wonder if they just pretend to be my relatives. I felt no connection."

We give him a letter from his cousin Antonio. "Come home" it reads.

Victor smiles wryly. "Maybe one day" he says, "not now."

Watch Lucy Williamson's full report on East Timor's lost children on Newsnight tonight at 10.30pm on BBC Two. 

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