Subject: Age/E.Timor: Fear bars family reunion

Received from Joyo Indonesian News

The Age March 17, 2001

Fear bars family reunion


Death threats and intimidation have forced United Nations officials to abandon efforts to reunite children living in primitive Indonesian orphanages with their parents in East Timor.

A prominent pro-Jakarta Timorese activist, Octavio Soares, warned that if any member of an international organisation "dare mess with the kids, I will not hesitate to kill them".

"I swear, I will protect and take good care of them and protect them with my last blood," he said in an interview with The Age.

Humanitarian workers suspect East Timorese living in Java are blocking UN attempts to repatriate the children because they want to indoctrinate them as activists to push for East Timor's reintegration with Indonesia.

The Age has learnt that letters from 14 of the children's parents in East Timor asking them to come home were taken from them several weeks ago by friends of Mr Soares.

The deeply traumatised children have become pawns in a tug-of-war that will decide their future. They are confused and sceptical about UN assurances that their parents have returned from refugee camps in Indonesian West Timor, where they last saw them.

Many of the children have been told that the UN only wants to take them away from orphanages because they get money for transporting them.

Sister Josefinia, a nun helping to care for 73 of the children at Saint Thomas' orphanage near the East Java city of Semarang, said one of the children cried herself to sleep when she was told she would be leaving.

Julmiro Sarmento Pinto, 12, said the first time he heard the UN wanted to take him home "I got confused".

"How is it possible that my parents, who insisted that I must study in Java in the first place, now want me to go back to them without having finished my school?" he said.

Two UN officials trying to negotiate the return of a first group of 14 children from Saint Thomas' were this week the targets of verbal intimidation and threats, said Bernard Kerblat, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Mr Kerblat was quoted in the East Timorese capital Dili by the AFP news agency as saying that the "case was almost completed and the (UNHCR) team had been due to begin the last interviews with the children before they leave to join their parents who had asked for their return".

Asked about the threats, Mr Soares said the UNHCR must have misinterpreted his comments. But he said he and his friends had argued with UNHCR officials over the children's future.

Mr Soares said an employee of the UNHCR asked him on Thursday to let the children return to East Timor with her. "I said, `Are you out of your mind?' She's a foreigner, coming out of nowhere and suddenly asking for the children. So I said, 'No, sorry, you can't do that."'

The Age revealed last October that about 130 East Timorese children aged between six and 17 were living in Indonesian orphanage shelters under the supervision of Catholic nuns and volunteers who struggle to provide them with food, clothing and medicines. The UNHCR promised at the time to reunite the children with their parents but efforts stalled because of the murders of three UN aid workers in West Timor.

The forced evacuation of all foreigners working in the refugee camps where all of the parents were believed to be living prevented UN officials obtaining requests for the children to be repatriated.

But UN officials discovered recently that 14 sets of families had returned to UN-administered East Timor. After contacting them, the parents said they wanted their children to come home.

The children are among as many as 1000 who were separated from their parents at the height of violence in East Timor in 1999 and later in the West Timor camps.

Mr Soares and his friends persuaded parents of the 130 children taken to five Indonesian orphanages that they would receive a better education in Java.

But UNHCR officials said the parents agreed that the children be separated from them at a time of chaos and fear. They said the separations were against the spirit of UN conventions protecting children.

Mr Kerblat, the UNHCR spokesman, said the threats and intimidation towards UN officials had come from members of the Hati Foundation, an organisation with close links to Indonesian government departments.

Mr Soares, a nephew of the former Jakarta-appointed governor of East Timor, Abilio Soares, is secretary-general of the foundation whose website says its aims include "empowering Timor customs, specifically East Timor in the frame of Indonesia's unity".

Sister Angelina, the senior nun at Saint Thomas', said representatives of Hati got upset and raised their voices in front of the children this week when they learnt that UNHCR officials had met the children without them being present.

"The Hati staff were probably confused and felt cheated but they should not have got angry in front of the children because we agreed not to argue on anything in front of the children," she said.

Mr Soares said it was up to the children to decide whether they wanted to return to their parents. But he said the UNHCR had threatened him, while the media and others had accused him of exploiting the children for political purposes.

Mr Soares said the UNHCR was only trying to accomplish its targeted repatriation program.

"Well, they can have their program," he said. "But please don't try to influence the children. Not like the way they did. I mean, the children have been very traumatised by East Timor. They are easily upset if they hear certain news from East Timor. That's why they were upset when they received letters the UNHCR brought them."

Mr Soares said he was concerned that the children, if returned, would face a tougher, more dangerous life in East Timor.

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