Subject: Time: Timor's Lost Boys

Time Asia December 23, 2002

Timor's Lost Boys

Hundreds of East Timor children are held in Indonesian shelters, pawns in an old feud between Muslims and Christians


During the bloody insurrection that produced the new nation of East Timor, Hasan Basri presented residents of the small town of Venelale with a proposition: give me your youngest children. I will feed them, I will educate them, and most importantly, I will protect them. At the time, Jose Pereira, a poor local farmer, awoke each morning wondering if that day the truckload of Indonesian soldiers would appear in their vengeful hunt for independence fighters and attack his family. He listened carefully to what the stranger offered. Hasan said he had government funding. He would take the children to a school in the town of Bacau, an hour's drive away, where they would be safe. The only requirement was that the children convert from Catholicism, which is practiced by most East Timorese, to Islam, the religion of their Indonesian overlords. "He said that they could convert back later, it didn't mean anything, that they only had to pretend so the Indonesians would give the money for them to go to school," recalls Pereira, a Christian. "I trusted him and let him take away Jacinto and Marito," the youngest of his eight children, who were then five and eight years old, respectively.

Four years have passed. East Timor is peaceful and its people are getting on with the business of nation-building. Yet Pereira has not been reunited with his sons. Hasan refuses to let them go. He holds them, as he does about 50 others, in orphanages far from their birthplaces. They are part of a lost generation of East Timorese children cut adrift from their parents by civil unrest. The United Nations estimates there are 400 children like Jacinto and Marito scattered in orphanages and homes throughout Indonesia. Despite the intervention of international agencies and repeated requests from parents for their return, many remain under the guardianship of believers like Hasan who want to raise them as Muslims—as markers in the ancient struggle between Islam and Christianity. "Hasan Basri has stolen our children from us," says Pereira. "Why won't he let them come back?"

A thousand miles away, Hasan is sitting on a stained mattress in a wooden hut in the compound of his orphanage near the Javanese city of Bandung. He rages against the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), whose members have been working with parents to locate their offspring and arrange for their return home. Hasan says the children in his charge are now part of his family, and that UNHCR officials "have been lying about me for too long. If the UNHCR comes here, I'll hit them myself," he vows over and over, as he chain-smokes clove cigarettes. "I'll get the boys to hit them. I won't allow those liars to take a single one of my children away. Never."

Yes, Hasan acknowledges, he has been informed that Pereira and his wife want their sons back. "More lies," he says. He rejects all claims made on behalf of the boys' parents, alleging that documents produced by the UNHCR to prove their case are forged. Hasan does acknowledge that initial U.N. queries about Jacinto prompted him to relocate the boy to another orphanage administered by Hasan's Lemorai Foundation. A U.N. official says they believe Jacinto was moved to the remote island of Sumbawa to complicate their efforts to secure his return. "I don't understand the game the UNHCR is playing," Hasan says. "I'm no destroyer or kidnapper. I'm just a person trying to do some good in the world by giving children a better future. Ask the children. They are my witness."

But the 20 or so children in Hasan's compound in the village of Sumedang aren't talking, at least not when Hasan is around. Most avoid eye contact with visitors and disappear around corners in the orphanage, which consists of a small chicken run, four huts fashioned out of wood and bamboo where the children and adults sleep, an open air concrete toilet and a musholla, or prayer room. A skinny 9-year-old gathers his courage to speak: "I was named Joni by my parents, but that was when I was still an infidel. I am Zulhakim now that I'm a Muslim." He looks around to make sure he isn't being watched. "Sometimes, when no one sees me, I cry at nights because I miss my mother so much. They told me she had died."

Another boy, 15-year-old Zachariah, seems to want to talk. But when Hasan is near, Zachariah lowers his eyes and tries to slip away, only to be drawn back again when a visitor produces a personal letter from East Timor addressed to Hasan, complete with photos of villagers back home. The letter prompts Hasan's wife, who is from the island, to burst into tears, but Hasan shouts at her and she retreats into a rear room. Zachariah picks up the letter. Hasan has repeatedly told the teenager—who was spirited away by Hasaan's associates in 1999 without his father's acquiescence—that his parents are dead. Zachariah asks if it's possible to take a letter back to East Timor. Hasan overhears. "Shut up," he snaps. "What's the use of sending letters to infidels?" Later, Zachariah takes the visitor aside again: "Could you help me to return to East Timor next year?" he asks in a whisper. "I've heard my parents are still alive and I'd like to go back."

Although he was raised a Catholic in an East Timor village and was originally named Roberto Freitas, the 39-year-old Hasan became a Muslim when he was still a teenager. He is not the only Indonesian running questionable shelters for East Timorese children. The nephew of the former Governor of East Timor, Octavio Soares, has 156 children in his charge and has clashed frequently with U.N. officials seeking their return. Critics claim people like Soares and Hasan are motivated less by altruism and their religious beliefs than by greed. Hasan uses children "as an asset or a bargaining chip" to get donations, charges Soni Qodri from Riantara, a Jakarta-based non-governmental organization that has helped locate many of the missing.

People who have worked with Hasan claim he's simply a con man, a real-life Fagin who uses children for profit. Hasan "is a man of bad character," says Idris Luis Freitas (he is not related to him), who helped find recruits for Hasan in the 1990s. "It's nothing to do with whether he's a Muslim or not, he's just bad. He takes the names of the children and uses them to make proposals to charities for funding, then uses the money for himself. Without the children it would be impossible for Freitas to raise funds to maintain his orphanage."

Hasan vehemently denies he is doing anything wrong. He says funds for his Lemorai Foundation come from "alms given by Indonesian Muslims who care about our misfortune." He proffers documents indicating everything is on the up-and-up. Children's surnames written on the papers are frequently either "Freitas" or "da Silva," Hasan's family name and that of his wife. Filling out the documents that way strengthens his claim over the children, making Hasan appear to be their nearest relative, says Qodri of the Riantara NGO.

Hasan also produces other papers, these relating to what he cheerfully calls "my terrible past." The documents indicate he was once a low-level agent for the Indonesian military intelligence service in East Timor, a group blamed by human rights activists for hundreds of killings and disappearances. Hasan, a small man who on this day is wearing a cotton sarong, tracksuit top and traditional pillbox hat, is proud of his service as an informer. He seems puzzled as to why others might not be. In fact, he says, it was through the military that he first set out on the path to conversion. One day when he was about nine, he recalls, some soldiers visited his village accompanied by an Islamic cleric. Accustomed to regarding the military as the ultimate incarnation of power, Hasan was deeply impressed by the reverence the soldiers showed the holy man: "Can you imagine how I felt? Those powerful men in uniform looked up to the frail-looking old preacher. I decided I wanted to be like that."

Backed by government money, he says he spent six years helping East Timorese escape violence and poverty, and converting them to Islam. His best year was 1999, he says, when he smuggled 661 refugees—about two-thirds of them children—out of East Timor. "I have the right to turn my people into Muslims. And why not when others were allowed to turn East Timor to Catholicism?" His viewpoints are not universally shared by other Muslims. "I don't care about how he earns his living these days," says Salim Musalam Sagran, who has known and occasionally worked with Hasan since 1990 and is a former senior official in the influential Council of Islamic Preachers, which among other roles gives out government money to orphanages and other charities. "But I have every interest in ensuring the children's future. Freitas must realize that the children have the right to communicate with their parents, and he must let them go if they want to reunite with their families."

The UNHCR is handling requests from 33 parents who want their children back from Hasan's Lemorai Foundation, some of them scattered as far afield as Sumatra and Sulawesi. Reunions, however, are not likely to happen quickly for those in Hasan's care—or for hundreds of other displaced East Timoreese children. The U.N. can only make requests. After that it's up to the Indonesian authorities. I. Gusti Wesaka Puja, the official handling the issue at the Foreign Ministry in Jakarta, says the government is doing all it can to help. But "the fact is we have other priorities that demand much more of our attention than just these children," he says. Bureaucratic inertia and a lack of funding—it costs $500 to bring a single parent from East Timor to Sumedang—all combine to hinder progress. "It's an agonizingly slow pprocess," says Jake Moreland, a UNHCR spokesman in Dili, East Timor's capital. "And time is precious. The longer they are apart, the looser these children's links are with their parents."

Nevertheless, a few do make it home. Two months ago, Hasan's compound in Sumedang received a visit by a team of officials from the West Java provincial authorities, the Foreign Ministry and the UNHCR. Accompanying them was Agustino Pascual, Zachariah's father, very much alive. The father hugged his boy. "He is my only son," said 56-year-old Pascual, who spent three years trying to reclaim his child. "It's just been too long. Praise the Lord, I have him back with me now."

Hasan put up no resistance, despite his repeated threat to "hit" any U.N. representatives who showed up on his doorstep. He, too, must answer to his conscience, his God—even his own family. Back in his home village off Liasidi, where he hasn't been seen in four years and until recently was presumed dead, Hasan's father stands stiffly trying to put his feelings about his son into words. Finally, he speaks: "I don't care what religion he is or what he has done. Tell Roberto I want to see him one more time before I die. I just want him to come home." The parents of East Timor's lost children may worship different gods, but they share the same pain.

photo: The Guardian: Hasan Basri (center) promised to keep his Catholic charges safe, as long as they converted to Islam. KEMAL JUFRI/IMAJI PRESS FOR TIME

—With reporting by Zamira Loebis/Jakarta

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