Subject: East Timorese children reunite with parents in no-man's-land

Received from Joyo Indonesian News

The Jakarta Post April 16, 2003

East Timorese children reunite with parents

Elcid Li, The Jakarta Post, Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

The reunion took place in no-man's-land. Also called the tactical coordination line, a 300-meter-long strip of beach just outside of Belu regency between East Timor and Indonesia, where neither country's laws apply.

From Indonesia, several cars carrying children arrived at the beach. Then from East Timor came two cars with their parents. There were five families altogether.

A group of nine Australian United Nations peacekeepers watched over the scene, as the people stepped out of their cars, walked toward each other, hugged and cried.

It was a day the families had looked forward to for years. Separated by the violence that followed East Timor's break from Indonesia in 1999, these East Timorese parents and children met again for the first time on April 11 last week.

Some had lunch together on the beach, though few words were spoken despite the long separation.

"Let's only talk about the important things," said Damiao da Costa Gomes to his 10-year-old daughter Alina Magdalena.

The short meeting was held not just for the sake of a family reunion but also to decide the children's future.

The foster parents also came along and together they must decide with whom the children should stay.

Gomes and his wife Maria Babo sent Alina to school in the East Nusa Tenggara provincial capital Kupang in 1998, and did not see her again until last week.

Back then no one expected East Timor's imminent independence.

The East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence in a UN backed referendum in 1999. But pro-Jakarta militias retaliated, laying waste to Dili in a rampage that killed thousands of people.

More than 250,000 East Timorese left the territory to West Timor, some because of forced deportation by the militias.

Today, thousands still linger in refugee camps in Atambua, a border town in the neighboring Belu regency in West Timor.

Alina's parents remain in East Timor. But the child shares the fate of hundreds of others who lost contact with their parents in East Timor.

Last week's reunion was one of several held. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) organizes reunions with the help of the Jesuit Refugees Service (JSR) in Indonesia.

UNCHR dissolved its office in West Timor following the killing of two of its staff by pro-Jakarta militias in Atambua in 2000.

It now relies on JSR to help find the children living on the Indonesian side of Timor island.

In 1999 there were around 3,000 children in Indonesia who were separated from their families in East Timor, according to JSR data.

"Most returned to East Timor during the repatriation period between 1999 and 2001," said Cecilia Theresia of JSR.

Now the number is around 700 children, 300 of whom live in refugee camps in West Timor, she added.

JSR has been patiently tracing the children, some of whom have been placed in new homes in Java, Kalimantan and Sulawesi.

"A lot of the children went along with their uncles, their aunts, their grandparents or their neighbors," she said.

For some of the families, however, last week's meeting could be their last. The younger children looked less excited about meeting their real parents.

Eleven-year-old Filamona Rosa Maya was seven when she was taken to Kupang, her nine-year-old sister Christina Babo was five. Neither of them speak Tetun, which their parents now use in East Timor.

"I am happy but I'm not going back (to East Timor)," said Filamona when asked how she felt about meeting Angelino de Jesus and Felismina de Jesus, her real parents.

Filamona and Christina are two of 11 children in the family.

At first Angelino wanted to bring Christina back to East Timor, but Filamona refused to let go of her younger sister.

The parents then decided that both sisters should stay in Indonesia to finish school, and return to East Timor afterwards.

According to the Child Convention, children under 17 may not decide for themselves their future, said an East Timor UNCHR staff member Manuel da Costa.

"But we respect the wishes or the opinions of the child, and principally we seek what's best for the child," he added.

Discussions between the real parents and the foster parents however may reach a stalemate. Sometimes they let the child have the final say.

Simplicio Mario da Cruz, a fifth grader at an Indonesian elementary school, lives in Atambua with his former neighbors in East Timor.

He was separated from his family and ended up in West Timor along with his neighbors when the violence erupted in 1999.

Now his real parents want Simplicio to visit East Timor to see how he likes it there. Afterwards, he may decide by himself whether he wants to return to his homeland.

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