Babies of war cruelly spirited away

Date: 
2006-02-12

Subject: AGE: Babies of war cruelly spirited away
Also: Family will not give up hunt for daughter
Babies of war cruelly spirited away
By Tom Hyland February 12, 2006
The struggle for East Timor was played out in the battle for its children, a landmark report has found.
SOME were abducted by departing soldiers, smuggled out in crates. Others were taken from orphanages. Some parents were forced or tricked into handing their children over. Other parents voluntarily sent them away, hoping they would be cared for, educated and returned home.
Some never came back and grew up not knowing their families, their language, religion or culture.
They are East Timor's lost, stolen generation. Aidia is the mother of one of them.
Thirty years on, she clings to hope. She's middle-aged now, old by East Timor standards. Her child, if she is still alive, would be in her 30s, maybe with children of her own. Aidia last saw her daughter Kustantina in an Indonesian army office some time after 1975. The child was three at the time.
With his tour of duty at an end, an Indonesian soldier told Aidia, a widow living in a forced-resettlement camp, that he had no children of his own. "I would like to take her home (to Indonesia)," the soldier said. "I want to give her an education and after that she can come back." She never did.
Aidia is illiterate. It was at the height of Indonesia's invasion, savage war was raging and she feared soldiers. In the army office, she pressed a thumbprint onto documents she didn't understand.
When the paperwork was done, the soldier, his bags already packed, left with Kustantina, and a family was torn apart.
"I only gave away my child because I was afraid. They had guns and I felt like I didn't have a choice," Aidia says.
She doesn't say what she has endured in the years since. It is a gap that speaks of an aching, anxious longing.
"I live now with the hope of that man's promise that one day my child will come back to me … I often go to the edge of the sea, breathe in the fresh air and remember my child taken from me across those waters."
Aidia's story is told in a landmark report on East Timor's ordeal under Indonesian occupation. The 2500-page report by the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation ­ entitled Chega! ( Enough! in Portuguese) ­ documents in harrowing detail a quarter-century of war, massacre, torture, forced relocations, starvation and systematic rape.
Children were not spared. They were forced to serve on the battlefield and died in massacres, as well as from bombardment and famine. They were tortured in detention.
Girls as young as 14 were raped and forced into sexual slavery as "comfort wives" during a time when soldiers could rape at will. And then there were those who were simply taken away.
The commission finds both sides in the conflict failed to protect children "but the most reprehensible violations of all kinds were committed by Indonesia".
A unique dimension to the children's suffering is now revealed for the first time. An unknown number ­ the commission estimates thousands ­ were taken to Indonesia. They may have escaped the ordeal of those left behind but they and their parents paid a different price.
Some were taken from combat areas after their parents were killed or they became separated from their families, the report says. The commission heard evidence of hospital staff hiding children to prevent their removal.
It heard of an eight-month-old girl called Veronica, taken by a soldier who said he had no daughters of his own. In payment he gave the mother a bag of rice.
Some mothers resisted. One girl identified only as QN was abducted from Ermera by an army officer and taken to Dili in a box.
Her frantic mother traced her to an army office in Dili, where, despite being kicked by soldiers she rescued the child. But the story has no happy ending. Back in Ermera, the officer raped two of QN's older sisters, one of whom subsequently gave birth to a girl. He subsequently "took this baby girl with him back to Indonesia. No news of the child's fate has ever been received by the family."
Nobody knows how many were taken, but the commission is confident "several thousand" children were involved. The removals "took place along a spectrum from unregulated transfers … without consent being sought, to coercion … to informed consent". An unknown number of the children ­ many of them adults by now ­ have yet to be identified.
The commission finds "insufficient evidence" to say if the removals were official policy. There is evidence some officers tried to stop lower-ranking soldiers smuggling out children. But at the same time, it says officials at the highest levels, extending to former president Soeharto and his family, were involved in unregulated removals.
The worst stories come from the harshest early years of the occupation, between 1976 and 1979, when a "climate of chaos, coercion and impunity" created conditions for widespread removals.
Maria Legge Mesquita was taken by soldiers after her father was killed. She told the commission: "When the army was ready to leave, after their tour was over, they took five children, including me, and put us in crates. We were put in crates, one per crate, like chickens."
She was lucky. A local family, fearing its children were being taken, freed Mesquita and the other children.
Soldiers also took children from orphanages at a time when East Timor had an estimated 40,000 orphans. They preferred light-skinned children, according to former governor Mario Viegas Carrascalao. "They liked children with mixed blood. They were the ones that they took to Indonesia."
Many of those taken were young boys pressed into army service as "TBOs" ­ the Indonesian acronym for "operations assistants" who carried ammunition and supplies.
One TBO, Alfredo Alves, told how, at the end of his unit's tour, he was placed in a box so officers wouldn't see him being loaded on the departing ship.
"After half an hour we were allowed to get out of our boxes and I saw Dili fade into the distance. I felt very sad because I had not seen my mother since I was taken from the schoolyard in Maubisse. This happened in February 1980, when I was 13 years old."
By the 1980s, officials sought to regulate removals to ensure there was parental approval, but the report concludes that, "in the prevailing climate of coercion", there was no guarantee parental permission would be freely given as "there was almost always an element of duress".
It was not only soldiers; government officials and charities took part.
While these removals were better organised, with the stated intention of caring for children, many were taken without parental permission. Nor could parents maintain contact with children once they were taken. Soeharto family foundations played a prominent role. In one notorious incident in 1977, 20 children were taken without their parents' knowledge to Indonesia. Before being sent to an orphanage, they attended a presidential welcome where Soeharto declared: "You are our children, owned by the state, and we will be responsible for your welfare from now on."
By the 1990s, when Jakarta faced a growing revolt by East Timorese youth, the government started programs to transfer children to Indonesia. While officially aimed at increasing education and job opportunities, the program had "underlying political and social motivations" of encouraging a commitment to integration with Indonesia and removing potential trouble-makers from East Timor. It was part of the battle for the hearts and minds of the young.
The entire struggle for East Timor "was partly played out in the battle for its children", the report says.
"The widespread practice of removing children displayed a mindset that, by taking control of (East Timor's) territory, Indonesia also gained unfettered control over its children."
Even where transfers had a humanitarian motive with parental consent, little effort was made to ensure children could maintain contact with their families or return home. Some never saw their families again.
Some of the children prospered in Indonesia, adopted by families that loved, cared for and educated them.
But such cases shine feebly in the unremitting gloom of the commission's report. A common thread runs through the children's experience: the loss of cultural identity, their language, their names. Some, taken as babies, were never told they were East Timorese.
For some this loss and alienation is a wound that never heals, even when they try to re-connect with their homeland.
One boy, taken from a Dili orphanage when he was five years old, was one of 10 children sent to a state orphanage in Bandung, Java, in 1979.
"I was living in a foreign environment," he says. "We never spoke about Timor, we couldn't speak (the Timorese language) Tetum, and we didn't send letters to Timor. We were brought up as (Indonesian) children in Java. I didn't know why I was there, just that there had been a war in Timor.
"I was happy to get an education in Bandung but I felt in my heart that I would always be someone wondering who he really was. I actually felt like I had been brainwashed. Eventually I made friends from Timor but I felt backwards and embarrassed around them because I couldn't speak Tetum. I often had to leave the room or more often I was silent. I tried to study my own language and culture.
"Living without my family was also very bitter for me. Very bitter. Even now if I see a picture of a mother holding her child, tears well up in my eyes. It is so sad that I cannot ever feel close to my family."
The full CAVR report is at http://www.ictj.org/
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'We were put in crates'
By Tom Hyland and Lindsay Murdoch, Dili
February 12, 2006
THOUSANDS of East Timorese children were shipped to Indonesia during Jakarta's occupation and the fate of many is unknown, says a report that echoes Australia's experience with the indigenous "stolen generation".
In some cases children were abducted by Indonesian soldiers and smuggled out in boxes, the report by an independent commission of inquiry has found.
"We were put in crates, one per crate, like chickens," one woman told the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, known by the Portuguese acronym CAVR.
The massive report poses a dilemma for Canberra, which received a copy last week and has already disputed its findings about Australia's role in events leading to independence in 1999. It has also sparked tensions between East Timor and its former rulers.
While not publicly released, sections of the report exposing atrocities during the occupation from 1975-99 have leaked. East Timor's Government was embarrassed when the report was posted on the website of the US-based International Centre for Transitional Justice.
The Sunday Age today reveals a previously ignored section of the report, which alleges children were taken in uncontrolled removals. An unknown number remain in Indonesia, some unaware of their true identities and their families ignorant of their fate.
Melbourne Catholic auxiliary bishop Hilton Deakin, a veteran campaigner for East Timorese rights, predicted a popular outcry in East Timor and overseas when the report is circulated. "The little children were the most defenceless of them all," Bishop Deakin told The Sunday Age.
"Some who were taken away were treated in comfort and education beyond their wildest dreams. But so many other ones were abused as sexual objects and as economic digits in the household."
Predicting the issue would emerge as a major cause for church and non-government groups, he said: "It won't be swept under the carpet when all this is revealed."
Cardinal George Pell, Australia's most senior Catholic bishop, was briefed on the commission's work when he met CAVR chairman Aniceto Guterres Lopes on a visit to Dili last month. He also inspected the commission's archives, now stored in a former Indonesian prison. Cardinal Pell's office said he was too busy to be interviewed about his visit.
A spokesman for Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said human rights issues raised in the report were "essentially issues for East Timor to work through". He said references in the report to Australia's diplomatic role leading to independence in 1999 were inaccurate and undermined the report's credibility.
He said sections of the report had been questioned by East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao and Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, referring to their rejection of calls for Indonesia to pay reparations and for new war crimes trials.
But in an interview with The Sunday Age in Dili, Mr Ramos Horta backed the report's findings on the "stolen" children. "The findings in the report on this question do not surprise me," he said. "The Indonesians often used the term adoption but most of the children were stolen, taken without the approval of the parents."
The removals are revealed in a 2500-page report alleging horrendous human rights abuses during Indonesia's rule, with up to 180,000 civilian deaths.
The report ­ titled Chega! ( Enough! in Portuguese) ­ alleges children were not spared during the occupation. Compiled over three years and drawing on thousands of testimonies, it alleges children were victims of massacre, torture, detention and rape. While broad details of those atrocities are widely known, the report reveals for the first time the previously taboo issue of the removal of children.
It alleges some were abducted by soldiers, while others were taken from orphanages by officials, charities and religious groups. It alleges some parents were forced or tricked into handing over their children.
Others voluntarily sent them thinking they would be cared for. The report finds "although some maintained contact with their families and were eventually able to return, others never came back … and their fate or whereabouts are not known to their families".
Even when children were removed for humanitarian reasons with parental consent, it says there was little effort to ensure they could maintain contact or return home. The report says "several thousand" were sent to Indonesia. It finds "insufficient evidence" to say if the removals were government policy, but alleges officials including former president Soeharto were involved. It claims the removals had an underlying political and strategic motive to ensure young Timorese became Indonesian.
Joao Goncalves, a leading opposition MP in Dili who had a relative taken in the late 1970s, appealed to Jakarta to help reunite parents with their children. "These Timorese children have a right to know their identity. And it's important for the parents and families to find out if their children are still alive and well," he said.
Mr Ramos Horta said since independence in 1999 many parents had asked the Government to help trace their children, many of whom were now adults.
Dino Kusnadi, spokesman for the Indonesian embassy in Canberra, said Indonesia rejected the report, even though Jakarta had yet to officially receive a copy.
Mr Kusnadi told The Sunday Age: "The report is only one-sided, based on reports from East Timor. It's not endorsed by the East Timorese Government, let alone verified by the Indonesian Government." But he said measures to trace children could be considered by the new Truth and Friendship Commission, set up by the two governments.
"This will reveal a more balanced report, more forward-looking. Perhaps that question (of the fate of the children) may also be discussed within this commission of friendship."
The Catholic Church in East Timor is set to demand more be done to reunite families when it formally receives the report this week. Father Martinho Gusmao, director of the church's Peace Commission, told The Sunday Age a committee would study issues raised in the report and then list what the church believes to be the priorities for immediate action.
A Foreign Affairs spokesman said Australia would be guided by the preferences of the East Timor Government.
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Family will not give up hunt for daughter
By Lindsay Murdoch, Dili
February 12, 2006
Fernando Morais wipes a tear as he tells the story of how his daughter, Modesta, (above left) then 15, left Dili never to be seen again. Photo: Glenn Campbell
SITI BARIAH buys bananas and sells them in Dili's crowded markets, barely making enough money to feed eight of her children and her ailing husband.
But seven times now she has borrowed money for the bus fare across East Timor's rugged mountains to Indonesian West Timor, where she has angrily confronted a man she accuses of holding her 21-year-old daughter, Modesta Sofian, against her will.
"I will not give up," Mrs Siti says. "I know that Modesta would return to her family in East Timor if she could."
For more than five years, non-government organisations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have tried to return Modesta to her parents.
She is one of an unknown number ­ possibly thousands, according to East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation ­ who were taken from their parents during Indonesia's 25-year occupation of East Timor. Some have not been returned.
Mahmud Alkatiri, a senior Indonesian Government official, took Modesta, then 15, and her then 13-year-old sister, Daumali, into his home in the West Timor capital, Kupang, after the two girls fled the violence that erupted in East Timor after the 1999 vote for independence.
Mr Alkatiri, a former government official in East Timor, had owned a house opposite the shack where the girls grew up in the Dili suburb of Comoro.
He told them that Indonesian-backed militia, rampaging in protest at the vote, would rape and kill them if they did not come to live with him.
But Mr Alkatiri reneged on a promise he made in 2000 to allow Modesta to return home and has since variously claimed she has run away, has already been sent back to East Timor or does not want to return because she is living with a wealthy family in Jakarta. Daumali, now 19, shakes with anger as she tells how Modesta wanted desperately to return to Dili in March 2000, the last time she saw her.
"We were crying. My parents had come to Kupang to collect us from Mahmud," she said.
Mr Alkatiri brought the girls to a ship in Kupang harbour. He allowed Daumali to be reunited with Mrs Siti and her husband, Fernando Morais, who were told the security situation in Kupang was too dangerous for them to leave the ship.
But after ordering Modesta to return to his car, he convinced her parents that he would bring her back to Dili with him in a few months, after she had finished her school term.
The family has not seen or heard from her since. Daumali said that when she and Modesta were living in Mr Alkatiri's house they cooked, cleaned and washed for him.
He did not pay them and often became angry when they did not work hard enough.
Daumali said that Mr Alkatiri, who is one of the officers running the department in West Timor that is responsible for refugees, told her and Modesta in early 2000 that it was too dangerous for them to return to East Timor.
"He told us that all the girls in East Timor are forced to sleep with United Nations soldiers," she said.
"We had no way of finding out if it was true.
"I miss my sister very much. I know she misses me."
Mrs Siti has repeatedly confronted Mr Alkatiri at his home.
"If you have killed Modesta, please tell us so that we know," she said she told him. "If you have sent her to be a prostitute, please tell us."
East Timor President Xanana Gusmao has raised Modesta's case, as well as others, with Indonesian authorities. It is one of 49 active cases being pursued by Dili's Social Securities Department. Twelve cases relate to children whose whereabouts are unknown.
The department wants to review 1156 cases in which guardianship has been transferred from East Timorese parents.
Indonesian officials have told East Timorese officials that Modesta's case is difficult to solve because she is now an adult and can decide for herself where she wants to live.
But East Timor claims Indonesia is obliged to act under a Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries because Modesta was only 15 when she was taken by Mr Alkatiri.
"Progress in these cases is painfully slow," an official in Dili said.
Police in Kupang have demanded that Modesta's family produce witnesses to prove who Modesta is and that the matter then be settled by an Indonesian court.
Mrs Siti hopes to scrape together enough money so that Daumali can travel to Kupang to testify.
"We don't have much but she belongs here with her family," Mrs Siti said.
He did not pay them and often became angry when they did not work hard enough.
Daumali said that Mr Alkatiri, who is one of the officers running the department in West Timor that is responsible for refugees, told her and Modesta in early 2000 that it was too dangerous for them to return to East Timor.
"He told us that all the girls in East Timor are forced to sleep with United Nations soldiers," she said.
"We had no way of finding out if it was true.
"I miss my sister very much. I know she misses me."
Mrs Siti has repeatedly confronted Mr Alkatiri at his home.
"If you have killed Modesta, please tell us so that we know," she said she told him. "If you have sent her to be a prostitute, please tell us."
East Timor President Xanana Gusmao has raised Modesta's case, as well as others, with Indonesian authorities. It is one of 49 active cases being pursued by Dili's Social Securities Department. Twelve cases relate to children whose whereabouts are unknown.
The department wants to review 1156 cases in which guardianship has been transferred from East Timorese parents.
Indonesian officials have told East Timorese officials that Modesta's case is difficult to solve because she is now an adult and can decide for herself where she wants to live.
But East Timor claims Indonesia is obliged to act under a Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries because Modesta was only 15 when she was taken by Mr Alkatiri.
"Progress in these cases is painfully slow," an official in Dili said.
Police in Kupang have demanded that Modesta's family produce witnesses to prove who Modesta is and that the matter then be settled by an Indonesian court.
Mrs Siti hopes to scrape together enough money so that Daumali can travel to Kupang to testify.
"We don't have much but she belongs here with her family," Mrs Siti said.
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Editorial
When children suffer, pain lasts for generations
February 12, 2006
Sometimes horrible things can be done by those who sincerely believe they are doing them for the right reasons. Those who removed the Aboriginal children of the Stolen Generations from their parents believed that they were giving the children an opportunity for a better life. Similarly, some of the thousands of East Timorese children who were taken to Indonesia during that country's military occupation of East Timor were removed by those who claimed humanitarian motives for their actions.
Aid agencies, religious and secular, and individual Indonesian soldiers assured the families that their children would be educated and could return one day. In another echo of Australia's experience, some of the East Timorese parents who were deprived of their children were even persuaded to sign documents that indicated consent, though whether they understood that they were surrendering all claim over their children is extremely dubious.
The result, in both Australia and East Timor, is that many of these parents never saw their children again, and many of the children not only lost contact with their families but all knowledge of them; in other words, they were deprived of their identities. Some of the East Timorese brought up by members of Indonesia's officer class did indeed experience a much better life, in material terms, than they would otherwise have known. But they also report, as indigenous Australians have done, a lifelong sense of knowing that they have lost the most precious thing any child could have, and of being unable to regain it.
To compare the experience of Australia's Stolen Generations, detailed in the 1997 report Bringing Them Home, with the stories of East Timorese children that are only a part of the suffering recounted in Chega! ("Enough!"), a report prepared for the UN by the independent Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, is not to claim that there is a simple moral equivalence between the actions of Australian officials and Indonesia's brutal repression of East Timor. The stories in Chega!, some of which we report today, tell of a rampaging invader unchecked by any moral or legal sanction, who did not shrink from using murder, torture, abduction and rape as systematic means of intimidation.
Australia's experience may not be equivalent to all these horrors, but the plight of the Stolen Generations helps us to understand why the perpetrators of such acts must accept responsibility for what they have done. That is difficult enough in Australia, where Bringing Them Home remains contentious; in Indonesia, where East Timorese independence still rankles, Chega! has provoked accusations of bias, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has cancelled a planned visit by East Timor President Xanana Gusmao.
There is little that Australia can directly do to help its neighbours in this impasse, but the Howard Government has been able to rebuild a close diplomatic relationship with Jakarta that once seemed threatened by the InterFET intervention in East Timor. This more cordial relationship could be used to send the message that the past can never be put behind us till we acknowledge it truthfully - and that is why reports such as Chega! matter.

 

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