“We arrived in Jakarta in 1993 or 1994; we were put in a foundation. Then a man came and said he would take my sister so she could go to school in Medan [North Sumatra]...We had to pay to go to school, and a Timorese businessman said that he would pay. That was about 1995 or 1996, but then he went away. My brother was moved to Bandung; I don’t know where. I was moved there too, we ended up in the same school. I stopped going to school . . . and started begging on the streets.”
- Juliãon Soares/Yanto
“A life without love is like a bird trying to fly without wings.”
- Legibere /Muhammad
These were the words shared between survivors, during a gathering of fourteen East Timorese ‘stolen children’ (now adults living in Indonesia) at a workshop in Bali on their way to be reunited with their families, in May 2015. For Juliãon and his siblings, taken when they were 8, 7 and 5 years old, this reunion would be the first time to be reunited with their father and mother after twenty years. Others, like Legibere, were separated from their families more than thirty years ago. Juliãon and his siblings had forgotten how to speak Tetun, the national language of Timor-Leste. Legibere was lucky enough to remain close to other East Timorese children, thus preserving some of his language skills. After three days together, sharing their stories and finding strength in each other, the excitement was palpable. “Etu,” Legibere suddenly said--pointing to a bowl of rice he was having for lunch. [Etu means rice in Tetun.] Memories of a long denied past were flowing back. The next day, they boarded a plane and landed in Dili, Timor-Leste, warmly received by their family members.
Timor-Leste’s truth commission (Comissāo Acolhimento Verdade e Reconciliacāo or CAVR, 2002-2005) documented this systematic transfer of children as a practice sanctioned by the military and civilian authorities, involving the military, religious and other civilian organizations. The CAVR concluded that thousands of children were taken during the conflict. Under the title “Truth as the basis for the relationship,” the CAVR called on the Indonesian government to provide “the names and details of all East Timorese children removed from Timor-Leste by the Government of Indonesia, military or related personnel or institutions between 1975 and 1999.” The commission also recommended that these survivors are given “unhindered access to identity and nationality procedures, and assistance to reunite them with their families.
Following the CAVR, the Commission for Truth and Friendship (CTF, 2005-2008) established by the Indonesian and Timor-Leste governments, made a similar recommendation. Calling for the establishment of a commission for the disappeared, CTF also assigned the mandate “to identify the whereabouts of all Timor- Leste children who were separated from their parents and to notify their families...primarily for those whose cases are unresolved and those still in the hands of their Indonesian wardens, including the rights of those children to freely access identification and citizenship procedures.”
Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR) and a group of eight organizations from Indonesia and Timor-Leste have been searching for Timor-Leste’s stolen children in Indonesia for the last six years. Responding to the unmet promises and the lack of initiative from the two governments, AJAR facilitated a network of like-minded organizations committed to finding the stolen children in Indonesia, and their families in Timor-Leste. Working closely with survivors, we were able to trace their whereabouts --sometimes in remote corners of Indonesia, and other times hidden in plain sight in major cities. From a sliver of their memory about their place of origin, we then try to locate their family members in Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste’s Centro Nacional Chega, a follow-up institution charged with ensuring that recommendations of the two truth commissions are implemented, and Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission have provided official support to this civil society-led initiative.
We have now facilitated 7 family reunions, a week-long visit to Timor-Leste, between 2013 to 2019. In total, we have found 147 survivors; out of this number 80 stolen children have been reunited with their families. The survivors are spread across Indonesia- from Kalimantan, Java, Sumatera, Sulawesi, etc. Looking at where they were taken from, the largest numbers come from eastern districts, where the conflict was strong. Out of the 147 stolen children we have identified, about 60% were taken by military personnel, and 22% by religious institutions.
It is impossible to know how many children were taken during this period of occupation. From the stories we have gathered from survivors, they share accounts of other children being loaded onto navy ships, hidden in boxes. In some instances, survivors talk about knowing that there were 10 to 20 other children being taken with them. The CAVR made a finding that it was impossible to determine the number of children removed with any precision. Suffice to say there were thousands.
These reunions are just a first step to rebuilding lives torn by trauma and loss. We understand that clearly as we continue to work with these survivors. Many are now solidly planted into their adopted country, with Indonesian spouses and children. Some continue to harbour a longing to return home, and find a way to make up for loss time. Similarly, the two nations must forge a way to reconcile a difficult past. Not to deny the past, but to acknowledge the wrongs and create a better future based on truth for the citizens of these two countries.
This week, I spoke with Juliãon who has chosen to return to Timor-Leste.
Why did you decide to come home?
Seeing my parents getting old. I decided to come home without much preparation, only with the skills that I learned in Java. I came in 2017, first to Dili, then to Viqueque. It didn’t matter where, as long as I was in Timor-Leste.
At first, it was hard because people did not accept me as Timorese. I was refused when I first tried to get my citizenship papers. It took me more than a year, and I was finally helped by some other stolen children whom I knew when I was in Bandung. I got a letter of recommendation from the mosque for my birth certificate. People look at my name, Muhammad Yanto, and say that is not a Timorese name. Although my real name is Juliãon Soares.
Now I sell noodles and juice in Farol, and help out with cooking at a canteen. Staff from the local NGOs usually have lunch here. Thank God now I can make just enough money.
How does it feel to be here now?
It's just ordinary. We have to accept the bitter and the sweet. Before living in Bandung, there was a lot of bitterness. I had to make enough money to eat. In Timor I am also looking after myself. It is impossible to ask our parents. Now that I already have a job, things are getting better. In Java, the cities are busy, big and crowded. Here it is very quiet.
I hear you speak Tetun now?
My everyday Tetun is quite fluent now. I'm trying to learn how to speak properly. I am also taking Portuguese lessons. I attended AJAR’s human rights school. I like watching how human right defenders speak out. Hopefully, I can learn more about how to help people who are mistreated by the authorities.
What is your message to other stolen children who may wish to return?
If you want to return to Timor, you have to come with a skill so you have a chance. Do what you have to do to be able to come back.
Juliãon is one of a handful of survivors who have been able to find their way to return to Timor-Leste. Without assistance, it is difficult for survivors to gather enough resources and courage to try to relocate their lives. Many survivors live a precarious existence in Indonesia, having had little opportunities for education and employment. For other survivors, they chose to remain in Indonesia, but want to keep in touch with their family members. Usually, the younger generation are able to help with some internet-assisted forms of communications between family members across two countries.
There are thousands more who need to be found, their stories documented and their families traced. Reuniting families is only a small part of a longer journey for truth and justice for them. However, time is ticking. Civil society, the international community, and governments must come together to put in a large effort to reunite these families now. As they become older, and their families older, memory fades and people pass away.
For the stolen children of Timor-Leste, time is running out.