Published on The Jakarta Post by Tama Salim
“I want to hug & kiss my mother,” said Muhammad Yaqub, born Manuel da Costa, shortly before traveling home to Timor Leste after 25 years of living in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan.
One week later he has managed to do just that and a whole lot more, spending time with some of his long-lost relatives in Ossu village in Timor Leste’s Viqueque district.
Yaqui also went on a 10-kilometer hike to hills in the village where he used to tend the buffalo and grow vegetables.
He then visited his father’s grave and contemplated at the site where an Indonesian Military (TNI) soldier shot his old man dead some 40 years ago on a hill-side just a short hike away from where his family now lives.
But as the time came for him to return to Balikpapan, the 39-year old soon realised that he had to deal with the reality that members of his family in Timor Leste could not permanently be part of his life.
There’s no way I can afford to take care of them. My relatives want to see my wife and my children, but it all comes down to the [financial] situation; the costs are very high, […] and it wouldn’t be fair for me to bring one child and not bring the others,” he said.
Yaqub is married with nine children. He was taken in the early 1990s by a TNI soldier soon after his father’s death to Kalimantan, where he eventually settled down as a small business owner.
Mubarak Wotu Modo, 39, has led a more fortunate life away from his homeland.
As an orphan, he was taken to Indonesia in 1990 at the age of 13 by soldiers of Battalion 726. Both his parents died of famine and disease during the early years of the Indonesian occupation of Timor Leste, then considered Indonesia’s 27th province and known as East-Timor.
Mubarak was taken to Makassar along with 39 other children, where he was even tally adopted by a local doctor, who allowed him to complete his education in the Muhammadiyah school system.
Previously known as Ernani Monteiro, Mubarak returned to visit his relatives in Ossu, but had no intention of staying.
“I won’t make a rude decision on this. In Indonesia, I am financially able to provide for my wife and myself. But I’d be a fool to move [to Timor Leste] now,” Mubarak said, adding that he certainly would not have the means to start a new life in the former Indonesian territory.
“Personally, I see Timor Leste and Indonesia as parents; both have to be dealt with equal respect I can’t just leave on for the other.”
Yaqui and Mubarak are just two of 11 individuals who have mixed feelings about being reunited with their families after decades of being separated by politics.
They are part of Timor Leste’s generation of ‘stolen children,’ who were forcibly taken away from their families during the Indonesian occupation of then-East Timor.
The 25-year occupation of East Timor by Indonesia ended with a referendum in 1999, when an overwhelming majority of people in the province voted for independence.
During the occupation, many Timorese children were adopted by Indonesian orphanages or members of the military and most of them were taken away from their families without consent.
It is widely believed that the New Order government of Soeharto had used the children as propaganda to justify support for East Timor’s integration into Indonesia.
Fourteen years since Timor Leste’s independence, many of these stolen children are now adults who have settled in Indonesia without any contact with their families. Many have new names, and have adopted the culture, language and religion of their new homes.
Many were told their parents had died, only to find out later that some of their relatives were still alive while others were taken at an early age and later found out that they were adopted.
Yaqub and Mubarak’s homecoming is part of people-to-people initiative arranged by a number of NGOs, with the aim of dealing with the legacy of gross human rights violation in Timor-Leste.
This year is the second attempt at the project, bringing together participants from Jakarta, Sulawesi, and Kalimantan. Last year, the program returned 15 “stolen children” to their families.
Jose Luis de Oliveira, a representative of Timor Leste branch of the Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR) civil society group, one of the event’s main facilitators, said participants in the program had the final decision on whether they would return to their families.
“See this scar? I did that!” Peals of laughter and bright smiles erupt as Rosa’s brother touches her forehead gently bruising an almost invisible scar. He reaches for her earlobe, “Our mother made that earring hole in her ear; she cried.”
Rosa is surrounded by two siblings, her older sister and brother who are both in their 50s. They cannot stop holding her, caressing her cheeks and hair, after 38 years of separation. Across the room, 10 other families are each inside a cocoon of love.
In 1978, during the height of the war in Timor-Leste, Rosa and another sister were separated from their family. The two lost girls found their way to Aileu, a little town nestled in a fertile valley about two hours away from their village in Railcar.
A soldier found them and said he would take the smaller girl.
Rosa’s sister tried to stop him, but Rosa was taken to a military camp. After two nights there, she boarded a military truck to Dili, then a ship to Makassar. The promise of an education was never met. She ran away from the family that took her in numerous times, but was taken back. She worked hard on their farm. Now she is married with four children. “I cannot talk about my suffering then,” she said.
Last week, Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR), a Jakarta-based NGO, working together with civil society and human rights institutions from the two countries, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) and Provedoria Dos Direitos Humans e Justice (PDHJ), brought a group of 11 “stolen children” together. Eight men and three women now living in Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Jakarta took part in this visit.
This is the third time such reunions have been organised. A total of 30 have been reunited with their families since 2013. Out of these 30, some were taken at the age of 5 and others in their early teens. They have not had any contact with their families for 20 to 40 years.
Timor Leste’s truth commission (CAVR), which operated from 2002 to 2005, estimated that some 4,000 children were taken from their families and sent to Indonesia during the occupation.
The transfer of children was a practice sanctioned by the military and civilian authorities, involving individuals and later on military and religious institutions that facilitated this process. The CAVR made this finding: “The struggle for control of Timor-Leste was partly played out in the battle for its children. Children became victims, perpetrators, assistants and observers in the political conflicts that engulfed Timor Leste from 1974.
“The obligation of all parties to put the best interests of children first was widely ignored.” The CAVR also made strong recommendations on finding and reuniting children separated during the conflict.
With the passing of time, these children became adults. Many have adapted to the culture language and religion of the places they found themselves in.
Although bearing new names, they still remember their East Timorese identities, scraps of memories from their childhood: mountain view, the name of their village, the name of their parents, a lullaby. In Indonesia few were lucky enough to be cared for by loving families, raised and educated as Indonesians.
However, many of these children were vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and neglect. The majority did not have the opportunity to go to school and had to work hard to survive on their own.
Most importantly, some of them were not orphans and continued to be sought by their family members.
The commission for Truth and Friendship of Indonesia and Timor Leste (CTF), established by the two governments and run from 2005 to 2008, also made a recommendation on the issue of the separated children. Since the submission of the CTF report to the two presidents in 2008, negotiations have continued over how to implement the recommendations.
However, many years later there has been little progress in this area on the part of the two governments.
The “stolen children” of Timor Leste are not the only pressing issue for Indonesia to deal with that comes from its violent past. However, it is one that in the short term can bring joy to everyone involved in this effort.
The longing of these stolen children to be reunited with their families and vice versa is a universal story that reverberates in all of us.
The Indonesian government should take concrete steps to facilitate these reunions, working closely with civil societies, Komnas HAM and others who have been working hard to bring about this breakthrough. In our decades-ing struggle to deal with the legacy of gross human rights violations, here is an opportunity to provide redress to victims who were only children at the time of the violation.
An official truth-seeking process can help us understand the magnitude of the violations that took place during the New Order. If we do so, we can feel proud that we, as a nation, are strong enough to right a wrong from our past.