Subject: Age: E.Timor parents beg for their stolen children

The Age Tuesday 24 April 2001

Timor parents beg for their stolen children


Madalena Soares fought back tears as she told how her 12-year-old daughter Cesaltina was stolen.

It was late 1999 - she can't remember the exact date because of the trauma of fleeing East Timor - when Octavio Soares came to see her in a refugee camp in Indonesian West Timor, where she found herself with three of her four children.

Madalena vaguely knew Mr Soares as a member of one of the most prominent East Timorese families that for years strongly supported Indonesia's disputed rule of the half-island territory.

"Octavio said that, because my husband and I are stupid people, he was taking Cesaltina away to Java to be educated," she said, sitting in a bark and bamboo hut on the outskirts of the East Timorese village of Viqueque. "What could I do? I was very upset. We cried and cried. But I could do nothing."

Interviews with families of children taken from West Timor camps and left in primitive orphanages in East Java contradict claims by Mr Soares that he had written parental consent to be their guardian.

UN officials and humanitarian workers trying to reunite children with parents believe many of the signatures on consent forms held by Mr Soares are forgeries.

Fears for the safety of UN officials visiting camps in West Timor prevent them checking Mr Soares' claims with scores of other parents. Humanitarian workers suspect Timorese living in Java, including Mr Soares, are blocking UN attempts to repatriate children because they want to indoctrinate them as activists to push for East Timor's eventual reintegration with Indonesia.

Several parents who have returned to East Timor from the West Timor camps said Mr Soares lied to them in 1999 to trick them into allowing him to take their children to East Java. One man said Mr Soares' friends told his wife he had been killed to convince her it was in the best interests of their 12-year-old daughter that she be taken away.

The Age reported last month that death threats and intimidation by Mr Soares, nephew of East Timor's former Jakarta-appointed governor Abilio Soares, had forced UN officials to abandon efforts to reunite orphanage children with parents.

Mr Soares claims all the parents of 120 children he left at the orphanages in November and December 1999 had asked him to take care of their education in Indonesia. But Teresa Mascarenhas, who returned last year to Viqueque from West Timor, said she was deceived by Mr Soares into allowing him to take away two of her four children, Gilberto, 6, and Lidia, 13.

Weeping at the door of her home in Viqueque, Mrs Mascarenhas said that after fleeing East Timor with her husband Pascoal and children at the height of the East Timor violence, a Catholic nun asked her if she wanted any of her children educated in Java. While she was still considering the offer, Mrs Mascarenhas said: "Octavio came to us and said the nuns have asked him to take two of my children. He said the children would be better off with the nuns.

"I didn't know that it was Octavio who was taking the children. He used the nuns to deceive us. If Octavio had not told lies I would never have allowed my children to go away. I remember Lidia and Gilberto sobbing as Octavio took them. Please help me get them back."

Catholic officials said the children, many of whom were distraught, arrived at orphanages they run near the East Java city of Semarang without any arrangements being made. Jaime Lopes, a former pro-independence activist, described Mr Soares as his enemy but is prepared to forgive him if he returns his 10-year-old son Tito.

Tito is one of 79 Timorese children living at St Thomas, one of the orphanages, where dozens of boys live in the same room under a leaking roof. Mr Lopes is furious at the failure of representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to fulfil repeated promises they have made to repatriate Tito from East Java.

"When people from the UN come here, I now chase them away," he said. "I do not believe them any more. I just want my son back."

Mr Lopes had been serving a jail sentence for political rebellion when Indonesian police and soldiers and pro-Jakarta militia started rampaging through East Timor's towns and villages after the August 1999 UN vote to reject Indonesia's rule. When Mr Lopes, 43, escaped on September 9 that year he found that his wife, Silveira, and four children had fled or were deported with up to 250,000 other East Timorese to camps in West Timor.

He has since pieced together what happened from letters from Silveira, who is still in West Timor with three of their children.

"Militia in the camps told my wife that all the people who were in jail in Dili had been killed," he said.

"They made her believe that I was dead and that it would be impossible for her to look after four children alone. So they convinced her to allow Octavio to take Tito to Java. They even made Tito believe that I was dead."

Mr Lopes has written many letters to Tito, telling him to return to Timor. But he is unsure whether Tito believes he is dead or alive.

Church sources said Mr Soares has refused the children access to many of the letters that have been sent to them by their families. Mr Lopes knows Octavio Soares and his friends have not given up their struggle to see East Timor integrated with Indonesia.

Luis Gomes of Bukiaren village, near Viqueque, said he and his wife Teresina agreed when they were in the West Timor camps in late 1999 to let their daughter Immanuela, 13, go to Java. Mr Gomes, a farmer, said Mr Soares told them he would return her to East Timor after she had graduated from school - and he still believes him.

In the months before the UN vote, Mr Gomes campaigned for East Timor to remain under Indonesian rule and is now having a difficult time as pro-independence supporters assume the territory's civil positions and the pro-independence Falintil guerrilla fighters form a new national army.

Mr Gomes has had to promise to pay money to protect himself and his family from reprisals once UN troops and police leave East Timor when it assumes full independence after elections later this year.

Rosa Pinto, also from Bukiaren, trusted Mr Soares to take her daughter Angela, 15, to Java because his family was well known in Viqueque.

"If it is possible, I would like my daughter to come back," Mrs Pinto said. "It depends on her. If she could come, please come."

UN officials in Dili and Jakarta have not given up hope of repatriating children and are planning talks with Timorese humanitarian workers to work out ways to overcome Mr Soares' objections.

They say the longer the children stay under Mr Soares' influence the more traumatic it will be reunite them with their families, even though nuns caring for the children at the orphanages are doing their best with scant resources.

Humanitarian workers in Indonesia believe there are many more Timorese children, perhaps 1200, in the country who were separated from their parents during the East Timor mayhem. They fear they could be subjected to sexual abuse, forced to work in slave-like conditions in factories, or indoctrinated for political or religious purposes.

But The Age believes no government agency or non-government organisation have made anything but tentative investigations. 

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