Subject: LAT: Timor's Missing Children

Los Angeles Times December 4, 2001


Timor's Missing Children

About 2,000 were separated--some kidnapped--from their families in the East amid the chaos after 1999's independence vote. Most have yet to be returned.

Timor's Missing Children


DILI, East Timor -- The girl's nightmare began when she was 13 and a pro-Indonesia militia burned down her village. Her parents were away from home when gunmen herded her and her neighbors across the border into the Indonesian province of West Timor.

There, in a squalid refugee camp, the leader of the gang took her captive and repeatedly raped her over the next 17 months.

Refugee workers who had been searching for the girl learned earlier this year where she was being held and staged a daring rescue. They smuggled a message to her and, when her guards were occupied, stole her from the camp. Using a network of safe houses, they brought her back to East Timor and her parents. It was a rare but welcome victory in the two-year battle to bring home East Timor's missing children.

"What characterizes this case is the horror, the ordeal," said Bernard Kerblat, operations director here for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "How can you remain patient when a 13-year-old girl who is not even a woman has been used as a sexual slave day in and day out in a refugee camp in Indonesia?"

The girl, whose name was withheld by officials, was one of an estimated 2,000 children separated from their parents two years ago when the militias ran amok in revenge for East Timor's decision to secede from Indonesia. Her case is notable for its brutality but not for the length of time it took to win her freedom.

During the rampage, 240,000 East Timorese fled across the border into West Timor, many of them forced there by the militias. In the chaos, some children were separated from parents who remained behind in East Timor.

About 450 children have been returned to their families, Kerblat said, including many who walked back across the border with other refugees or on their own. But United Nations relief workers have been stymied in their attempts to retrieve the others.

Some remain in militia-controlled refugee camps in West Timor. Some have been taken to orphanages on Indonesia's main island of Java. Others allegedly have been sold off or handed over to strangers to work in sweatshops or as household servants elsewhere in Indonesia.

In many cases, information about the children's whereabouts is sketchy. Relief workers, who have little access to the refugee camps, have had difficulty tracking them down.

East Timorese leaders and U.N. officials say the Indonesian government has been uncooperative. Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor's acting foreign minister, called Indonesia's slowness to act "most shameful."

"These are real cases of kidnapping of children," said Ramos-Horta, co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize. "Children were taken from refugee camps in Indonesia, and the Indonesian authorities allowed this to happen. What kind of country allows this to happen?"

Indonesian officials deny that they condone kidnapping or moved slowly to return missing children. Wahid Supriyadi, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said U.N. officials should turn over information about any of the children and the government will look into the cases.

"What is the interest of Indonesia in kidnapping the children? We have no such policy," he said. "Indonesia has done everything it could to return children."

In many ways, the struggle over the children is a continuation of East Timor's long fight for independence.

The Portuguese colony was seized in 1975 by Indonesia, which ruthlessly suppressed the new province's liberation movement. In 1999, Indonesia agreed to hold a referendum on the question of self-rule. When East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence, militias backed by the Indonesian military laid waste to the province, killing at least 1,000 people and destroying 80% of its buildings.

Since then, the territory has been run by the U.N. and protected by about 8,000 international peacekeepers. East Timor's first free election was held Aug. 30 to select a national assembly. The new nation of 745,000 people will become fully independent May 20.

About 80,000 of the 240,000 refugees who fled from East Timor remain in West Timor, where they live in miserable camps largely controlled by the militias. Some say the gangs still operate under the protection of the Indonesian military. Militia members use intimidation to keep the refugees from going home, aid workers say, although the number of returnees has increased since the peaceful August election.

Though Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri has said she accepts East Timor's independence, many Indonesians--including some in powerful positions--still are angry that the territory broke away. Indonesian prosecutors have never tried Indonesian army officers and militia leaders accused by the U.N. of responsibility for the 1999 carnage.

Similarly, six militia members convicted of taking part in the slayings of three U.N. refugee workers in West Timor last year received sentences ranging from 10 to 20 months.

The deaths of the humanitarian workers, including an American, prompted the U.N. to pull its aid staff out of West Timor, making it even harder to locate and recover missing youngsters.

Kerblat, a veteran U.N. refugee worker, said it is unfortunate that children are paying the price for East Timor's wish to be independent.

"It is one of the most painful issues of the tragedy," he said. "The victims we are talking about are voiceless children who are pawns in a political game."

He estimates that 1,200 to 1,800 children are still missing. In an attempt to identify as many as possible, the U.N. launched a survey in September, sending 300 workers door to door in East Timor's 13 districts to determine which families are missing children.

So far, in two districts where the survey has been completed, the agency has received credible reports of 324 missing children. The assessment will be finished early next year and the information used to try to find the children.

One case that has attracted international attention and wide media coverage is the abduction of Juliana dos Santos.

She was 15 at the time of the independence vote and took refuge from militiamen with hundreds of other East Timorese in a Roman Catholic church in the town of Suai. The notorious Laksaur militia attacked the church and killed as many as 200 people in one of the worst East Timorese massacres, prosecutors say.

Igidio Manek, a militia leader, shot and killed Juliana's 13-year-old brother, Carlos, witnesses say. Then, they say, he claimed Juliana as his "war prize" and took her across the border to West Timor.

Human rights officials allege that he repeatedly raped her in the refugee camps. She became pregnant and gave birth to a boy in November 2000.

Juliana's desperate parents have been unsuccessful in their attempts to get her back. Their cause has been taken up by Kirsty Sword Gusmao, the Australian-born wife of independence leader Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, who is widely expected to become East Timor's first president next year.

In an interview, Kirsty Gusmao said it is well-documented that Manek had "the full collaboration" of the Indonesian military in the Suai attack. She suspects that he now operates in West Timor with the military's continued support. He has never been charged for his role in Suai.

Some believe Juliana could provide important evidence against the Suai killers and the slayers of the three U.N. workers. But the Indonesian government regards Manek as Juliana's legitimate husband, not her kidnapper, and has been an obstacle in securing her release, Kirsty Gusmao said.

After months of requests from Juliana's parents and the U.N. refugee agency, Indonesian authorities agreed to arrange a meeting in June between Juliana, now 17, and her family on the Indonesian side of the border. Watched by the police, Manek and members of his militia, Juliana told her parents that she wanted to stay with the father of her baby. Her disappointed relatives concluded that she had been brainwashed by Manek during her two years in captivity.

In July, Manek was arrested by Indonesian authorities on charges of stealing government funds and is in jail awaiting trial. Even so, Juliana has not returned to her family in East Timor.

Pro-Indonesian Activist Took Children to Java

Almost as frustrating for U.N. officials and East Timorese parents has been the largely unsuccessful effort to recover 170 children taken from the West Timorese camps by pro-Indonesian political activist Octavio Soares.

Soares, a medical student from East Timor, searched the refugee camps in 1999 for children he could take to the Indonesian island of Java. He promised parents or other relatives that the children would live in Christian-run orphanages in the district of Semarang, where they would get three meals a day and the chance to go to school.

"I have dedicated myself to humanitarianism," Soares said recently. "I want every kid to be like me. I want them to have a very bright future. The parents begged me to take them because the children lived in very bad conditions in the refugee camps."

Until recently, Soares and the Indonesian government ignored parents' requests for the return of their children, East Timorese and U.N. officials say. Soares' critics contend that his goal is to keep pro-Indonesian passion alive within the next generation of East Timorese. In some cases, he secured permission to take the children. In other cases he did not, parents say.

Olivero Amaral was one parent who lost his daughter to Soares. Amaral and his family fled the 1999 violence and ended up in a militia-controlled camp near Kupang, the West Timorese capital.

Soon after their arrival, Amaral heard from another refugee that his daughter Filumena, then 11, had been taken to Java. Amaral said he never agreed to let her go.

"I ran to get her, but she had already left," he recounted. "I felt I had been tricked, but I couldn't do anything about it. I could only stand there and think to myself, 'How could this have happened?' "

Sister Vincentia Trimurti of the St. Thomas orphanage in Semarang recalls when Soares called in 1999 to say he was bringing orphans from West Timor. She expected perhaps four or five. Instead he arrived with 40 or 50.

Today, she has only praise for Soares.

"He's the savior of these children," she said recently. "He's their angel. He took them from the camps, and now they can study again. They have good clothes. He took them from a bad situation."

By all accounts, the children have been treated well in Semarang. Some of them say they do not want to go back to East Timor, where their last memories are of homes on fire and people being slaughtered.

Returnee Sought to Have Daughter Join Him

Amaral returned to East Timor last year and wanted to reunite his family but had no way to get Filumena back from the orphanage. He sought help from the U.N. refugee agency, which asked the Indonesian government to return her. For more than a year, U.N. officials got nowhere.

Under growing international pressure, Soares and Indonesia agreed to return 10 of the children. One was Filumena. Now 13, she was handed over to her father in September, two years after he last saw her.

Amaral said he is grateful to Soares for making sure that she was treated well. "We are all Timorese," the father said. "The difference is only our ideology. I'm not angry with him."

After meeting with their parents during an emotional reunion on the Indonesian island of Bali, two of the older children chose to go back to the orphanage to continue their education.

Marty Natalegawa, director of international organizations for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, said the return of the children to their families was just a starting point. "The Indonesian people do not have any intention of keeping anyone against their will," he said. Soares, however, said he has no immediate plans to return any of the other 160 children.

But Kerblat said he was encouraged by the return and hopes that Indonesia will give back more of East Timor's missing children.

Indonesia's lack of cooperation has prompted U.N. refugee workers to resort occasionally to the cloak-and-dagger methods they used in April to rescue the girl who was taken at age 13.

Officials would not allow the girl or her parents to be interviewed because of the trauma she suffered and the stigma of being raped. They said it was simply bad luck that the teen was left on her own on the day the militia attacked--her parents were at the hospital with an ailing sibling.

While the rest of the family fled into the mountains, the girl was taken to West Timor, where a neighbor handed her over to the militia leader. Officials would not identify the leader.

"He is a real perverse psychopath," Kerblat said. "She was used as a sexual toy. He continually raped her for 17 months. She was even raped the day before we extracted her."

While in the camp, the girl was kept under guard by militia members. Rescuers made their move on a day the militia planned to hold a large rally. They calculated that even the girl's guards would attend.

Now 15, she needs medical rehabilitation because of the sexual abuse she suffered.

For Kerblat, it is difficult to comprehend the treatment she and other East Timorese children have received. "Let's give these people a break," he pleaded. "Why continue to punish them? Because they voted for independence?"

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