Subject: WP front page: Indon Group "Brainwashing" E.Timor's Displaced Children

The Washington Post Saturday, September 8, 2001 -front page-

E. Timor's Displaced Children

Indonesian 'Unity' Group Foils Efforts to Reunite Families

photo: Regina Barros looks at a photograph of her son, Osorio, who is being held at an orphanage in Indonesia. (Rajiv Chandrasekaran - The Post)

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran Washington Post Foreign Service

AILEU, East Timor -- Living in a squalid camp with thousands of other East Timorese refugees, Domingos Castro and Regina Barros figured they were in no position to refuse when three men ordered them to hand over their 9-year-old son so he could be sent to an orphanage in Indonesia.

The men promised that their son, Osorio, would be schooled and fed three meals a day -- an unheard-of luxury for the refugees, who fled their homes after militias laid waste to East Timor in response to an overwhelming vote to secede from Indonesia two years ago. The couple said they were told they could reclaim Osorio whenever they went back home.

Although Castro and Barros left the refugee camp about 18 months ago, they have been unable to retrieve their son. The Indonesian foundation that organized the removal of Osorio and at least 124 other East Timorese children from various refugee camps has refused to hand over any of them, despite repeated pleas from the parents and the United Nations.

East Timorese leaders, Western diplomats and humanitarian workers contend the foundation is indoctrinating the children to oppose freedom for East Timor in an effort to cultivate a crop of young Timorese who will one day fight to reunify the territory with Indonesia. On its Web site, the foundation states that it is committed to "sustaining the existence of well-schooled East Timorese in the frame of Indonesian unity."

Indonesian authorities have done little to intervene, despite numerous requests from representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Contravening international conventions on family unification, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the East Timorese youths would be better off in Indonesia than with their parents.

"This is an absolute disgrace," said Bernard Kerblat, UNHCR's operations chief in East Timor's capital, Dili. "If the parents want their children back, they should be given back to them. It's their basic right. There's no war in East Timor. There are schools here now. There is no reason to keep them in Indonesia."

Diplomats and U.N. officials argue that the Indonesian government's inaction is the latest in a series of failures to address the fallout of the militia violence that devastated East Timor in 1999. Indonesia has not brought to trial any of the military and police officers accused of spearheading the mayhem. The only people who have been tried -- six militia members who killed three U.N. aid workers in Indonesian-controlled western Timor -- received jail sentences ranging from 10 to 20 months.

Militias, which were armed and paid by the Indonesian military, still roam freely in western Timor, just a few miles from the border with East Timor, according to witnesses and intelligence sources. U.N. officials said the militia leaders continue to control refugee camps that house as many as 50,000 East Timorese, many of whom want to return home but have been prevented from doing so by force and intimidation.

Several refugees who returned earlier this month said they had wanted to come back for months, but that militia leaders who ran their camp near the western Timor town of Atambua made it difficult to leave. "When I said I wanted to return, they threatened me," said Armindo Brandao, 26, a potato farmer.

Brandao said camp leaders also told him repeatedly that East Timor was still chaotic. "They said there was no law here, that people were still fighting and suffering."

He said he finally mustered the courage to leave after receiving reassuring letters from his sister. Eventually, he said, he and a few dozen others sneaked out of their camp early one morning when the leaders were asleep.

"The Indonesian government keeps saying how they are committed to resolving the militia and refugee problems," said one senior U.N. official. "But the reality is that they are still doing precious little."

The case of the children from East Timor began in the fall of 1999, when Octavio Soares, a medical student, visited the refugee camps in western Timor. The nephew of a former Indonesia-appointed governor of East Timor, Soares was a vocal opponent of independence for the territory.

Soares and several associates traveled through the fetid camps, looking for children he could take to the main Indonesian island of Java. "I did it for humanitarian reasons," he said in an interview. "These children had lost everything, and I didn't want them to lose their future."

In many cases, U.N. officials said, he persuaded parents or other relatives to part with the children by offering assurances that he would educate, clothe and feed them. But in Osorio's case, his father said, Soares did not offer him a choice.

"He said that the nuns on Java wanted all the children between 6 and 12 to leave the camp," Castro said. "There was no way we could say no."

Soares eventually collected 125 Timorese children, who were brought to Java, where they were deposited without prior arrangement at four orphanages run by Roman Catholic nuns.

U.N. refugee officials said the children Soares transported likely represent only a fraction of the children who continue to be separated from their parents as a result of the East Timor crisis. Officials are investigating reports that as many as 1,000 other children were taken from the refugee camps and sent to other parts of Indonesia to work in sweatshops and on plantations.

"The children in the orphanages are just the visible part of the iceberg," Kerblat said.

The costs of transporting the 125 children to the orphanages were paid by an anti-independence organization, the Hati Foundation, of which Soares is the general secretary. (Hati means heart in Indonesian, but it also is an acronym for the words Hope of Timor.)

Initially, U.N. officials said, many of the parents thought it was a good idea for their children to leave the camps. But after a few months, as several of the parents returned to East Timor and began to rebuild their lives, they changed their minds.

"Things are fine here now," said Castro, a farmer who lives with his wife and a 4-year-old son in a wooden hut near the town of Aileu, about 30 miles south of Dili. "Osorio should come back and live with us."

Castro and the parents of 15 other children have asked the United Nations, which is administering East Timor during its transition to full nationhood, to help bring their children home. The U.N.'s refugee agency has requested the foundation, along with the Indonesian government, to turn over the 16 children.

But the foundation has refused. Soares contends that many of the children were handed over by relatives in western Timor who were serving as their guardians -- and they, he said, will be furious at him if he accedes to the U.N.'s request.

"If I let the children go, I will jeopardize myself," he said. "I will no longer be welcome in west Timor. They may even shoot me."

Soares also contends that the relatives signed forms giving the foundation custody of the children.

But U.N. refugee officials argue that the parents did not forfeit rights to their children by sending them to the orphanage. And, the officials assert, it is the parents, not other family members, who have the ultimate right to decide where their children stay.

For their part, however, the children do not appear to want to return. Recently, at one of the orphanages, the St. Thomas facility near the city of Semarang, several of the children said emphatically that they hoped to stay.

"I like it here," said Abril da Costa, 14, whose parents have requested that he be sent back. "I have a lot of friends here, and I want to finish my school here."

Another 14-year-old, Julmiro Sarmento Pinto, said the orphanage was "much, much better" than his village in East Timor.

U.N. officials and humanitarian workers said it was not surprising that the children had little desire to return home. Their last memories of East Timor were of the savage violence that followed the independence vote. At the orphanage, they are fed three meals a day and have the afternoons free for recreational activities, instead of being asked to help their parents till fields or gather firewood. And living on Java has exposed them to cultural influences unheard of in their home villages: The girls' dormitories feature posters of Leonardo DiCaprio and the boys' room is festooned with pictures of European soccer players and female stars from "Beverly Hills 90210."

"Why does the United Nations want the children to go back?" said Sulaiman Abdulmanan, a spokesman for Indonesia's Foreign Ministry. "What about the human rights of the children? They will get a better education in Java. It's a better situation than the uncertainties in East Timor."

U.N. officials insist that parents have a fundamental right to be with their children, even if they live in a place with fewer modern amenities.

"This is like the Elian Gonzalez case -- multiplied by a hundred children," said one U.N. official.

East Timorese leaders and humanitarian workers accuse Soares, who regularly meets with the children, of training them to be activists to push for the reintegration of East Timor with Indonesia. Asked about the issue, several of the children said they opposed East Timor's independence even though their parents supported it.

"It is better if East Timor is integrated in Indonesia," said Emanuela Pinto Gomes, 12, whose family has asked for her return.

East Timor's unofficial foreign minister, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, accused Soares of "brainwashing" the children.

Soares said he is simply teaching the children about what he calls "Indonesian unity," which legitimizes Indonesia's invasion and annexation of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, in 1975. "I'm not trying to create mercenaries, but if the children decide to fight for the reunification of East Timor with Indonesia, it's their choice," he said.

Sister Vincentia, one of the nuns at St. Thomas, said she was concerned about the "indoctrination of the children" and Soares's "hidden agenda." She said she and the other nuns accepted the children only after Soares told them he had parental permission. But after being contacted by U.N. officials and talking to their parents, she said the nuns concluded that the 16 children should be sent home.

"We believe it's the right of the parents to have their children," Sister Vincentia said.

In July, the nuns and the United Nations agreed to transport eight of the children back to East Timor. But a few hours before a U.N. case worker arrived at the orphanage, Soares drove up and took the eight with him. He kept them at his house for a week, officials said.

"They are my children," Soares said. "I will defend them with all of my heart."

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