Subject: KY: Child soldiers, the story behind Timor's freedom

PDF file of UNICEF report on child soldiers in E Timor (large file 830k)

KYODO

Child soldiers, the story behind E. Timor's freedom Christine T. Tjandraningsih

METINARO, East Timor, Sept. 13

Obviously nearly bursting with pride but trying hard to conceal it, Domingos da Camara, 31, walked toward his commander, Col. Lere, at an Australian-built training facility of the East Timor Defense Force (FDTL) in the town of Metinaro, near the capital of Dili on Thursday.

In front of his Australian mentors, he received a certificate stating he was graduated from the training center after almost two months of training.

His rank is now captain. From next month, he will join the first battalion to be equipped when East Timor becomes fully independent.

But, only a few know his past.

Da Camara was only 14, in 1983, when he joined the guerrilla army Falintil to fight Indonesia after he saw the Indonesian military take husbands away from their wives and torture them.

'What I saw during that time made me realize how cruel the Indonesian military could be,' da Camara said. 'I was very proud and I thought that I could be a fighter. I started to act like a man who could be a good fighter even though I was only 14.'

Da Camara, known as Capt. Amico, had no formal military training, but he learned to clean guns, pull them apart and put them together.

The only lesson he had during childhood was 'if you see the enemy, you shoot him. If you don't shoot him, you will be killed.'

Vasco, now 16, has a similar story.

He was 14 in 1999 when he joined Besi Merah-Putih, a pro-Jakarta militia group that conducted atrocities in East Timor in 1999 after the territory overwhelmingly voted for independence.

He had no choice when the militia came to his village, beating and killing people, and forcibly recruiting him in January 1999. His parents accepted the recruitment to save the lives of relatives.

Vasco said the militia and the military taught him how to use guns and machetes and 'how to rape, steal and kill.'

'The first time they took me from my house, we had to rape a woman and then kill anything we could, animals and people,' he said.

'Sometimes we were happy to burn the houses because our group were enjoying themselves, but other times, I felt that it was not good to burn the houses and to hurt these people,' he said.

Da Camara and Vasco are only two among thousands of child combatants on the two sides of the East Timor independence conflict.

Richard Koser, communication officer for UNICEF, said accurate figures on child soldiers in East Timor are unavailable because Falintil did not keep consistent records and because although the militias created lists, the lists were destroyed.

'But thousands of children helped the clandestine movement, and hundreds carried weapons in the militia and Falintil,' Koser said.

A UNICEF report, 'East Timorese Children Involved in Armed Conflict,' published in Dili on Wednesday says the age of the child soldiers ranged from as young as 10.

According to the report, although they were never paid, most of the children who worked with Falintil spoke of getting a sense of worth from their participation in the movement, including moral development, self confidence, organizational skills and a sense of responsibility to the community.

'The good things I learned from Falintil were discipline, administration and also politics,' Bersama, 28, who joined Falintil when he was 12, said. 'I saw some punished -- they had to make self-criticisms in front of the group when they did something wrong. We had to confess what we had done wrong to the group.'

On the other hand, the report says, the boys in the militia mostly felt guilt and shame and are traumatized by their experience. Many of them have also been desensitized to acts of extreme violence.

'Now, I wake up still from bad dreams,' Vasco said. 'I don't remember my nightmares, but I feel afraid when I wake up...Sometimes I change from feeling happy to feeling sad very quickly.'

Vasco is also afraid of Westerners who, in his thoughts, will take him away. This happened after soldiers of the International Force in East Timor, who arrived in East Timor soon after the 1999 violence, took him to Dili for interrogation.

Former child soldiers on both sides also have negative effects on their lives such as distrust of authority, particularly government.

Now, as the fight for independence ends, Falintil has ceased to exist, leaving some former child soldiers without a source of pride or courage. They also feel left out of rebuilding the country.

Only some, like da Camara, can join the FDTL.

FDTL Commander Lt. Col. Domingos Raul, said soldiers under 18 have been sent home to study before deciding their future.

'FDTL will not recruit soldiers until they turn 18,' Raul, known as Commander Falur during his guerilla time, told Kyodo News.

But many are uncomfortable at school because they have not studied for years, others cannot get jobs because they have no nonmilitary skills.

Some, then, turn to crime. Of the organized crime in East Timor, the report says, some is linked to remnants of clandestine cells.

There are also reports of increasing youth involvement of youth in extortion rings and illegal businesses.

The fate of former child militias is no better. Most now live in difficult circumstances in refugee camps in Indonesia's West Timor.

'Among the former militia youth, of the few who returned to their villages and towns, most have been ostracized and branded by their communities,' Koser said. 'As a result, they have attempted to maintain a low profile.'

Groups in West Timor said the boys are extremely difficult to reintegrate into normal life because they have seen so much violence.

However, neither side has received adequate attention from the international community, though they badly need it. The UNICEF report said children involved on the independence side mostly have positive experiences, although with some negative aspects.

Those in the militias have been exposed to excessive violence and often show high levels of trauma and antisocial behavior, it said.


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