Background

This website brings together the stories of many East Timorese children and their parents, telling their experiences of separation and transfer during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor.

Indonesians transferred possibly up to 4,000 young, dependent East Timorese children to Indonesia between 1975 and 1999. Many books and news articles have been written about the political and social conditions in East Timor during this period, but we don’t know much about the experiences of these young children.

You might ask why haven’t we heard about these transfers in the media? Or maybe you think, surely those who took the children did so only because they wanted to help them.

It may even occur to you, as you read the stories here, that this is also your story. Do you live in Indonesia but have often wondered about your own background? Do you have memories of a childhood lived somewhere else?

The stories you read here offer a glimpse of the relationship between Indonesians and East Timorese during that period and help us to understand why these transfers occurred.

Questions:

  • What was the situation in East Timor between 1975 and 1999?

  • How many children were sent to Indonesia?

  • Who took the children, and why?

    • Children taken for adoption

    • Children sent to institutions

  • Were transfers permitted by the authorities?

  • What happened to the children in Indonesia?

  • Where are the children today? Tracing missing family members

  • Do transfers like this happen elsewhere, and why?

What was the situation in East Timor between 1975 and 1999?

Part 3 of the CAVR Report, Chega!, is an excellent history of the conflict between East Timor and Indonesia, with a brief introduction to the Portuguese colonial period. Read

The CAVR is the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (A Comissão de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliação)

Indonesia was a Dutch colony, until it declared independence in 1945. East Timor was a Portuguese colony. In 1974, following a bloodless revolution in Portugal, the new leaders there decided that their colonies should become independent. It was during the Cold War, and Indonesia, as well as Western nations, feared that Portuguese Timor would become a Communist state if it became independent. To forestall this, the Indonesian military invaded East Timor in late 1975. However, the East Timorese under Fretilin resisted.

There was all-out warfare for several years, until the resistance was defeated militarily. But the Indonesian leadership denied they were fighting a war. They also claimed that most East Timorese supported the integration of East Timor with Indonesia.

At the same time, the Indonesian leaders believed that the development they brought to East Timor would win over the population to accept integration. However, the Indonesian military, under the New Order regime, ruled the territory harshly committing many human rights abuses, especially against those who resisted integration.

From 1983, the resistance reorganised under Xanana Gusmao. In the towns and cities of East Timor and Indonesia a clandestine movement grew up. Increasingly educated young people joined the resistance against integration, even though they had been educated by the Indonesian government with opportunities denied them during the Portuguese colonial period.

The United Nations never acknowledged the legitimacy of integration. After the fall of Suharto in 1998, the new Indonesian president, BJ Habibie, offered the East Timorese a referendum to be organised by the UN. In 1999, the East Timorese voted against integration with Indonesia, and in 2002 East Timor became the new nation of Timor Leste.

Immediately after the vote, the Indonesian military and the East Timorese militias it had trained, angry with the rejection of integration, went on a rampage of killing and destruction. They also forced one third of the population to leave East Timor, most of them pushed over the border into West Timor.

Chronology

How many children were sent to Indonesia?

Between 1975 and 1999 approximately 4,000 young, dependent East Timorese children were transferred to Indonesia. A representative from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, told the CAVR in 2006 that 4,534 children were transferred to Indonesia between 1975 and 1999 (CAVR Report Part 7.8.4.1 No. 353).

About half the children were taken by individuals – especially Indonesian soldiers, but also Indonesian civil servants. These children were taken from East Timor between 1975 and the early 1980s, during the period of warfare.

The other half were sent to government, private and religious institutions in Indonesia, a practice that continued throughout the occupation.

Many older East Timorese children were sent to study in Indonesia. But these children kept their links with home, unlike the younger children who are the focus here.

Who took the children, and why?

Children taken for adoption

Individual Indonesian soldiers and civil servants took children to adopt them themselves or to give them to other families. [1] Most of these children were taken from East Timor between 1975 and the early 1980s when the East Timorese resistance fighters were fighting the Indonesian military.

Many children were separated and abandoned as a result of the war. Sometimes soldiers and civil servants found children with no one to care for them, so they took them home at the end of their terms of duty in East Timor.

When a group of East Timorese surrendered or was captured, the Indonesian military forced them to live together in camps, which people referred to as concentration camps. There were often separated children among the population in these camps. But soldiers also forced many parents living in the camps to hand over their children; and parents usually felt they had no choice. Parents also signed adoption agreements with soldiers, often against their wishes and often not understanding the content of the agreements they signed.

Many soldiers and civil servants took children into their care because they felt compassion for the vulnerable separated and abandoned children. However, there was also a political a dimension to the help offered. By arriving home with a child, soldiers showed that their nationalistic mission in East Timor had been successful: the East Timorese wanted integration with Indonesia and wanted their children to be educated in Indonesia. Thus soldiers were helping to achieve these goals. Soldiers also had personal reasons why they wanted a child: some had no children of their own or wanted a child of a particular sex.

Some parents agreed to give their children to Indonesians who promised to return the children after they had educated them. During the conflict, many parents felt that they were unable to provide for their children. Indeed some thought that sending a child away to the safety of Indonesia was a way to ensure that at least one family member survived. However, these parents are disappointed that the soldiers and others who took their children did not keep their promises to return them.

One group of children who were vulnerable to removal by soldiers were the young boys who worked as soldiers’ helpers, TBOs (tenaga bantuan operasi). Soldiers often developed an affectionate relationship with their TBOs and offered to take them home and educate them. Soldiers also wanted to continue to influence the boys and make sure they did not join the resistance. However, many TBOs were taken to Indonesia by soldiers against the wishes of the boys and their parents, and often they had to continue working hard for the soldiers’ families, some in slave-like conditions.

But why did soldiers take children without permission and sometimes force parents to hand over their children? Soldiers harboured paternalistic attitudes towards the East Timorese, viewing them as primitive and backward. They believed that they were offering the children a superior education in Indonesia, which allowed them to justify taking the children away from East Timor and from their families, even forcibly. However, in doing so, soldiers took children as if they were removing property from defeated enemies, like a war trophy.

After some time, military and government regulations and instructions were instituted which explicitly forbade the removal of young children from East Timor by soldiers, unless the children were orphans or their parents had given written consent. Despite this, soldiers took many children away from their parents and families in East Timor. Often they coerced parents to sign written documents giving them permission. If they could not acquire a document, many soldiers packed children into boxes and loaded them, along with their other luggage, aboard boats bound for Indonesia.

Children sent to institutions

Soon after the invasion, President Suharto began sending small groups of East Timorese orphans to institutions in Java. The transfers were organised through his newly established Dharmais Foundation. In 1977 he invited one group of these orphans to his home in the presidential palace. Through this invitation Suharto wanted to demonstrate to his Indonesian audience via the media the concern of the Indonesian authorities to help develop East Timor. He also wanted to show his compassion by caring for children whose parents died fighting to integrate with Indonesia. The invitation came just as the Indonesian military was about to launch its final onslaught to destroy Fretilin. It showed the President’s belief that soon East Timor would become part of the Indonesian family, of which he himself was the head or father. By taking away child victims of the war and conflict in East Timor the President set an example which others followed. Transferring children became an expression of Indonesian nationalism. Transfers also ensured that these children, educated in Indonesia, grew up supporting the integration of their homeland with Indonesia. Read about the visit to the Suhartos

Religious groups represented in East Timor also sent young children to Indonesia to be educated. Religious leaders believed religious education was important, and they also cooperated with the regime by educating the children to support integration. The Catholic Church, which represents the major religion in East Timor, sent small numbers of young children to Java to be educated. However, it had its own schools in East Timor and brought many teachers and members of religious orders from Indonesia to staff them.

While Islam is the majority religion in Indonesia, the presence of Islam in East Timor was challenged by many Catholics in the predominantly Catholic population. [2] Indonesia guarantees freedom for recognised religions to practice their faith, therefore many Muslims felt that Islam should be allowed to flourish in East Timor. However, throughout the 1990s the construction of mosques and Islamic schools in East Timor was increasingly thwarted by East Timorese Catholics. Religion became entwined in the political struggle. To try to persuade the East Timorese to accept integration, the authorities often accommodated Catholic sensitivities. While many East Timorese viewed becoming a Muslim as rejecting East Timorese identity and accepting integration with Indonesia.

The problems that Islamic missionaries faced in building schools and mosques in East Timor led them to decide to send children to Indonesia to receive an Islamic education. Because transferring East Timorese children to Islamic institutions in Indonesia could ignite strong reactions, these missionaries decided to send the children to Indonesia in a low-key, almost secretive manner. Beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing throughout the 1990s, Islamic organisations in East Timor sent at least 1,000 young East Timorese children to Islamic institutions throughout Indonesia. The largest number was sent by Yakin Foundation. The organisers of these child transfers also used religion as a tool in their struggle. They hoped that indigenous East Timorese Muslims would support integration and the demand for a space in East Timor for all Muslims, including the many outsiders conducting integration programs. Read more

The organisers selected children who came from families most in need of their offers of a free education in Indonesia – orphaned and fatherless children, and those from poor families and from remote districts. In order to receive a free education, children had to become Muslims. They were also usually given new names, though sometimes retaining their East Timorese names (catholic names derived from Portuguese). Most received an education as an Islamic teacher or preacher, and they had to promise to return home to spread Islamic faith in East Timor.

Many parents and village leaders in East Timor are now less concerned that the children have been educated in another religion than they are about the break in social harmony and solidarity as a result of conversion. Often children who convert do not perform the cultural and social duties expected of them and this causes great pain and sadness for their parents.

Before and immediately after the referendum in 1999, some East Timorese who ardently supported integration with Indonesia took children from their families to institutions in Indonesia. Their aim was to educate children as supporters of the continued integration of East Timor with Indonesia. They involved possibly up to 1,000 children in their projects. Read more

Were transfers permitted by the authorities?

The authorities permitted East Timorese orphans to be sent to Indonesia to be cared for and educated. Thus, President Suharto’s foundation searched for orphans, children with no mother or father, to bring them to Indonesia.

While this was supposed to be the case, the reality was different. First, in East Timor, as in many places in Indonesia, relatives are bound to care for the children of their deceased siblings. Thus, most orphans had family who were concerned for them, though the war in East Timor often made it difficult for surviving relatives to care for extended family members in need. Whatever their situation, relatives felt they should have been kept informed about the whereabouts and welfare of young members of their extended family. Suharto’s foundation did not do this.

In support of the fact that only orphans should be adopted is a military document found by Hilmar Farid, head of the Indonesian Institute of History and Cultural Network, Jaringan Kerja Budaya dan Institut Sejarah Indonesia, among forgotten military documents in 1999. (It is now in the archives of the human rights organisation, Yayasan Hak, in Dili.) It was an order issued in 1978 or 1979 by the military commander of the East Timor Region Command stating that soldiers should not take children for adoption, unless the children were orphans. Attached to the order was a list of names of children who could be adopted. The district administrator of Ermera at that time, Tomás Gonçalves, signed that the children listed were orphans.

However, given the war, it was difficult to determine the whereabouts of parents and thus guarantee that a child was an orphan. Separated children were often taken care of by religious institutions. Priests and those who organised the institutions were often asked to sign “letters of surrender” handing over children in their care (surat keterangan menyerahkan anak).

Soldiers also forced parents to sign these letters, even when parents did not agree. Further, parents could not read the documents and often soldiers lied to them about their contents.Soldiers usually told parents they would return the child once they were educated. But the documents signed by parents stated that they gave up their rights to their child or that there was no one who could care for the child.

When there was no other way to take a child officially, soldiers resorted to smuggling the children out of East Timor. Many soldiers bundled children into boxes and loaded them onto the boats leaving East Timor, as part of their luggage. Many military commanders did not ensure that the men in their charge followed orders, as long as the departure of the children from East Timor was not noticed by the military police.

The authorities did not officially support the transfer of East Timorese children to religious institutions in Indonesia, particularly by Muslims. However, many prominent civilian and military officials lent their support. The transfers were often conducted secretly and parents were often coerced and offered incentives. Often they were not told that the children had to become Muslims in order to receive the free education on offer. Had these transfers become public knowledge they would have been questioned. Children often came from the most vulnerable families who were less unable to protest the transfer of their children, if they disagreed.

What happened to the children in Indonesia?

Children taken to Indonesia by individuals were usually adopted or given to other families for adoption. Most adoptive parents made some attempt to educate their adoptive children, as they had promised. Some soldiers also sent the children they brought to Indonesia to Islamic institutions (pesantren) to be educated.

Most of the children, whether they lived in private homes or institutions, were educated as Indonesians. Instead of helping them maintain links with East Timor, many carers forbade the children to speak about East Timor, or told them only negative information about their birth place. Soldiers often tried to stop their adoptive children from mixing with other East Timorese. Thus children lost their birth language and culture. They were often given a new name and in many cases raised in a religion different from that of their parents. (Many East Timorese did not adhere to one of Indonesia’s permitted religions at the time of the invasion; however, since then the majority of the population chose Catholicism, introduced there by the colonial Portuguese.)

Many children had good experiences in the homes of those who took them there, even though they lost their Timorese identity. Others had to work hard for their adoptive families. Some children could not adjust to the strict discipline in the institutions where they were sent. Because they were mishandled or because they could not adjust, some children ran away from their adoptive homes or their institutions. We know of cases where some of these children disappeared.

The institutions, which were scattered all over Indonesia, were the guardians of the children, and these institutions had little continuing contact with the East Timorese who had sent them. The primary concern of the organisers in East Timor was to send as many young children as they could to Indonesia. They paid less attention to informing parents in East Timor about their children. Parents heard news informally from older students who happened to know their children.

Soldiers who took separated children should have tried to help the children trace their families after the war was over. By failing to do so, they denied children their right, recognised in international law, to be raised by their parents and families in their birth environment. Indeed, soldiers who took children against the wishes of their parents broke Indonesian law. By breaking their verbal promises to parents, to send the children home when their education was complete, soldiers destroyed any possibility of building trust and community with the East Timorese whom they claimed to be helping.

Where are the children today? Tracing missing family members

The children transferred to Indonesia have now reached adulthood. Many who were taken by soldiers have returned to East Timor. Some fortunate ones found their families; others are still searching. However, most of them remain in Indonesia. They are Indonesians, having spent their formative years there. Even if they want to, many do not have the resources and contacts to search for their families. There are still others who were so young when they were taken away that they do not know that they come from East Timor.

The children who grew up in institutions always knew that they were East Timorese, even if they learnt little about their own culture and had little contact with their families. After independence, many of the children sent to Islamic institutions worried about returning to East Timor.Many now live around Bandung and especially on transmigration sites in South Sulawesi. Children in religious institutions in 1999 had little official support to return to their families in East Timor.

We can be sure that the whereabouts of many East Timorese children in Indonesia will remain unknown. They are a small number in this vast country, the fourth largest in the world. Raised as Indonesians, they know little about their biological families in East Timor and do not have the resources to search for their families.

During the occupation it was difficult for children and families to try to trace each other. Since independence for East Timor and the end of the New Order in Indonesia it has become easier. A few high ranking military families from East Timor have successfully traced their children; however, most families in East Timor do not have such good connections.

Do transfers like this happen elsewhere, and why?

Elsewhere on this website you will find links to other examples of transfer of children to institutions and for adoption. There are differences with these transfers out of East Timor, but there are also many similarities.

Transferring young children away from their families to educate and civilise them was a common practice among many colonisers. Those who conducted the transfers believed that they were doing it to help the children and their families. The education the child would receive was deemed sufficient justification for removing children from their secure environments. Organisers of child transfers rarely thought about the impact of separation on the children and their families.

It is invariably a dominant group which takes children from a weaker group in order to help integrate the group to which the children belong. Especially when this task seems difficult, beginning with children is often considered the best way to make progress.

The transfers may not necessarily be forced. The powerful group regards the weaker group as backward and in need of improvement and civilising. And members of the weaker group are conditioned to believe that they are inferior, and the only way to improve is to be educated into the ideas and ways of the dominant culture.

Taking children for adoption has more often occurred in situations of war and conflict. Security personal and civil servants of the conquering group take the children of the conquered group, often the children of those who most fiercely resist.

The children transferred are weak, because they are children, and they usually belong to the most vulnerable groups – those who are poor or those who parents are fighting the conquering power. As in East Timor, the practice often went unnoticed and undocumented for many years. Children have a right to their identity and birth culture, whoever their parents are. This is why we believe that this story about child transfers out of East Timor is not simply a story about a small group of children from a small island, at the eastern tip of Indonesia. It is important because the way we treat the weak and powerless is a measure of our humanity and civilization.

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1. In English we use ‘adoption’ to describe these relationships, though most of these children were not legally adopted. The Indonesian term, anak angkat, has a broader meaning but also covers most responsibilities of legal adoption.

2. There has been a community of Muslims of Arab descent living in Dili for several centuries. However, there were no Muslim among the indigenous population.