Children taken for adoption

From Background

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 (kamp konsentrasi). 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.

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.

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