East Timor's Stolen Children

From his village around 160 km from East Timor's capital Dili, Miguel Amaral recalls the day his 6-year-old son Cipriano was taken away.

“It was 1977 and the Indonesians came in a military helicopter," he says. "We had no warning. We just saw a helicopter flying away with our son in it.”

Many of East Timor’s missing children have found their way home, but hundred of parents like Amaral are still dreaming of the day they will be reunited with their lost sons and daughters. During Indonesia’s brutal occupation of East Timor, some 4,000 Timorese children were taken out of the country by Indonesians.

Cipriano was taken along with his uncle Urbano, where they were held in an orphanage run by the Indonesian military.

“In 1978 the wives of some Indonesian soldiers came to visit," he recalls. "Cipriano was a cute looking boy with white, pale skin and he and another girl were chosen and taken away. He has been missing since.”

Urbano was later taken to an orphanage in Java and given a free education until high school. It wasn’t until he graduated from university in 2008 that he returned to his birthplace, now an independent nation. For Urbano, it was a bittersweet return. He was reunited with his family and also a grieving Amaral, who is still searching for his lost son.

After gaining independence from Indonesia in 1999, East Timor set up a fact-finding commission called CAVR to investigate what had happened to the Timorese people during the Indonesian occupation. A small part of the report published seven years ago acknowledged that children were taken out of the country.

The current head of the commission, Agustinho de Vasconcelos, says there is not much more they can do to try and find East Timor’s lost children.

“Basically the least we can do is keep collecting information about these cases, but then we have to wait and see how we can proceed from there. To be truthful, there are just too many cases for us too handle,” he says.

Vitor da Costa heads the Jakarta-based Families of Missing People Association. His Timorese parents died when he was young and his relatives agreed to allow an Indonesian family to adopt him because they were so poor. While his stepfather always made it clear to him that he was Timorese, it was not till he was 34 years old that he went home.

“For a long time it was just a dream in my heart. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t know how I could go home. So I just pushed the idea aside,” he says.

Deciding to take a month off work, he traveled to East Timor to look for surviving members of his family.

“When I reached East Timor, I felt really happy, but I was also confused. I did not know where to go or who to meet. I wanted to look for my family but I did not know who to ask. The only people I could count on were friends from human rights community in Dili,” he says.

It was through them that he finally got in contact with his family, but he was not welcomed back into his village straight away.

“They said I was considered dead, so they had built a small grave in between my parents’ graves. I have to be brought back to life again through some rituals. I felt sad... and angry,” he says. “I was angry with my family, but they said the situation back then was different. They did not know where and how to find me.”

Six years later, after saving enough money to pay for the necessary rituals, Vitor de Costa went back to East Timor again and met with his family.

“That was the happiest moment in my life. I was so thankful that I got to experience it. Even though I was not able to meet my parents,” he says, pointing to photos of his Timorese relatives hanging on the wall.

Today, de Costa says he is determined to help more divided Timorese families reunite and rediscover their roots.

Back in East Timor, Urbano and Amarel hope they will be reunited with Cipriano one day.

“I have a message for Cipriano,” Urbano says. “We’re waiting for you. Every time your parents hear your name, their eyes are filled with tears.”

(This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia’s independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in 10 countries across Asia. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at www.asiacalling.org.)