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Timor-Leste: The stolen children

Foreign Correspondent - July 7, 2020

Anne Barker – In the shadow of the whitewashed Catholic church in Ainaro, Timor-Leste, Kalistru walked down the steps onto the dusty road. He was just a boy, eight years old. He couldn't have known he would never see his mother or father again after that day.

It was 1977 and Timor-Leste was at war. Two years earlier Indonesian forces had invaded and occupied the tiny former Portuguese territory. Too young to join the resistance like some of his siblings, Kalistru clung to his mother's side during the chaos of those days.

Kalistru and his friends barely noticed a group of Indonesian soldiers waiting nearby as they left church early that day. They were too busy playing with some coins as they wandered down the road. One of the soldiers approached them and asked if he could join in.

"Do you know the Indonesian capital, Jakarta?" he asked the boys. "No," they said. "Would you like to go there?"

Too young to see the Indonesian soldiers as the enemy and excited at the promise of a grand adventure, before they knew it the boys were in an army Jeep heading for Dili.

Kalistru was so excited he barely gave a thought to his parents or family. His mother was still inside the church praying.

It would be 42 years before he would stand there again on the steps of his family's church, returned as a father himself, still carrying the burden of guilt and pain that day placed on him.

A stolen generation

More than 4,000 children were taken from Timor-Leste during the Indonesian occupation between 1975 and 1999. Some non-government organisations believe the real number is even higher.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up after Timor-Leste's independence in 2002 concluded about two-thirds of the children were removed by Indonesian soldiers without their parents' consent.

Some were sent to do menial work in the Indonesian military or to work as domestic servants. Many, like Kalistru, were taken opportunistically or given empty promises that they would have better lives outside Timor-Leste. Raised as Indonesians, or abandoned far from home, they are Timor-Leste's "stolen generation".

One of the Indonesian soldiers at Ainaro that day was Sumia Atmaja. He smuggled Kalistru and the other boys onto a navy ship in Dili, bound for Jakarta. From there he took the boy home to his family in West Java and effectively adopted him as his second son.

Kalistru was forced to change his name to Alis Sumiaputra, meaning "son of Sumia". He was raised in the Indonesian school system and converted to Islam, leaving behind the Catholic faith of his parents in Timor-Leste.

Gradually he forgot his native Tetum language. In time he forgot much about his early life in rural Ainaro, even about his own family.

Now widely known as Alis, he eventually married and settled in a rural Javanese village next to the one where he grew up in Cigalontang.

Today, Alis farms rice in the green, tiered paddies of Tanjungkarang, West Java, where he lives with his wife, a son and a small grandson.

He's popular and well known in the village and regularly prays at the local mosque. "So far, praise Allah, I live happily together with my family," he says.

Alis's life in Indonesia has not been unhappy. The soldier who took him was "good and kind", he says, and raised him as if Alis were his own flesh and blood.

"He said, 'You're no stranger, you're my son.' After meeting my foster mum with all her four children, we were like real brothers and sisters. We have a very good relationship."

But in 2019, 42 years after he was taken, a jolt of memory returned with the death of Alis's adoptive Indonesian father and a visit from a stranger.

"My heart longed for my parents since my foster father died," says Alis. "That was when I remembered all my siblings. And somehow that was the time when Nina came looking for me."

A stolen child like Alis, Nina Pinto was once part of a happy, close-knit family at Viqueque on Timor-Leste's south coast.

Her parents were "Liurai", effectively royalty within their local community. But their high status was no match for their Indonesian oppressors.

Nina was just five years old when an Indonesian soldier took a shine to her and told her parents he wanted to take her back to Jakarta as his daughter.

It was here on the beach at Laga, in northern Timor-Leste, that Nina endured the harrowing separation from her mother and father that still haunts her.

It was a hot afternoon in 1979 and an Indonesian troopship was waiting off the coast to take her away.

Nina's parents tried desperately to stop the Indonesian soldier from taking her, following him to the beach where they confronted him.

But in fear of being shot, they could do nothing but watch as their little girl was forced from their arms.

"You just remember," Nina's father said as she was taken away, "if we never see each other again, my one wish is that you don't forget about me. Don't forget your father."

"It's OK, father," said Nina. Her mother kissed her on the forehead. "Nina, just go now, OK? I believe we will see each other again."

Nina's life in Indonesia could not have been more different to the happy home Alis fondly remembers. She lived with the soldier's family and was forced to change her name to Lina. Very quickly it was clear the family expected her to work as a servant.

"At 3:00am I was woken. I was like a maid, waiting on all of them, washing clothes, cooking, all kinds of chores," she said. "Only after finishing the chores, then I could go to school."

Nina longed for her family, "but I couldn't do anything. I was helpless."

Before long, Nina's adoptive father began abusing her. "Since I was a kid, he liked to touch me," she says. "Here and there, like this and that," she says, gesturing towards her body. "He once told me that I should not disappoint him."

Nina was forbidden from talking about Timor-Leste. Perhaps cruellest of all, the soldier told her that her real family was dead. "But I thought, that's impossible. I believed they were still alive. But how to look for them?"

In the end, it was Nina's family who found her. Her mother had prayed for 30 years for their reunion. Nina's family finally traced her through the Indonesian military and in 2009 a man who looked just like Nina – her brother – arrived unexpectedly at her door.

By now she had long fled the soldier's family. He was already dead, and Nina was married with a family of her own. A few days after her brother's visit, Nina's mother arrived from Timor-Leste.

"Because I was still a child when I left, my mum asked, 'Do you want to sit on my lap?' So I sat on her lap and we shared the stories of our lives."

The joy of reuniting with her mother and siblings was marred by grief as Nina learnt that her own father had died just one year earlier. Until the end, he had implored Nina's mother not to give up searching for her.

"He told my mum, 'Nina is still alive. You must look for her. She looks just like you. You must find her'."

Finding the lost

Since her own reunion in 2009, and amid regular visits to her mother near Viqueque, Nina volunteers for Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR), an NGO that traces other Timorese who were stolen as children and taken to Indonesia. It was through her work with AJAR that she came knocking at Alis's door.

"He was surprised to find someone looking for him," says Nina. "I told him I'm from Timor Leste, trying to find you. Families there are looking for their missing relatives. I told him there are efforts to reunite people like him with their families in Timor-Leste."

Of the 4,000 or more people stolen as children from Timor-Leste, only a tiny fraction have been reunited with their families. It had been four decades since Alis set foot on Timorese soil, but with AJAR and Nina's help, he made phone contact with some of his seven remaining siblings.

"Nina showed me photos and that helped me remember," says Alis. "After all this time, I finally remembered my family."

The reconnection was also tinged with sadness. Alis learnt that both his parents were now long dead, as were two brothers. But it didn't dampen his eagerness to reunite with his family.

AJAR organises one reunion a year for a small group of Timorese who want to go back.

Alis is one of 14 stolen children now preparing to return home for the first time.

At a workshop in Bali before the onward journey to Timor-Leste, Alis hears the painful stories of the other stolen children.

Most have suffered some form of abuse or neglect at the hands of the Indonesians. Many women were repeatedly raped by soldiers, even as young children. Others were victims of torture or violence.

Today, most of Timor's stolen children struggle financially and live poor lives, unable to get good jobs because they were denied a proper education. The vast majority are not Indonesian citizens so they can't own their own land or even get a passport.

"I feel moved, pained," says Alis. "I'm grateful that my foster parents' love helped me to get an education and financial support. I thank Allah for my good fortune.

"But for my friends, it's painful to hear their fate, which was so unlike my life in Indonesia."

Coming home

On the eve of their journey home, there's a buzz of excitement and nerves in the group. None of them knows quite what to expect when they return to Timor-Leste. Some fear their families will not be there.

Alis is nervous too, and not just because he has never flown in a plane before. He's been cut off from his family for decades and doesn't know what to expect. He has forgotten the Tetum language and knows communicating will be difficult.

"What I would like to do first is to reconnect with my siblings. That's the first," he says. "The second: I would like to know where the graves of our parents are. I want that. I want to visit the graves of my mother and my father."

As the plane descends above Dili, emotions are rising. As they step onto the tarmac, one woman kisses the ground, sobbing.

There are tearful reunions for others whose families have travelled to Dili to greet them. Separated a lifetime ago, families are reunited at last.

Alis's siblings can't afford the journey from Ainaro, so they are waiting in his home village to welcome him back. Nina is accompanying Alis on the trip home to Ainaro.

"He's excited to see his family," she says. "He's also confused because he left when he was a kid. He remembers some family but not others."

It's half a day's drive to the mountainous village that Alis last saw as an eight-year-old boy. The memories come flooding back in as the four-wheel drive climbs through the dry hills of Alis's homeland.

"On the way home from Ainaro we'd pass over a long bridge, climbing up," says Alis.

"Back then we rode horses. Now I'm sure it's all different. The market, the field where they kept the horses, I remember.

"I remember how the coffee trees reached down to the river. Beyond that was where the water buffaloes grazed.

"And then finally, there's the big mountain, Kablake. I remember."

At last, the car arrives at a small village and turns down a dusty road. Alis is home. His cousin and younger brother Antonio are the first to greet him, throwing their arms around Alis in a warm embrace. Antonio was just a baby when Alis disappeared.

But it's his sisters and older cousin who can no longer hold back their tears at their brother's return. Florinda, Bernadeta and Laurencia were teenagers or young women when Alis was taken.

"For decades, we thought he was dead," says Laurencia, his eldest sister. "We're not angry at him.

"When war broke out, the sound of bullets was like corn popping on the stove. There were planes shooting from the sky.

"Everyone ran, not thinking of their parents or family. We climbed Mount Kablake and hid there.

"Today he is back and he's old, like us."

The family holds a traditional ceremony to welcome him home. Then Alis has a painful duty to perform. Reconciled with the living, now Alis must make peace with the dead.

His brother takes him to his parents' graves on a hillside near the village. A floral wreath dances in the dry afternoon breeze.

Alis's mother Clara has been dead for three years. His father Francisco died years earlier.

"Here I am, your son, finally returned to Timor-Leste," he says, bowing down at their headstones.

"My dear father. My dear mother. When you died, I wasn't there. I am your son, Kalistru Momode, asking forgiveness."

For Nina, it's been over a decade since she first returned to Timor-Leste and reunited with her own mother. She knows the process of truly coming home will take time for Alis. He'll have to return here many times to work through the healing.

"Someone like Alis, he was living with a family who embraced him. His foster brothers and sisters all loved him," she says.

"But even though they loved him, there's a moment where Alis realises that he's a stranger. He's not the son of the guy who took him."

The last time Alis saw his mother was inside the church at Ainaro as an eight-year-old. The grand, whitewashed building is virtually unchanged since the day he climbed into the Jeep.

In the shadow of the church, climbing the steps to the arched door, his mind goes back to 1977 and how his parents must have suffered.

"It must have hurt them so much, to lose a beloved child.

"I feel so sad, coming home to the place where I was born and seeing the church. That was the last time I saw my mother."If the same thing had happened to me, I'd search everywhere until I found my son. I would never stop looking."

[Watch Foreign Correspondent's 'Stolen Children' tonight at 8:00pm on ABC TV and iview, and live streaming on our Facebook and YouTube pages.]

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-07-07/timor-leste-stolen-children-are-coming-home/1237418