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Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor

Leonia’s story1

I was born in East Timor in about 1972. I don’t remember the names of my parents. In fact I have more memories of my grandparents than of my parents. I remember a bent, crazy woman with a shorn head who lived with my grandparents. I seem to remember that people said she was my mother and that my father was fighting in the forest. My grandfather was a technician [mantri] and blacksmith [tukang besi], but I can’t remember his face. I also can’t remember the name of my village; I only have memories of the place where I used to play. It was near a river where there were rice fields. I went to school for a few months in the Portuguese time. We were taught by a nun, but my family was not Catholic. I had to walk a long way to school and I remember, I don’t know why, carrying a coconut palm to keep off the sun and rain. I clearly remember running away from our home when the Indonesians attacked, in 1978 or 1979, when I was about six years old. We carried my grandfather on a chair.

In all the confusion I was separated from my family and never saw them again. I don’t know how that happened. There were bombs exploding around us as we fled. Everywhere there were bodies, especially of young children, and we had to move carefully so as not to tread on them. I had a small amount of ground maize which I carried in a bottle and we had to drink muddy water. But then I became separated from my family and I was with people I did not know. We left the mountains and went into the town. We had to live in crowded conditions under the control of Indonesian soldiers. I looked everywhere for my parents but could not find them. There were many children I had never seen before, but they were not children from my village.

I played with the other children; I don’t remember being frightened. We used to run around all day playing. We would climb onto the trucks and other vehicles belonging to the soldiers and sometimes travel with them. Occasionally the soldiers gave us food. We slept wherever we could find a place, under a tree, in a house or with the family of one of the other children.

One day I travelled with soldiers on their vehicle to the small nearby harbour. I was playing with my friends when the soldiers called us and invited us to come onto their boat. They gave us food and sweets and battery-operated toys to play with. We were really excited. Then all at once a soldier took me by the hand and led me below deck. He told me to climb into a box and to keep quiet; he said, ‘Shh! Shh!’ Then he closed the lid. It smelt bad, it was hot and I could hardly breathe. I was very frightened but I did not dare to call out. Then I felt the boat moving as it left the harbour. Only then was I allowed to climb out of the box. By this time I felt quite weak and exhausted. I saw through a window in the boat that we were far out to sea and I began to cry until I fell asleep. When I woke up it was dark. I asked to get off the boat and find my friends. The soldiers threatened that they would throw me overboard if I didn’t stop demanding. One soldier lifted me up as if he was going to do just that. I was frightened especially because I had seen the body of a young boy floating in the sea and I thought that would happen to me.

When we got to Jakarta I understood that the soldiers discussed between themselves who would take me. One of the soldiers had no children of his own, so the others agreed that he should take me. He is my adoptive father and he and his wife treated me well, as if I was their own child. But in my heart I have always had a longing to know who I really am. In our home nothing was ever said about East Timor, only that East Timorese were not good people. If I asked my parents they always said that I was born in Indonesia and that I was their child.

By chance I made friends with a young girl from East Timor. At first I did not know that she was East Timorese. One day she told me that when she was small an Indonesian soldier brought her to Jakarta from East Timor. It was a shock to hear her say that and I thought, yes, that is what happened to me too. Not long afterwards I said to her, ‘I’m also East Timorese!’ We both had been given new names by our adoptive fathers and did not use East Timorese names. Her East Timorese name was Teresa dos Santos. I had always wondered if I was East Timorese, but because I was always considered part of this family it remained a question in my mind. After some time I brought Teresa home, but my parents forbad me to have any further contact with her. Eventually they ended our relationship by sending me away to Surabaya to live with my father’s brother who was also in the navy. At least that’s how I understand the fact that they sent me there.

My uncle looked after me very well and I liked living with his family. I finished high school there. I always got good grades and worked hard so everyone liked that. I always had everything I needed, both in Jakarta and in Surabaya. One day I came home late. When I arrived home my aunt angrily explained, ‘East Timorese don’t know how to behave!’ With this casual remark my aunt confirmed that what I thought about my origins was correct.

I decided to go to Jakarta to ask for answers from my parents. My father was not there. My mother was very surprised by my questions, but she wouldn’t talk about it. She would only say that I was their daughter. But I was too afraid to ask my father because I knew he would get angry; I went back to Surabaya and have never asked him. I now had many questions. I often sat alone thinking. How did I come to be in Indonesia with this family? How was I taken away from home? Who are my parents? I became even more convinced that I was an East Timorese. After that I started to keep notes of my memories. If I remembered something about my past I wrote it down.

After finishing high school I began working in a factory to save money to go to East Timor. One day I met Lucas who was a newspaper seller. He told me that he was an East Timorese from Ainaro; he had worked as a TBO for a soldier then taken back to Surabaya. I told him what I could remember about my family. Unfortunately he deceived me; he said he knew my family and that the places I described were in Ainaro. He claimed he remembered an old woman with a bent back and also carrying me on his shoulders. He said this showing how he carried me. I suddenly felt that it was exactly like that; I guess I just wanted to believe it. I was stupid, but I was only about 19. I started to collect my clothes in preparation to go with Lucas to East Timor. As well as the money I had saved, my parents had given me some pocket money and I had won a few prizes at school; so I had enough money to buy a ticket. On 1 September 1991 I left Surabaya with Lucas, without telling anyone.

On the boat I realised that Lucas wanted to marry me. I was very scared and regretted travelling with him. I felt there was no point in returning to East Timor. I felt like jumping overboard. I was really desperate. A student from the military academy saw how miserable I was and he talked to me. He took me to the cafeteria and gave me a bible and told me to read it. I still carry that bible. I was a Christian but not so sincere. I opened the bible just a little and I could read, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ I quickly closed it. I spent the rest of the time on the boat avoiding Lucas.

We arrived in Dili on 3 September: people there told us it was dangerous in Ainaro because there were many Fretilin operating there. I didn’t know what to do. I was so afraid of Lucas and of travelling to Ainaro. Again I opened the bible and again I read, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ I remembered what I had been told by the student on the boat; I don’t even know his name.

The next day we travelled to Ainaro. I wanted to get away from Lucas. In Ainaro he met with his family. I asked him about my family, but he said we’d talk about that later. I had no idea how to begin looking for my family, so I went to the sub-district military command. I told the commander that a soldier had taken me to Indonesia and that I had returned to look for my family. I also told him that Lucas was annoying me; he told me not to worry about Lucas, they’d take care of me if he tried to come near me.

It was market day and very busy. I think the information was only passed around by word of mouth; in any case word quickly spread. Within a short time dozens of parents had gathered to see if I might be their missing daughter. They listed off names, Maria, Martina, Helena, Christina and others, asking if I might be one of them. I was confused. I looked at them all – some were skinny, others fat – I didn’t think that I could have belonged to any of them. Because I was afraid and did not have anywhere to stay, I decided to go home with one of the women who insisted that I was her daughter. We weren’t able to speak together because she spoke the local language and knew no Indonesian. But I thought and prayed a lot, wondering whether I could belong in that family. I think we both knew that we were not family and I couldn’t force myself to believe it. After one month the family had to go to Dili and I went with them.

In Dili I decided to go to speak with Governor Mario Carrascalão; every Friday he set aside time to receive people with problems. He organised for me to stay at the home of a priest in Dili. Again word spread that I was looking for my family, and people came from Suai, Ainaro, Liquica, Baucau, Bobonaro, Ermera, wondering if I could be their daughter. There was someone from a ruling family (liurai), a public servant, rich people and poor people. Once again I was confused; but none of them was my family.

The governor organised a scholarship for me to attend university in East Timor and my family in Jakarta also sent me money in the mid-1990s to help me pay my school fees – I still have regular contact with them.


1 Interview, Dili, 1 March 2004. Leonia is not her real name.

Cite this chapter as: van Klinken, Helene. 2011. 'Leonia's story'. In Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. Pp. 20-24.

Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor

   by Helene van Klinken