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Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor

Ch 2 (Vignette). Petrus Kanisius’s story1

At the time of the attacks by the Indonesians in Maubessi, I ran to hide in the forest with my brothers and sisters. My parents had died a few years previously. My older brother and sister cared for me and my two younger siblings. In January 1977, the group of people we were hiding with were captured and the soldiers sent us to Aileu. In Aileu I returned to school where I was in the fourth class. Not long afterwards, soldiers from the Aileu district military post (Kodim) asked the people to register children under ten years of age who had no parents. The soldiers said they wanted to select some children without parents to send them to school. At that time I was ten. My seven-year-old cousin and I were chosen from among the Maubessi people living in the concentration camp in Aileu; two other children who came from Aileu were also selected.

In April 1977, a military vehicle took the four of us to Dili in the middle of the night. No East Timorese came with us, only Indonesian soldiers. My older sister and brother and everyone else were frightened when they took us away. At that time people thought that anyone taken away by soldiers like that would be thrown into the sea. I was also afraid because I couldn’t speak much Indonesian and had not been to Dili before. They took us to the Seroja institution in Dili and I started going to school again. Two weeks later my brother came to Dili to look for me, to make sure I was still alive.

Soldiers were very involved with the Seroja institution at that time. There was a five storey building used as the army headquarters near Seroja. Every Friday and Sunday, soldiers visited and taught us to sing national songs and about integration. We didn’t feel threatened, but the discipline was very strict, semi-militaristic. We all had to follow the strict routine with no exception made for the younger children.

Towards the end of August we were told that the following week we would be sent to Java to go to school. The staff began organising the things we would need for the trip, but they did not contact our families to tell them we were leaving. There were exactly 20 of us. We came from all over East Timor. Some like me had no parents, but we still had family members who cared about us. Some parents were still in the forest and there was still no information about them. Some children became separated from their parents when they were running from attacks and had surrendered or were captured with other people. Sometimes if the soldiers found a child and they knew nothing about them they gave them their own name. One child in our group was like that. I was one of the oldest in the group and in the highest class at school.

On 1 September 1977 we left for Jakarta on a military aircraft. Lieutenant Colonel Mulyadi from Sulawesi and the governor of East Timor, Arnaldo dos Reis Araujo, accompanied us. A special bus from the President’s palace met us at the airport and we had a military escort to the Franciscan Vincentius institution where we stayed for several days. We were given yellow uniforms and we had to wear them wherever we went. There was a special program arranged for us. Soldiers took us to visit the sights of Jakarta, including Taman Mini (Indonesia in Miniature).

On 3 September 1977 we were taken to meet President Suharto and his wife at the presidential palace. There was a special program organised for us and nice food. I still remember things that the President said: ‘You children from East Timor are children of the state and according to the constitution the state is responsible for you. You can choose where you want to live and the goverment will pay for your education till you graduate, for as long as you want to study. We’ll pay for your food, clothes and all your education, even till you finish university if you do well enough to study there’. He promised us Rp150 per day. The newspapers called us ‘The President’s children’.

We had been taught a children’s song so they asked us to stand on the podium and sing, ‘Di sini senang, di sana senang, di mana-mana hati kita senang (We’re happy here, we’re happy there, everywhere we’re happy)’. I knew a little bit of Indonesian and the President asked me if I was happy in Jakarta. I answered yes. Then he asked us if we wanted to live in Jakarta or Central Java. I thought we would be living at Vincentius in Jakarta and that Jakarta and Central Java were the same place. He laughed when I answered Central Java; then he called the Secretary of State, Soedharmono, and asked him if he knew a place where we could stay in Central Java. It must have all been arranged because he said he knew about St Thomas run by Catholic sisters in Ungaran. They talked a bit more and I was told to go back to my seat. Then there were some more speeches. Lots of media were there taking pictures, also television. There was an official ceremony where the governor of East Timor formally handed us over to the governor of Central Java, Supardjo Rustam, both of whom were there.

On the way home from the palace in the bus we were given gifts, a schoolbag, shoes and clothes. They all had our names on them and the sizes seemed to be right. Soldiers and military police travelled with us. I don’t know why we always had military escorts; we were only children. Maybe it was because there were some officials with us. We got back to Vincentius institution and that same evening we took the night train to Semarang.

We arrived very early in the morning and were taken to the Gatot Subroto army barracks in Semarang. At about 7 am we set off for Ungaran, 20 kilometres to the south. The entrance hall of St Thomas was decorated with flowers and a special carpet was laid out. The governor of East Timor and the governor of Central Java were there again, as well as the minister for social welfare and other government officials. This time the ceremony was to hand us over to the sisters at the institution, Sister Petrona, the head of the Santa Maria Foundation which ran St Thomas Asrama, and Sister Madelina, the leader of the ADSK [Abdi Dalem Sang Kristus] congregation.

At the beginning things went well but then problems began to arise. We started to show that we were East Timorese. We were not obedient like the Javanese students living there: we were naughty, really naughty, and the sisters were annoyed with us. It turned out the sisters did not have enough money to cover our expenses. According to the sisters, the amount received from the government was Rp13,000 per month, which was not enough to cover food and drink, let alone clothes, soap, books, school fees and other expenses. Not all the students living there came from poor families. In 1980, some of the students paid between Rp70,000 to Rp100,000 – at least five times more than the amount that the sisters received from the government for us. Some families wanted their children to be educated by the nuns, and the nuns used their money to help to pay the costs of children from poor families. The sisters told us that we had to behave ourselves. They were afraid our behaviour would drive away their paying students. I felt betrayed. I thought that everything was going to be paid by the government; that is what the President promised us. Maybe St Thomas didn’t receive the money, I don’t know.

In 1983, just as we were becoming young adults, we were moved out of the main asrama into a building on a small hill a little distance away. It was especially built by the government for us. There was a ceremony when the district head (bupati) handed it over to St Thomas. We lived there with the children who had the same status as us, orphans and illegitimate children. We could no longer eat and mix with the paying students. The sisters who cared for us told us that we had to learn to be independent. I wasn’t sure what that meant but I soon learnt. We were divided into groups and in the mornings before and after school we had to work; we had to tend the gardens planting sweet potatoes and looking after the fruit trees. Before school we drank tea and ate some snacks that we had collected, like sweet potato or cassava. After school we had to work again, and we only got our main meal brought to us at four o’clock in the afternoon. But there was often not enough food, and we always felt hungry. If we asked for food they said we were greedy.

One day after school we were working in the garden and feeling very tired and thirsty, so we climbed a coconut tree and ate some of the fruit. When the sister brought us food on her Vespa motorbike at 4 pm, somehow her instinct told her that we had taken fruit from the trees. She went over to the creek where we had thrown the husks. She was angry with us and asked us one by one who was responsible. As the oldest I said I told them to do it. My punishment was to kneel under the tree for one hour and the others had to wait to eat. When the sister returned she saw that I had dirty legs from kneeling, so we were allowed eat. Actually, the young assistant who was left in charge to watch me told me to make my legs dirty to help convince the sister.

Not long after this, a reporter from Suara Merdeka, the Central Java newspaper, came to interview the sister. Maybe the sister was trying to give attention to our situation, because the article mentioned that the government was responsible for us. The news article also said that the East Timorese students living there ate plants and roots – food for animals that Javanese never eat. When we saw the article we were really mad with the sister for saying that we ate animal food, and also with the reporter for writing it like that. Some of the others wanted to burn the Vespa and even the asrama. We refused to go to school for one week. Another sister tried to organise a meeting between us, the sister and the journalist, to clarify the misunderstanding, but when nothing happened after one week we went to find the journalist. We were going to kill him, but he wasn’t home; we also found out that the journalist whose house we had gone to worked for Kompas not Suara Merdeka. When this Kompas journalist heard about our visit to his home he came to St Thomas to interview us, but we refused to talk to him.

Five students could stand it no longer and ran away. They got on a bus but had no idea what their plan was, and they didn’t have any money. When asked by the conductor they said, ‘We’re the President’s children’, expecting to not pay. Because of the recent publicity in the press many people had heard about the ‘President’s children’. The sisters had contacted the police and the bus staff had been told to look out for them, so they didn’t get very far. However one of the five, Henrique Araujo from Same, disappeared. I was upset about Henrique but there was no effort to find him. Without telling the sisters, together with a few others I went to the Department of Social Welfare and complained. The staff just replied, ‘Let them get lost. Die. Don’t bother looking for him’. We wrote protest letters to the parliament (DPR), also the upper house (MPR) and the President, but nothing ever happened, and I have never heard about Henrique since then. They just didn’t care. I felt that our lives had no value in their eyes. We were worth no more than animals. We suffered in East Timor, then we were sent to St Thomas where we also suffered, and to this was added even a greater suffering, the loss of one of our friends.

This made us think about our situation. We now understood that no-one would look out for us and we agreed together that we had better do what they asked – work and study hard and not make demands, otherwise we might suffer a similar fate to Henrique. Several older East Timorese university students studying in Yogyakarta came to visit and talk to us, Dominggus Maya and Armindo Maya. That helped and the situation became a bit better. At least when we got home from school we were allowed to eat before going to the gardens. The sisters also decided that our group would split up, some going to Yogyakarta, some to Surabaya and Jakarta. I stayed in St Thomas. Everyone worked hard but the sisters still did not acknowledge that East Timorese students were also clever.

We didn’t have any further contact with the government though lots of people, including rich people and even film stars, came and asked if they could adopt us. But the sisters told these people that if they wanted to help they should make a donation to St Thomas.

In 1978, Agostinho, one of our group, died in Ungaran. He came from Aileu. A letter was sent to the sub-district head in Aileu to inform the family of his death. Everyone there thought it was me who had died and my family began preparing the ceremony to call the spirit of the dead. I had also at that time sent a letter and it arrived just as they were starting to make the preparations. That was the first time my family knew that I was in Java. My older brother was not able to visit Dili to check on me after that first trip he made in April 1977 as he was forced to join the civil guard (hansip). That’s why my family didn’t know. But after that I didn’t write. I just wanted to concentrate on my studies. Writing would just disturb my concentration in Java and my family in East Timor.

The government organised for us to make a return visit to East Timor for Christmas and New Year 1985–1986. We only got the news at the last minute that we would be going home for two weeks. One of the sisters from St Thomas accompanied us and in Dili we lived at the Seroja institution. I was surprised that people knew about our visit. There were announcements over the radio about the visit of 20 orphans who had been studying in Java. Not all the children were allowed to go to their homes though, especially to distant places like Same and Suai, because it was very tense. Only those who lived nearby could make a trip out of Dili. Aileu is close so I could travel home. I saw myself how tense it was, with soldiers everywhere, inspecting travel letters. When we were stopped at military posts, they already knew about us and had a list of our names; it was all well organised. There was no trouble for our vehicle to pass through each checkpoint. Four of us went to Aileu. I invited some friends who couldn’t go home to their own district to come with us. We went there on 28 December and were told we could stay for one week. But after only four days a letter came through the district military post that we had to go straight back to Dili because we had to leave for Java on 4 January 1986. So our short two-week visit was reduced to just over one week.

About my name, Petrus Kanisius Antonio Algeria: when I left East Timor my name was Algeria. When I arrived at St Thomas the name Antonio was added to Algeria, but I don’t know where that came from. In East Timor I was not a Catholic, I didn’t know anything about religion. In Ungaran in 1978 I was baptised and given the name Petrus Kanisius. That’s why it’s not like the Portuguese names East Timorese take when they are baptised. When I came back to East Timor some people suggested I adopt a Portuguese name, but then all my certificates would be invalid and that would be a problem for me.

Petrus Kanisius Antonio Algeria spent 17 years studying in Central Java. He graduated from the School of Philosophy at Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta in 1994, after which he returned to East Timor. After 1999 he was appointed principal of the 10 December Junior High School in Comoro, Dili.

Petrus Kanisius

Petrus Kanisius listening to testimony at the CAVR public hearing on ‘Children and conflict’. Dili, 29–30 March 2004. Listening with him is a former staff member of the Seroja institution, Maria Margarida Babo.
© Helene van Klinken

The Suhartos with twenty East Timorese children in their yellow costumes

The children were sent to the St Thomas Asrama in Ungaran, Central Java. Petrus Kanisius is on the far right in the middle row. Henrique Araujo from Same, who disappeared, is standing in front of Ibu Suharto; he is fourth from the right in the middle row.
Source: Pelita, 5 September 1977.


1 Interviews, Dili, 2003–2004.

Cite this chapter as: van Klinken, Helene. 2011. Chapter 2: 'Vignette. Petrus Kanisius's story'. In Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. Pp. 66-73.

Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor

   by Helene van Klinken