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Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor


My decision to write about child transfers out of East Timor was influenced by my interest in the ‘stolen generation’ of Australian Aboriginal children. During my childhood I heard many stories from my mother and her friends about Aboriginal children living in institutions in Australia. However, it took many years before we understood why the children were placed in these institutions.

I first heard stories about children smuggled out of East Timor by soldiers when I was working in Indonesia from 2000 to 2002. This was already after the fall of the New Order regime. More political freedom in Indonesia meant that East Timorese dared to tell their stories. In 2003 I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor, CAVR. There I began to realise the systematic nature of the transfer of young East Timorese children to Indonesia and to formulate the ideas which led to a PhD thesis and now this book.

There is little awareness of the fact and scale of the transfer of young, dependent East Timorese children to Indonesia. I was struck by the parallels with the removal of Aboriginal children from their families in Australia, a practice which only ceased at the end of the 1960s. If such transfers could continue for so long in Australia, I realised that under the repressive and censored Indonesian New Order regime, from 1965 till the fall of Suharto in 1998, the transfer of young children out of East Timor could also take place unchallenged. As I researched, gradually a picture emerged. I found the power holders in East Timor and Australia transferred children out of similar – though not identical – political and ideological aims. The Australian authorities wanted to assimilate the Aboriginal children into the dominant, white, Christian society; the aim of the Indonesians was similarly to integrate the East Timorese children, and make them Indonesians.

There was hardly any material written about these child transfers. I have collected the stories from many oral sources. But finding informants was not easy, as those involved have no organised contact with one another. Most of my research took place between 2003 and 2004 in Indonesia and East Timor and I am sincerely grateful to all the people who shared stories and information that made the writing of this book possible. I interviewed 32 parents or relatives of children taken to Indonesia, many of them still looking for their missing children. I spoke with a similar number of East Timorese who had been taken to Indonesia as children. Most have returned to East Timor, although some continue to live in Indonesia. A small number of them are still searching for their families but have no accurate information. Many people generously shared with me information they had about the transfers: East Timorese village and traditional leaders; church and government officials; staff of religious and childcare institutions, staff of non-government organisations in East Timor and Indonesia; former members of the Indonesian military; and pro-Indonesian East Timorese living in Indonesia.

I started out to write a book, but I soon discovered that to write a convincing book, a book that the children and their parents deserved, I had first to write a thesis. This I completed in 2009 at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, under the thorough and wise supervision of Professor Robert Elson. I am deeply grateful for his encouragement and support often offered from a distance.

This book has benefitted greatly from the suggestions and corrections of the two examiners of my thesis, Professor Geoffrey Robinson and Assoc. Professor Jean Gelman Taylor, although any remaining errors are completely my responsibility. I offer them my sincere thanks.

I especially thank the Rev Agustinho de Vasconselos and other commissioners of the CAVR for the opportunity to volunteer as a researcher for a short period in 2003, also CAVR staff in Dili and the districts, in particular Adriano Lemos and others in Ermera, were generous and tireless in their support.

I am indebted to the following people who helped in special ways:

In Jakarta: Ade Rostina Sitompul, Rocky T.S. Wibowo, Nadjib Yasser, I Gusti Agung Putri Astrid Kartika, Luciano Conceição; in Bandung: Antonio Freitas, Alex Freitas Haryanto (Lukman), Rafael Urbano Rangel; in Yogyakarta and Salatiga: Esti Sumarah, Sri Murnining Tyas; in Kupang: Karen and John Campbell-Nelson, Elcid Li; in Atambua: Sister Sesilia; in Sulawesi: Ariyas Dedy; in Dili: Rob Williams and Catharina Williams-van Klinken, Inge Lempp, members of the United Islamic Centre in East Timor especially Mohammad Iqbal Menezes and Syamsul Bahari, Petrus Kanisius Alegria; in Leiden: the helpful librarians at the KITLV; in Brisbane: the wonderful people who lived at Stanley Terrace.

My immediate family played an important role in the journey that became this book. My interest in this topic was first stirred by my late mother, Mary Rose, who would understand why I wrote this book. My children, Ben and Rosie, taught me the joy and the strength of the bond between parents and their children, which signals to me what separation would mean. Most of all I thank my husband Gerry for his inspiration and encouragement. He helped me to love Indonesia and first took me there in 1977; then to other places, which gave me the insight, language and opportunity to write.

To all the open-hearted people who told me their stories of separation, in particular those who shared the anguish of their ongoing search, I dedicate this book. I hope that it will make a small contribution in helping you find your missing family members.

Cite this chapter as: van Klinken, Helene. 2011. 'Preface'. In Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. Pp. ix-xi.

Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor

   by Helene van Klinken