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Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor

Introduction: Making them Indonesians

Biliki’s story is representative of the experience of many young East Timorese children who were taken to Indonesia during and shortly after the Indonesian occupation of East Timor between 1975 and 1999. Biliki was taken by a soldier, whereas others were sent to Indonesia by government and religious institutions. Besides these young children, many older East Timorese children were sent to Indonesia for education and training. While most of the older children went voluntarily, many of the younger children, like Biliki, were taken from their families with varying degrees of coercion and deception. The focus of this book is the approximately 4,000 young, dependent children sent to Indonesia between 1975 and 1999. This account is the first detailed record of the history of the transfer of these children to Indonesia.

The history of the transfers is not a simple story, nor can it be depicted in black and white terms. Some children were taken against their wishes, while others were rescued from certain death; some parents were coerced and deceived into giving their children away, while others agreed to the transfer of their children; some children were treated like family members by those who took them, while other children had to work for their adoptive families, sometimes in slave-like conditions. Those who took children acted out of mixed and varied motivations, ranging from genuine compassion and good intentions to the less benevolent manipulation and use of vulnerable children for economic, political and ideological ends.

The child transfers give us a deeper glimpse into the Indonesia–East Timor relationship. They reveal the complexities in the relationship and help us to judge its nature. It had many of the marks of a colonial relationship and, like all such relationships, was full of ambiguity and contradiction. The contradictions can perhaps best be understood by a quick survey of the arguments for and against colonialism over time. Early European colonisers emphasised the cultural and civilising nature of their colonising mission and the backwardness of their colonial subjects. Leaders of the colonised world, especially from the mid 20th century, challenged these assertions, pointing to the violence and illegitimate economic and political exploitation of the colonised (Blue 2002: 3–4). In its rhetoric, the Indonesian regime vehemently denied that it was colonising East Timor. It claimed that its generous development program proved that it was not there to exploit the East Timorese. Central to development was the education offered to all East Timorese. These educational opportunities were indeed welcomed by the East Timorese, as the colonial Portuguese had reserved education, especially higher education, for the elite. Indonesians also argued that some other aspects of classic colonialism were not a part of the relationship, such as separation by long distances and wide cultural differences, which Benyamin Neuberger (1986: 84) calls the ‘salt and skin’ test.

Writing about colonialism has changed in other ways as well. In the past the focus in colonial studies was largely on the public sphere and the political actions of the elite (Dirks 1992a: 11), but more recently personal lives and the social interactions of ordinary people have received greater emphasis.1 These studies from several disciplines help us to understand better the multifaceted nature of colonialism, which was often ignored by earlier writers of history (Blue 2002: 3,11). Until the late 1990s, scholarly literature on East Timor in the English language had been mainly concerned with major actors and big issues in politics, security, international relations and human rights,2 and often did not attend to its socio-cultural dimensions. The story of child transfers provides us with a lens on the socio-cultural, because it places ordinary people at the centre of the story. Many of the East Timorese who are the main focus of this history came from marginalised and disadvantaged families within East Timor. We learn here about their experiences of living and relating to Indonesians, most of whom were ordinary Indonesians from a broad range of backgrounds and from all layers of society – Indonesian soldiers and police at all levels, teachers, public servants and administrators.

The story of the transfer of young children also places the most vulnerable members of society at the centre of the story – those whose perspective is often ignored in national histories. The experiences and personal stories of East Timorese who belonged to the resistance movement have received considerable attention in popular literature.3 As Peter Carey (2003: 23–26) notes however, we know little about how other East Timorese interacted with Indonesians, especially those not deemed heroes of the struggle. We do have one small glimpse into how ordinary East Timorese interacted with Indonesians when East Timor was closed to the outside world in the 1980s. It is a remarkable report written by distinguished Indonesian scholars, and its criticism of the dominant role of the military led to its banning.4 Most information about East Timor in the Indonesian language was prepared by Indonesian officials and appeared in propaganda brochures and booklets and in the censored news channelled through the state-controlled Antara news agency.

East Timor is now independent, but an understanding of East Timor today requires one to be attuned to the 24 years of Indonesian rule. As many histories of colonialism now argue, the experience of colonialism continues to influence contemporary politics and culture in former colonies. Since East Timor gained its independence, many foreign scholars have been less interested in the colonial period and have viewed East Timor as a laboratory for studying post-colonial transitions and identity formation (for example, Mearns and Farram [2008], Hughes [2009] and Bexley [2009]), although several important works analysing the history of the violence have been published (especially Robinson [2010] and Greenlees and Garran [2002]). The focus of Indonesian writers, such as Awali (2006), Sukawarsini Djelantik (2003) and Alatas (2006), has been the failure of Indonesian diplomacy to gain international acceptance of integration.

The most complete historical record of the period to date is contained in the 2006 Report of the CAVR. It documents the experiences of ordinary East Timorese during the period, although its focus is the human rights abuse by all parties to the conflict from 1974 to 1999 (CAVR 2006: 2 No. 4). The report also includes the first detailed statement about the transfer of East Timorese children to Indonesia (CAVR 2006: 7.8).5

While stories of the resistance continue to be popular (for example, Gusmão 2000; Carey 2003; Cristalis and Scott 2005; Rei 2007; Conway 2010), the growing public interest in child transfers is reflected in the fact that the first novel written in the East Timorese Tetun language is the story of a young boy taken for adoption by Indonesian soldiers (Ximenes 2009). The story of the child transfers is important not only for the sake of the children themselves but also for the greater insight it gives into the social history of the period and the nature of the intertwining relationships between the two peoples. These insights have many implications for policy, especially as the new nation of East Timor seeks to have a strong relationship with the now democratic Indonesia.

The transfer of children from East Timor

This book is about the transfer of children to Indonesia, some to be adopted by Indonesian families and some to be cared for in institutions. I explain here why I have chosen the term ‘transfer’, the children I am referring to, and the numbers of children involved and outline briefly the conceptions of adoption held by East Timorese and Indonesians.

No single term captures the nuances of the transfers adequately. I describe the children as ‘taken’ and ‘sent’ to Indonesia, as well as ‘removed’ and ‘abducted’ from East Timor. However, I have chosen to use ‘transfer’ as a general term to cover the different manifestations. Article 3 of the United Nations Protocol on Trafficking in Persons (United Nations 2000b) deems any transfer of a minor, defined as anyone less than 18 years of age, as ‘trafficking’. However, this is an emotive term and its use would detract from my aim to portray the range of motivations of individuals and institutions for acquiring children and the varying degrees of incentive, coercion and desperation which led East Timorese parents to surrender their children.

Approximately half of the transfers were to institutions in Indonesia. The institutions became the guardians of these children and there was little continuing contact with those who had organised their transfer out of East Timor. The other children were taken for adoption. Most of the cases of adoption that I recorded were by soldiers. The children had the status of anak angkat, literally, a child who is taken up (into the family).6 In Indonesia this is understood as a binding relationship between an adult and minor, although it is not established through a legal process as adoption is in the West. In English I describe the relationships as adoptions as they encompass stronger links and responsibilities than fostering implies.

Adoption is common throughout Indonesia and East Timor. Traditional adoption procedures in Indonesia usually have some way of formalising the new relationship is, although practices vary throughout the archipelago. Agreements between adopting and biological parents are often witnessed by civilian and traditional leaders and sometimes there is a formal written statement proving guardianship (Sriono 1992: 5–6, 18). In some cases, as in West Java, a token gift is given by the adopting parent to the biological parent to formalise the agreement (Moestapa 1946: 47). Some adopted children have no further contact with their biological parents, and they inherit from their adoptive and not from their biological parents. In Java, however, arrangements are often flexible and children may even move back to the home of their biological parents (Sriono 1992: 5; Schröder-Butterfill 2004: 116).

However, children who have been adopted usually cannot be taken back by their biological parents (Sriono 1992: 5–6; Schröder-Butterfill 2004: 116, 139 footnote 4; Moestapa 1946: 47). After independence, problems arose in some cases because the biological parents of a child returned to East Timor, while the parents who had adopted their child stayed on in Indonesia, or vice versa. In the preceding years, biological parents who had given a child for adoption, usually to a relative, did so with the full expectation that they would continue to have some contact with their child. With the changed political situation, access to their child suddenly ceased and some parents tried to demand the return of their child. Biological parents who want to reclaim their child usually must give some monetary restitution to the adoptive parents.7

Most Indonesians are Muslims, and the Koran encourages Muslims to care for the children of others, although it forbids adoption because it severs blood links with natural parents (Fuad Mohammad Fachruddin 1985: 67–68; Latief et al. 1977: 47–49). Despite this prohibition, traditional adoption is common among Indonesian Muslims, but the adoption of children by parents of a different religion is strictly forbidden.8 The transfers discussed in Chapter 4 were sensitive for this reason.

In East Timor and Indonesia there are many reasons why families might adopt a child, just as there are many reasons why families might surrender their child for adoption. An important point to make is that in East Timor and in Indonesia adoptions are usually within the family network. Closely aligned with this is the fact that within most communities there are obligations to care for orphaned children of deceased relatives within the kinship system (Schröder-Butterfill 2004: 115).9 One of the main reasons adults adopt a child is because they have no offspring to care for them in old age. Adoption is also not limited to married couples; unmarried men and women, widows and widowers, and grandparents can all adopt children. Other reasons for adoption are the desire to have a child of a particular gender and, sometimes, the belief that an adopted child can stimulate fertility. In Bali many families adopt male children, because only sons can pray for deceased parents and ancestors. Families also often take in a child to help with household tasks. Although Indonesian academic Edy Sriono (1992: 15) says that adoptive parents would not admit to this motivation, it is common practice (Newberry 2010).10

Poverty is one of the main reasons parents give away their children, although in Java a childless couple may ask for a child of any relative, not necessarily an impoverished relative. Sometimes parents give away a child who suffers from constant illness and whose siblings have all died, in the hope that the relative or adoptive parent might provide a more propitious environment in which to raise the child (Sriono 1992: 5; Schröder-Butterfill 2004: 115–116; Geertz 1961: 36–41; Ekadjati et al. 1994: 21; Moestapa 1946: 47)11. But in East Timor and Indonesia poverty remains the primary factor that leads many poor families to give away a child, usually to a richer relative. Families in rural areas often give children to relatives living in towns where education is more accessible. The adopting family provides for the child, although the child usually works for the family in exchange for food and school fees. Parents also benefit from the arrangement, as their child will be educated and may contribute to their future wellbeing, which is why they prefer to pass children to relatives rather than to strangers. This practice is a type of transaction within a family network in which the child is a commodity in the exchange process (Vel 1994: 171–173; Newberry 2010). Similar circulation of children elsewhere is likewise to improve chances for children and provide adults with insurance for the future (Yu and Liu 1980: 247–62; Leinaweaver 2008). Anthropologist Tom Therik from West Timor likened the practice of poor families giving away a child to a survival strategy. Those who are able to eat only once a day are happy if their child has enough to eat, is clothed and can go to school, even if the child is forced to work hard or suffers discrimination and is not treated as the equal of other children in the adoptive family.12 Such children are entirely dependent on the goodwill of their benefactors.

Indonesian soldiers who adopted East Timorese children did so for some of the reasons mentioned here and, as we shall see in Chapter 2, out of other motivations as well. When soldiers had contact with the parents, they usually formalised the adoptions by giving gifts, such as rice and money, and many entered into written agreements with the parents. In my judgement, this gift-giving and the letters of agreement did not represent a genuine customary law adoption procedure. The written documents had the official purpose of proving to the authorities in East Timor that there was no-one capable of caring for the adopted child. The agreements stated that parents handed over their children voluntarily, yet many East Timorese parents had no choice but to agree to the soldiers’ requests. Those parents who did give permission believed that they were entering into an arrangement whereby soldiers would return their children on completion of their education.13 However, soldiers did not return the children to East Timor and in most cases there was no further relationship between the biological and adopting parents. Consequently, the biological parents feel that soldiers were duplicitous and betrayed their trust, and these adoptions fall outside established practices that are still common among both Indonesians and East Timorese.

East Timorese from all walks of life have told me that no East Timorese willingly gives up a child; if they had to do so, it would be to a family member or to a Catholic nun or priest. The calamitous events following the Indonesian annexation of East Timor in 1975 meant that traditional patterns of care broke down and families could not fulfil their responsibilities. In some cases most members of a family might have died, leaving perhaps a lone child. Many families faced the heavy burden of caring for the children of deceased or disabled relatives.14 In 1985/6 the number of abandoned children was approximately 40,000 in a total population of 649,674 – an extraordinarily high ratio that shows the severity of the calamity.15 The deprivation, oppression and fear in which East Timorese lived probably led many parents to believe that their child might have a better opportunity, even simply of survival, if she or he went to live in Indonesia. However, we cannot discount that some parents agreed to their children being taken to Indonesia because they were impressed by the Indonesians and believed that it would be good for their children and their own futures to have their child raised and educated in Indonesia. It is now difficult to make a judgement about the degree of force in any particular transfer, but we can conclude that the East Timorese faced a desperate situation – so desperate that many were willing to hand their children into the care of members of the invading armed forces.

East Timorese do not use age in any strict sense as the measure of maturity; parents were often unsure of the precise age of their children. East Timorese parents are responsible for their children until they marry and believe that they should be involved in the major decisions in their children’s lives up to their marriage. At the time that these transfers occurred, a child was defined in Indonesian law as anyone under 21 years of age and not yet married. Indonesia’s 2002 Child Protection Law uses 18 years of age as the end of childhood, as does the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which Indonesia became a signatory in January 1990. Many of the students and youths who went voluntarily to Indonesia were still children under both of these definitions.

The children who are the focus of this book were dependent children at the time they left East Timor, in the sense that they could not live alone without supervision. Many of them were vulnerable: children who were separated and abandoned; children who were fatherless and orphaned; children from poor families; and children of the Fretilin resistance, who were regarded with suspicion and as having no rights. Separated, abandoned and orphaned children were easy to remove as no-one claimed them. Parents, widows and guardians who were poor were susceptible to persuasion and were coerced into handing over their children. They needed the gifts and financial assistance a soldier might offer and had no-one to speak out on their behalf. They felt more than the average person that it was dangerous to oppose a soldier. In Indonesia the children who were removed were unable to maintain links with their home, and their families did not have the resources to maintain contact with their children. By comparison, the young children of the East Timorese ruling elite – the supporters of integration – who were given scholarships to study in Indonesia received regular visits from their parents and other family members who ensured that their young children made regular visits to their homes in East Timor.

Estimating the number of dependent children transferred to Indonesia during the entire period of the occupation is difficult, although there are some indications of the scale. Each of the following chapters attempts to assess the available evidence to make an estimate of the children removed in the circumstance under discussion. East Timorese leaders confirm that many children were removed: Mario Carrascalão said that during the ten years he was governor (1982–1992), many parents reported their missing children to him each year; the Catholic Bishop of East Timor, Carlos Belo, stated in 1993 that 400 East Timorese children were living in Islamic institutions in Java (Carey 1995: 11); priests in East Timor tell of numerous children who asked for help in finding their families on their return from Indonesia; and several East Timorese who returned home in the 1990s told of how many parents came to check if they were their missing children. A representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) told the CAVR that 4,534 children may have been transferred to Indonesia between 1975 and 1999 (CAVR 2006: No. 353). This estimate, based on cases reported to the UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) throughout the occupation, matches closely my own estimates – about 2,000 children taken away by soldiers in the late 1970s and early 1980s; approximately 1,000 transferred by religious institutions; and about 1,000 intentionally separated immediately before and after the referendum in 1999.

This account relies almost entirely on oral soures, relevant Indonesian government records either do not exist or can no longer be located. A few non-government and church institutions in Indonesia made available their records relating to East Timorese children who had been placed in their care. Most records in East Timor were lost in the destruction after the referendum in 1999. The Indonesian military as an institution is not prepared to discuss the issue or disclose information officially. There were only a few references to the transfers in the Indonesian media, the exception being after the referendum in 1999 when many newspapers in Indonesia and internationally reported the plight of separated East Timorese children.

As I have already indicated, this is the story of how ordinary members of society, many of whom were weak and marginalised, experienced Indonesian colonialism. Information about the oppressed is usually not recorded in official histories. Consequently the only way to gather information is directly from those involved using an oral history approach. When dealing with oral sources we need to evaluate any bias that is present. But we have to remember that written sources are not free of bias: the contents have been filtered by its author and by others who decide that events will be understood in a particular way (Portelli 1998: 64; Roosa, Ratih and Farid 2003: 2,4–5). One advantage in gathering oral sources is that we can question the sources, ask for clarification and remind the story-teller about certain events that may facilitate the accuracy of recall, something that is not possible with written texts.

One unique challenge is that oral histories are often collected from people whose way of telling a narrative is linked to their tradition of folk narrative, where the boundaries between what happens in the outer world and the inner world of an individual, and between what concerns the group as opposed to the individual, are more elusive than in written accounts (Portelli 1998: 66). East Timor has a rich oral tradition that includes ritual story-telling. As Therik (2004: 3–4) points out, the distinctive characteristic of ritual story-telling is that if the speaker, a designated elder, retells the words from the ancestors falsely it can lead to misfortune and death for the teller and the community. Accurate recall is emphasised, although the world of the ancestors can intersect with the present, as observed in the testimony of one speaker, not an elder, during the CAVR public hearing on ‘Children and conflict’. He shifted between describing the actions of the Indonesian soldier who mistreated him and those of a deceased, elderly relative who, he said, came to his aid, as if there was continuity between the actions of the living and the dead.16 In a situation more intimate than a public hearing, confusions such as this could be clarified.

An advantage of history based on oral sources is that it deals with information and events in a personal and intimate manner and has immediacy not usually found in history based on written sources. East Timorese could describe their experiences in great detail, recalling, to my amazement, many small details of long ago events, although their experience of injustice was often expressed differently from the way I thought about it. One parent whose child is still missing told me, ‘We’d search till exhausted to find a missing animal, how much more so a person.’17 Perhaps we place so much emphasis on written sources that we forget how well memory serves those who have developed the skill of remembering. Some of the details, such as dates and order of events, may be forgotten or several events may have collapsed into a single event, but the main thrust of a story remains crystal clear in the mind of the one who underwent the experience.

Certain traditional rituals ensured that people remembered events. When a child had been missing for a long period of time, whether separated then disappeared during the war or taken to Indonesia by soldiers, the child was assumed dead. Families often made a grave for these missing children and performed the ritual ceremonies associated with death. These ceremonies reassured those who performed them that the spirit of their child would return to rest with the spirits of their ancestors buried in their traditional lands in East Timor. It also meant that families did not forget these children. If a child assumed dead did return further ceremonies were necessary to place them again in the world of the living. When Sister Maria Lourdes Martins brought 18-year-old Mariana back to East Timor after an absence of more than ten years, her family was shocked that she was alive. They arranged for her to stay with another relative while they performed the appropriate ceremonies so that she could return home. The family of Achnesia Felina Manganang, taken as a six-year-old child in 1977 to Indonesia by a soldier, did not make a grave for her but asked the spirits of the ancestors to protect her. Many years later, her older brother succeeded in tracing her and in 1994 she travelled home to meet her family. When Achnesia arrived home her parents immediately held a celebratory feast for family and neighbours. Her father took her to the site of the family graves to thank the ancestors for protecting Achnesia and reuniting them.

From oral sources we learn not only what people did but also what they now think they did (Portelli 1998: 67). I was asking people to recall traumatic events that happened long ago. The need to justify certain actions led some parents and families not to relate particularly difficult details or to frame events in another way. I found this especially in relation to assessing the extent to which parents consented to their children being sent to Indonesia and the reasons they gave for doing so. Some now probably feel guilty about having surrendered their children, even though they gave permission under difficult circumstances when they could not care for their child or had been coerced into handing over their child. For example, one mother gave her younger daughters to soldiers for adoption to save her older daughters from being raped. This was never discussed openly in the family and I learnt about it from people who were not members of that family. Knowing this helped resolve inconsistencies in the stories I had received from different family members.18 In general parents were honest and open and admitted that they had given permission for their child to be taken to Indonesia, if that had been the case, although many are disappointed that they were deceived in the agreements they made with soldiers and with the representatives of organisations.

I carried out the research presented here during and immediately after the period when the CAVR conducted a nationwide program to collect narrative statements from victims, witnesses and perpetrators. This had been preceded by a national campaign to explain the work of the CAVR and the data collection process (CAVR 2006: Annexe 2 Nos. 9–12). The people of East Timor strongly identified with the principles and processes of the CAVR, so were better prepared than might be expected and eager to tell their experiences. Since independence in 1999 many East Timorese have sought the help of the UNHCR and also the ICRC to trace their missing children; during the period of Indonesian occupation many parents had contacted the ICRC.19 Many parents had, therefore, already begun to tell the stories of their missing children before I commenced my research. Those who were transferred as children are now adult and the standards usually followed when interviewing children did not apply.

Child transfer in other countries

Children are often transferred away from danger during war and conflict out of humanitarian concern and to safeguard the children who represent the future of the groups to which the children belong. Such transfers are carried out with the approval of parents. One famous example is the Kindertransport rescue operation, in which thousands of Jewish children were sent out of Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia prior to the Second World War (Stargardt 2006: 10,37–28,51–52).

The focus of this book, however, is the young children from a minority or oppressed group who were transferred away from their families and cultural milieu by those in power, in a process that is certainly not without precedent. Such transfers are often presented as a humanitarian response to the situation of the children, although there are usually many different underpinning motives that ultimately serve the goals of those holding power rather than the needs of the children and the groups to which they belong. Sometimes parents hand over their children because they too believe in the benefits to their children, but in many cases the transfers are coercive. It is worth noting that, almost without exception, as was the case in East Timor, transfers of children of the oppressed group proceed unquestioned at the time and remain unchallenged for many years.

Among the best-documented examples of transfers of children of oppressed groups are those of indigenous children in colonial settler societies, such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand.20 The motivation for these transfers was deemed humanitarian, but were underpinned by the political and racial aims of the authorities. In the early decades of the 20th century Social Darwinist eugenics theories about race were popular and contributed to the belief that indigenous cultures were backward and inferior and would eventually die out as they came in contact with the modern world. Mixed-race children demanded special attention. Policy-makers believed that the best way to help them was to assimilate them into mainstream society by giving them a white identity, but to do so the children had to be removed from contact with their native environments (Spurling 2003: 99–106).

Forty thousand children of mixed Australian Aboriginal and white Australian settler descent were removed from their families, many forcibly, under official Australian government policies between 1915 and 1969 (HREOC 1997: Part 2). In her comparison of removal policies of Australian Aboriginal children with those of the child migration schemes in which orphans and children from poor families in Britain were transferred to Australia, Spurling concluded that the overriding concern in both programs was the political and social agenda to create and maintain a White Australia. The Aboriginal children needed help to develop a ‘white’ identity, and the British children would contribute to the European stock (Spurling 2003: 320–324).21 Despite being a small minority in their colonies in French West Africa, the French had a similar policy, motivated by the same theories about race and miscegenation, of removing mixed-race children from their African mothers. From the beginning of the 20th century until 1940, approximately 3,500 children of mixed-race African and French parentage were taken from their families to be given a French education. Their education was intended to estrange the children from the local native population and engender loyalty to the French, thereby making them useful to the French in ruling their colonies (White 1999: 2,7–61,74,182). Information about these programs and the testimonies of the children took many years to enter public consciousness decades after the programs had ceased.

The Nazi regime developed a hierarchy of racial purity based on the same theories, which it used to justify the extermination of Jews and other minorities who did not match its criteria of racial purity. The same ideas underpinned its Lebensborn program, which aimed to improve the desirable Aryan stock in Germany. Children born to German fathers and women living in occupied European countries, particularly in Norway, would be raised and trained as future leaders (Olsen 2005: 15–24). This program extended to the forcible removal to Germany of racially ‘suitable’ Czech and, especially, Polish children during the German occupation of their homelands in the Second World War, to be assimilated into the dominant German culture (Stargardt 2006: 163–166). These programs, which destined some children for extermination and others for nurture, were conducted in secrecy and, once again, it was many years before they became public, especially the Lebensborn program (Ericsson and Simonsen 2005: 1–2; Hammer 2000).

Child transfers were also driven by other dominating motivations, including ideological and religious ones. As will be discussed in Chapter 4, religious institutions often worked together with the state, offering mutual support for their respective religious and civilising missions, especially in the education of children. Throughout the colonised world, many Christian mission organisations set up boarding schools to educate children away from parental interference and cultural influence. The children taken into these institutions were often the children of fatherless or poor families, or orphaned and abandoned children, because these children were deemed easier to influence, while at the same time most in need of the charity offered. In the 19th century English Protestant missionaries in Pacific islands found it advantageous to their educational aims to gather children in boarding schools (Grimshaw 1989: 40–41).22 Another example is that of the Dutch Catholic missionary priests on the island of Flores, situated to the west of Timor, who took children, sometimes forcibly, from their scattered mountain villages to educate them in the main towns; some of the children were the sons of influential leaders who were persuaded to give their children the advantage of a Dutch Christian education (Steenbrink 2003: 90,109,134). In Australia, Christian missions were also actively involved in educating Aboriginal children in their institutions, although the process of removing children from their parents was under the control of the state (Spurling 2003: 220ff).

One of largest mass transfers of children for ideological purposes was carried out by the United States in the tense period of the Cold War. During the Pedro Pan Operation, 14,000 middleclass Cuban children were transferred to the southern United States between 1960 and 1962. The transfers were carried out in secret, with priests and senior officials of the Catholic Church in both countries working together with US officials to support and encourage parents to send their children to the United States. The aim was to deprive the communist regime of knowledge, wealth and future leaders, but it also meant forcing family separations that often lasted for many years (Torres 2003). After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, they transferred Afghani children out of Afghanistan to achieve their ideological and religious goals. Older children were sent for short periods of re-education and training to Islamic states in Soviet Central Asia. However, children under ten years of age, especially those orphaned by the war and the poor and fatherless, were sent to the Soviet heartland for a communist education. These younger children were easier to influence and had no parents and family who might object to their communist education. Away from their Islamic environment they could be educated as future leaders sympathetic to their new Communist masters (Laber 1986).23

Most of the children displaced by these transfer programs were sent to institutions, although in some cases they were adopted. Removals for adoption are more complex because personal motives intersect with the broader nationalistic motives already mentioned. Conflicts and disasters are often associated with a sharp increase in attempts to take children for adoption. In recent years such transfers and attempted transfers following disasters have received a lot of media attention and have sometimes led to criminal charges. Following the tsunami in the Indonesian province of Aceh in 2004, there was much unfounded rumour and heated debate in the press about children being taken away by individuals and institutions for adoption, for sale in neighbouring Asian countries or to be raised in Christian institutions (Maas 2005). In 2007 the French L’Arche de Zoé charity attempted to take children from Sudan’s war-ravaged Darfur region to be adopted in France. The children were purportedly orphans, but many had been taken under false pretences from their parents in Chad (Wikipedia 2008; UNICEF 2008). Still more recently, after the earthquake in Haiti a group of American Christian missionaries from the New Life Children’s Refuge tried to take Haitian children to America to be adopted.24 Most Haitian parents had given permission to the group to take their children, but official permission had not been obtained (Wikipedia 2010; SOS Children’s Villages 2010). In both of these cases the organisers were arrested and sentenced, although all have now been released.

The final example of child transfers to which I will refer is the stealing of babies for adoption in Argentina during the ‘Dirty War’ between 1976 and 1983. The babies and infants were the children of anti-government activists who were targeted and killed by the military junta; pregnant women were often allowed to give birth and then ‘disappeared’. An estimated 300 children were kidnapped following the military coup against the Juan Perón government (International Coalition of Sites of Conscience 2010). The children were given new identities and adopted by childless families loyal to the regime, often the killers of the parents of the children they adopted. After the regime fell, the police chief of Buenos Aires who had been in power during part of the junta’s rule argued that it had been a humanitarian act by the regime to ‘rescue’ the young children and not kill them along with their parents. He claimed that the children were given new identities so that they would not grow up seeking revenge for what had happened to their parents and that they would not follow the leftist, anti-government ideas of their parents which, he argued, was better for them and for Argentina (IACHR 1988:Chap. 5–I). Heinrich Himmler, the chief architect of the extermination of Jews and unwanted minorities in Nazi Germany, used a similar argument in relation to Polish children who were placed in German foster homes after their parents had been killed or sent to concentration camps following the assassination of a senior German official in Poland in June 1942. He maintained that their good German education and upbringing would make them loyal Germans and prevent them from trying to avenge their parents’ deaths (Stargardt 2006: 165).

It is widely accepted, no less in Indonesia, that removing children from their families or social environments should be subject to controls. Care should always be taken to ensure that families are kept together. In most of the transfers described above, the party removing the children claimed it only wanted to help or rescue them, but the transfers occurred in an unequal relationship, with the removing party invariably having wealth or power. The seemingly harmless desire to help children is never sufficient reason to remove them from their families and cultural environment. For this reason there are strident national and international laws governing the transfer of children, particularly for adoption during war and conflict. During such periods of war and conflict, as well as during crises caused by natural disasters, international conventions stipulate that the transfer of children out of a territory by an occupying power is prohibited regardless of motive; if evacuation is necessary, those children removed from harm should be sent back when it is safe to do so. The laws also make special mention that the identity of children and their parentage should be safeguarded (United Nations 1949: Art. 49 and 50).

This overview demonstrates the widely different contexts and varied manifestations of child transfers. Despite the differences in each, there are similarities and patterns. The setting is often war or conflict. Children of a weaker group were transferred to be raised and educated in the homes and institutions of the power-holders or their colonial masters. Education was deemed to benefit the children and to ensure they would grow up loyal to the rulers. Parents were in a weak position and often were coerced or persuaded that giving away their children would be beneficial for their child.

Many of the children had good experiences and are grateful for the care and education they received. Far too many, however, suffered neglect and abuse by those who claimed to be their carers and protectors; many were a source of cheap labour. At the same time the children were deprived of the physical care and emotional support of their parents and families. As Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson noted in response to the Australian Prime Minister’s apology to Aboriginal people for the ‘stolen children’, ‘it wasn’t just that children were stolen in a literal sense, it was more the case that the prospects of Aboriginal people being able to pursue any form of sustainable and decent life were stolen’ (Pearson 2008).

Young children were the target of these transfer projects because they are impressionable and easily manipulated to serve political, racial, ideological and religious aims of the power-holders – to civilise and assimilate, incorporate and dominate, as well as to weaken the group to which the children belonged. Transfers remind us that children are a valuable resource, even though their perspective is often overlooked and ignored in national histories. The importance of children to the future of a group is the reason that the forced transfer of children is one of the five points of the definition of genocide in the United Nations Convention on Genocide (United Nations 1951).

The main chapters of this book describe the different actors who were centrestage in the drama of the transfers that unfolded within changing political and historical contexts. Chapter 2 discusses the Indonesian soldiers and civil servants who took children and adopted them during the early years of the occupation. The actors in Chapter 3 are Indonesian government departments and institutions, and foundations owned by Suharto and other members of his family. This chapter includes the experiences of children and young people who went voluntarily to Indonesia: students, participants in informal government-sponsored activities and those sent for training and work experience. Chapter 4 focuses on the action of religious organisations in sending East Timorese children to Indonesia. Chapter 5 looks at the pro-Indonesian East Timorese who supported continued integration with Indonesia and who deliberately separated children from their families following the referendum in 1999. But first a chapter that sets the scene for the transfers: Chapter 1 explores how New Order officials justified the integration of East Timor, a construction which had lasting impact on the relationship between the two peoples and influenced life for all who lived under its rule.


1 Disciplines, such as literature, anthropology, and feminist and gender studies, have all contributed their particular approaches and emphases to the study of colonialism; see, for example, Taylor (1983), Yuval-Davis, Anthias and Campling (1989) and Clancy-Smith and Gouda (1998). Among edited collections exemplifying the diverse approach are Dirks (1992b), Cooper and Stoler (1997), Blue, Bunton and Croizier (2002).

2 Important among these works are those by Dunn (2003), Jolliffe (1978) and Taylor (1999). Most non-Indonesian academics and foreign journalists wrote to challenge Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor and highlighted the struggle of the resistance. Their writing served to support the East Timorese in international advocacy for their right to self-determination.

3 Popular writings included autobiographies, such as that of clandestine leader,
Contançio Pinto (Pinto and Jardine 1997), who wrote from exile in the United States; others were collections of stories told by women (Turner 1992; Winters 1999), while many personal stories were published by international organisations supporting independence for East Timor, such as the US-based East Timor Action Network (ETAN), Lisbon-based A Paz é Possível em Timor-Leste (Peace is Possible in East Timor), the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) and the UK-based Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), now called Progressio. Personal stories also appeared on the many websites that grew from these networks (Miller 2002; Dwyer 1999). Support groups began to appear within Indonesia (see Goodman 1999). International human rights organisations, especially Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (Asia), carefully documented human rights abuse perpetrated by all sides to the conflict, although most of their reporting was of violence by the Indonesian military and the East Timorese militia. (For Amnesty International archival resources, see IDC Publishers 2004; some post-1991 archival material by Human Rights Watch Asia is available on its website [

4 An English-language translation (Mubyarto et al. 1991), published in Melbourne, circulated outside Indonesia. It was a study of the socio-anthropological impact of integration, commissioned by Indonesian officials of the regional government in East Timor who were concerned that development in East Timor was failing to lead to East Timorese acceptance of integration.

5 For a good analysis of the truth-seeking process of the CAVR, see Roosa (2007). The bilateral Indonesia–East Timor Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) was established in late 2004, after the CAVR had completed its work; it was limited to the investigation of the violence of 1999 (CTF 2008).

6 Most local languages have their own terms for this; see for example Sriono (1992: 3).

7 Carmen Da Cruz (conversation, Dili, April–May 2004) and Inge Lemp, Baucau (email communication, April 2010).

8 In 1982 the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), the state-organised Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars, issued a decree to this effect (Sriono 1992: 28–29).

9 The Tetun-speaking people living in West Timor on the border with East Timor and in the eastern region of East Timor around Viqueque are matrilineal and brothers are responsible for their sisters’ children (Therik 2004: 20 [map 2], 139–140).

10 Sriono (1992: 4) also notes that families who adopt a child out of genuine philanthropic concern usually have children of their own.

11 I am grateful to Dr Julian Millie who drew my attention to the publications by Moestapa and Ekadjati and his colleagues.

12 Tom Therik (interview, Kupang, 9 February 2004).

13 According to parents I spoke to, soldiers made promises along these lines. As I explain in Chapter 2, East Timorese officials working for the administration confirm that soldiers made such promises, although none of the formal written agreements that I have seen make any mention of returning the children.

14 In 1985, Inacio Fernandes cared for 20 abandoned children in his own family (Mario Carrascalão, interview, Dili, 13 April 2004). Another family told me that between 1984 and 1988 they cared for 16 children of relatives whose parents had died or were incapacitated (Felicidade Guterres, conversation, Dili, 28 July 2003).

15 The 1985 survey was conducted by the provincial Department of Social Welfare (Dinas Sosial tingkat II) (Mario Carrascalão, statement at the CAVR public hearing, ‘Women and conflict’, Dili, 28–29 April 2003). A local government survey in 1986 estimated 42,896 abandoned children out of a total of 649,674 (Bapeda 1986: 32 124; Department of Information 1984: 78). In the years before the invasion, the Catholic Church had institutions attached to schools where children from remote areas lived while they attended school, but they were not established for the care of orphans. To cope with the crisis, the church expanded its facilities and Governor Mario Carrascalão received a small amount of financial assistance from Suharto’s foundation, Yayasan Dharmais, for 5,000 children for four years (Nurhayati Sumadi, senior staff member, Yayasan Dharmais (interview, Jakarta, 15 August 2006).

16 CAVR public hearing, ‘Children and conflict,’ Dili, 29–30 March 2004.

17 ‘Bintang hilang, kami cari setengah mati, apalagi manusia’ (Duarte Sarmento, interview, Tuapukan, Kupang 2004).

18 Roosa (2007: 8) makes the point that small inconsistencies in a story from several sources often enable the researcher to detect a problem.

19 Transferring children to Indonesia was not a violation included in the CAVR’s statistical truth-seeking process and few parents reported the abduction or removal of the children to the CAVR. In the minds of parents it did not represent a crime, especially if they gave permission or signed a letter of surrender of their child.

20 For a summary and further information, see Armitage (1995).

21 A 2010 film, Sunshine and Oranges, tells the story of the British children deported to Australia.

22 The missionaries began saving children from the practice of live burial with their dead mothers. This group of outcasts who grew up to become educated leaders also demonstrated to the missionaries the benefits of an education away from cultural influences (Young 1989: 117).

23 Laber points out that the tragedy was that the Afghans took their own children and trained them as fighters, the beginning of the Taliban, to resist the Soviet occupiers.

24 Soon after the earthquake, children were taken from Haiti to other destinations, many of whom had been living in orphanages and adoption processes were already under way when the earthquake struck. See Weeda 2010.

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

Making Them Indonesians: Child Transfers out of East Timor

   by Helene van Klinken