The Lost Children of East Timor
Child Abduction

The Lost Children of East Timor

Thousands of children were stolen during Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. This is the story of three of those children.
February 23, 2017, 9:45am

As a young girl Delina never really liked skirts. She always felt more comfortable wearing pants and t-shirts. She would play outside of the house, running around and losing track of time. "Mom was always angry when I skipped meals. After school, I would always go out and play, just running around" she said. Deline remembers her home as a modest traditional elevated house with no walls between the rooms, she lived with her parents, grandmother, uncle, and aunt.

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Around her old house in Aramesiu, East Timor, there were cornfields with patches of coffee crops. Her family owned a few goats. "Dad buys goats sometimes. He would take care of them for a while before reselling them," she said.

This was 39 years ago, before this life was snatched away in the midst of Indonesia's territorial annexation of East Timor. When she was forcefully taken by the National Military and whisked away to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, far from anything she knew.

It was an Indonesian National Armed Forces soldier by the name of Adi Muhammad Amin who changed her life.

A military camp was set up down the road from Delina's house. One day, near a local primary school, Amin saw Delina and snatched her up. "I bit the soldier on the shoulder, and ran home," said Delina.

Amin continually kept trying to abduct her after this. "Dad was scared since the soldier threatened to kill everyone in the village if I wouldn't go with him. So I would visit the military camp and run home as soon as Amin was asleep," Delina said.

It was almost noon when Amin came to Delina's parents and gave them an ultimatum, he was going to take their daughter and they were going to let it happen. Delina's mom fainted at the news. Motivated by the barrel of a gun, Delina's father complied with the order.

Her father took her onto a military ship docked at the port of Dili, the capital of East Timor. "I saw my dad getting off the ship. As the ship started to move, I cried uncontrollably," Delina said.

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"I still remember my Dad's teary-eyed face as he left me on the boat. He didn't say anything. He just prayed that I would always be healthy, to never miss school and to return to Timor."

Delina's kidnapper Amin couldn't stand her crying. He grabbed her and slammed her head against the ship. "Talking in my local dialect, I asked why he was being mean and pretended to be nice when we were in the village," said Delina.

When I met her, Delina was trying to open the door to her past. Several times she leaned back into the couch, put her head down and wiped tears from her face. She had to accept the fact that a lot of details of her home had been lost on her. "My village was Susekar or Malmera or Remeksio, it sounds like one of those," she faintly recalled.

Political turmoil during Indonesia's territorial annexation of East Timor put an end to dreams of hundreds or even thousands of children like Delina. Indonesia invaded East Time first in 1975 and less than a year later announced it as Indonesia's 27th province under the name Timor Timur.

In 1974, three major political parties in East Timor had different idea's on Timor's independence. Uniao Democratica Timorense (UDT) wanted Timor to continue their relationship with the Portuguese, while Assosiacao Popular Democratica Timorense wished to integrate with Indonesia and The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) wanted immediate independence.

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Anyone accused of involvement with FRETILIN was in danger of being killed. Miggel Jusril Amral was 12 during the first year of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. "My family were all members of FRETILIN. We fought. We fled. I had to carry a gun, we didn't want to be caught," he said.

Miggel lived in Ailliu, a village which was invaded by soldiers in 1976. As the army burned his village down, Miggel ran into the forest. Thousands of others did the same. "In the forest people survived by sleeping around the roots of giant trees or by creating a  small  shack."

The forest was surrounded by military posts, there was no way out. Aircrafts would make bombing runs. Cannons shot through the forest, destroying hiding spots. After a year in the woods, the food supply was wearing thin. Thousands of people were trying to survive on almost nothing. "If I came across a banana, I wouldn't even peel the skin. I would eat it whole," said Miggel.

"Malnourished people slowly turned to skin and bones until they were unable to move. Every day at least two or three people died. We would grab tree bark and wrap the dead body in it. We would bury them three feet deep, nobody had any strength to dig deeper."

Miggel. Photo by the author.

After most of his family and friends were murdered, Miggel surrendered to the Indonesian military and was relocated to Southern Sulawesi, where he now works as a security guard.

Maukunda Dominggus was was 12 years old when his kampung near Ailora mountain was destroyed by Indonesia's Military. First came the cannons, then the air raids.

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"My family and I ran into the forest, I got separated from my dad. I was with my mom and hundreds of others who escaped," said Maukunda.

"After almost a year hiding in the forest, my mom died. People were hungry. Finally, we decided to surrender and walked to the city of Maubesi."

When they reached Maubesi, Maukunda met a soldier who offered to take him. "At the time i said mau (yes, i would) since the only Indonesian words i knew were 'mau' and 'tidak mau' (no i wouldn't)," he said.

The soldier's name was Karman, he gave Maukunda a backpack. "I took the bag and he told me to carry the bag up the mountain to the military camp." Not long after he was taken from his homeland to Sulawesi.

Meeting Indonesia's National Forces

Their encounter with Indonesia's National Forces became the starting point of a long journey for these three East Timor natives. Maukunda and Miggel were registered as Tenaga Bantuan Operasional (TBO), Timorese child laborers at military camps. While Delina was forced—without any clear explanation—to go to Indonesia with the soldiers.

Child laborers in the military barracks kept a grueling schedule. Everyday at the camp they cooked, washed dirty clothes and carried bags during military operations. Maukunda was beaten when he complained about the workload.

"Our shoulders were always full of scratches and blood. Our feet were swollen," said Maukunda.

For months Maukunda had to accompany Karman on missions. One afternoon during an expedition Karman was caught by Timor resistance forces, his hands and legs were cut off. The next day an Indonesian military helicopter picked Karman up and took him home, leaving Maukunda behind.

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Maukunda and his family in Luwu Utara, South Sulawesi.

Another soldier, came across him and took Maukunda to the capital of Dili. Delina and Maukunda became step siblings since they were taken in by the same soldier, Andi Muhamammad Amin.

After reaching South Sulawesi, they started their new lives. Maukunda was lucky to to go back to school, but Delina didn't have the same chance. Delina and Maukunda took care of the house; cooking, cleaning and looking after of Amin's six children. They were not given mattresses and had to sleep on the cement floor without any pillows. "If we were late for breakfast, Amin would get angry and hit us. My body was often full of bruises," said Delina.

After years with Amin, one of Amin's relatives noticed Delina's suffering. "I was sent to Soppeng, then to Takalar with Mawardi Hasan, a relative of Amin," said Delina.

In Takalar, Delina managed to finish middle school. During primary school she met Miggel by chance. "I was so happy to meet another Timor native," said Miggel.

Years later, Deline worked at a mushroom nursery. Miggel became an motorbike taxi driver and is now a security guard. Maukunda married a woman from Sabbang, North Luwu and cultivated his hard-earned land. Today, Delina lives in the Makassar, the capital of Sulawesi. Mawardi has retired and run a small convenience store out of his living room.

After years of conflict, they are living in peace. Asia Justice And Rights (AJAR) is an organization collaborating with KontraS Sulawesi to find the children that were taken from East Timor between 1975 and 1999. The United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) estimated 4,534 kids were displaced to Indonesia during the chaos of the integration program.

The vice coordinator of KontraS Sulawesi, Nasrum, investigated the whereabouts of victims and found 34 displaced East Timor natives. Last May, the victims were arranged to spend 10 days with their lost families in East Timor. Several families are still being sought. "34 are the ones that have records, some have not been documented. I think the number will keep increasing during our investigation," said Nasrum. "It's a program aimed to reunite East Timor natives living in Indonesia with their family in Timor."

For many like Delina, this is a new chance at finding out who they are. "When I found out about the program, I couldn't sleep for three days, I was so excited that I forgot to eat. The faces of my mom, dad and brother began to flash one after another."