'Abducted' youngsters held at orphanage in Java

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 September, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2001, 12:00am

Pressure is building on Indonesia to return 124 East Timorese children taken from their parents in West Timor refugee camps following East Timor's 1999 independence vote.

East Timor's acting foreign minister, Nobel Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta, intends to bring the issue to the United Nations Security Council in New York later this month, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is insisting Indonesia let the children go.

'This is one of the most outrageous, scandalous situations, where the abducting of children and holding of children against the will of the parents is going on under the eyes of Indonesia, by a well-known thug, and no one does anything,' Mr Ramos-Horta said yesterday.

The so-called 'thug' in question is Octavio Soares, nephew of a former Indonesian-appointed governor of East Timor, Abilio Soares, and a member of a family with ties to former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto and the family of ousted strongman Suharto.

'He's a lunatic, a stupid idiot, who thinks he can abduct these children and eventually turn them into Indonesian patriots to regain East Timor,' Mr Ramos-Horta said. 'He and his family have done enough harm to East Timor - the abuse of authority, cronyism, corruption. Time and again we have offered reconciliation but I am afraid for some, there will be no reconciliation.'

Mr Soares says his only concern has been the welfare of children, whose parents gave them up willingly for the chance of a better life in Indonesia. Some parents admit they gave their children up voluntarily, but others say any notion of choice in the militia-controlled camps of West Timor was impossible.

At least 16 couples now say they want their children back.

But Mr Soares, who collected the children from desperate conditions in West Timor refugee camps after their forced deportation by Indonesian-backed gangs, has managed to frustrate any family reunion so far.

He has variously claimed the children are now his, or that the East Timorese parents are 'stupid'. He is part of a group called the Hati Foundation that claims to work for the welfare of the East Timorese, but admits on its Web site that it aims at 'sustaining the existence of well-schooled East Timorese in the frame of Indonesia unity'.

Mr Soares left the children at a Catholic orphanage in Semarang, Java, last November. The nuns agree the children should be reunited with their parents.

Some of the children are not so sure - they have memories of East Timor in flames, compared to the protected and mysteriously well-funded safety of Java. They have told some journalists they want to stay with their friends in Java, and also have expressed the belief that East Timor should be reunited with Indonesia.

The children, aged six to mid-teens, are receiving three solid meals a day, a Catholic education and the opportunity to follow modern pop culture - treats not necessarily available in East Timor.

But that is not the point, UNHCR officials insist.

'We want to set these children free and reunite them with their parents,' Bernard Kerblatt, of the UNHCR in Dili told the Straits Times. 'It is not up to a five-year-old child . . . to decide if he wants to choose between McDonald's, teddy bears and toys and being reunited with his parents.'

Some observers believe the child-snatch was designed specifically to nurture a new generation of East Timorese who could carry on the fight against East Timorese independence.

The new Foreign Minister, Hasan Wirayuda, reportedly told Octavio Soares three weeks ago to let the children go, as a result of UNHCR and media pressure. Plans are reportedly underway for a meeting to be held between East Timor-based parents and the children in Bali next week, despite concerns this places both reluctant children and yearning parents in an invidious position.

'This would be a farcical event, and I hope the United Nations does not lend itself, does not get involved with such an illegal and immoral situation,' Mr Ramos-Horta said. 'The children should be brought to East Timor.'

He believes there are at least 1,000 East Timorese children in similar or worse conditions in Indonesia and says he has met grown-up East Timorese as far afield as Malaysia who were taken from their families by Indonesian groups in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mr Ramos-Horta said the situation the children were in was similar to that of about 50,000 East Timorese refugees still held in camps in West Timor. 'But this is even more painful - these are children, they have been traumatised enough. They will grow up very violent and angry and confused,' he said.

But the prevailing feeling in some government departments is that the children are better off in Indonesia.

'Why does the United Nations want the children to go back?' Foreign Ministry spokesman Sulaiman Abdulmanan, told the Washington Post. 'What about the human rights of the children? They will get a better education in Java. It's a better situation than the uncertainties in East Timor.'