When she was only five years old, Isabelina Pinto was taken from her family by an Indonesian soldier. She was one of thousands of children taken to Indonesia during its brutal 30-year occupation of East Timor. Decades later she found her family and now works to reunite others. The BBC’s Rebecca Henschke tells her story.
She remembers clearly the day an Indonesian soldier visited her family in their village in Viqueque.
It was a Sunday after church, the time of day when Christian soldiers tried to get close to the ordinary residents of Catholic-majority East Timor.
“The soldier said ‘if we don’t take this child, we can kill you all’. He wanted a daughter, he didn’t have one,” Isabelina recalls.
It didn’t take long for her to realise she was being taken away from home.
“I was crying and crying. When we got to the port he lost his patience and he plunged me into the sea.
“He pushed me under the water two times. The other soldiers said ‘Why did you do that, you have made her faint?'”
“So she will forget East Timor,” came his reply.
She didn’t forget.
Isabelina now makes it her life’s work to find the “lost children” who have now grown up and to find the families they were taken from.
It is estimated that around 4,000 children from East Timor were separated from their families between 1975 and 1999 by the Indonesian military, state, or religious organisations.
Why take the children?
“They were removed without the genuine consent of their parents; some of them were well cared for, educated and loved. But many were abused or abandoned,” says Galuh Wandita, director of Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR).
“The military wanted to ‘adopt’ the children of the resistance as a way to punish, weaken and humiliate the enemy,” she says.
It’s not clear exactly why such a practice was encouraged but the psychology of occupation may well play a role. Bringing home a child became almost a trophy, proof of the military’s success in subjugating rebellious East Timor. In other cases, religious groups promised parents that they would be educated, but converted them to Islam.
Some of the army figures who “adopted” Timorese children are still powerful figures in Indonesia. The BBC approached them for comment, but they declined.
“Those who took children acted out of varied motivations,” says Helene Van Klinken, author of Making them Indonesian.
“Some wanted to educate and promote Indonesian culture and showcase its superiority,” she points out.
It did create an extraordinary generation and many of East Timor’s “lost children” have grown up to make names for themselves in their own right.
Alfredo Reinado was recruited by the military when he was 11 and taken back to Java in a wooden box that was nailed shut so he couldn’t escape. He went on to stage an attempted coup in East Timor in 2008.
Thomas Americo, who was the first boxer in Indonesia to compete against an international title holder, was also taken as a child.
“They picked out people who were good at sport,” says Dr Klinken.
“I think they were hoping that they would become the military for East Timor, but they had problems with them because they trained them up and then they joined the resistance.”
The former head of the Indonesian military, Prabowo Subianto Djojohadikusumo, adopted a number of children from East Timor and Papua.
One of them was Hercules Rozario Marcal, who has become a notorious gang leader in Jakarta and is currently serving a jail sentence.
A hard life
The officer who took Isabelina had always wanted a daughter, but her memories are of sexual abuse.
“He did things from the very beginning on the boat that were not the things you do to a daughter,” she said.
“The only thing he didn’t do was rape me.”
Isabelina’s family never stopped looking for her and a few years ago when her nephew went to study in Indonesia, he tracked her down.
“My oldest child ran in saying your relative is here, he looks so much like you!
“I went back into the bedroom to pray and I started crying. My son came in and said, ‘why are you crying. You can stop now…your family is here!'”
Her work has seen her reunite nearly 40 lost children with their families. She travels across the Indonesian archipelago trying to track them down using photos and bits of information she gleans from teams in East Timor.
“I know what it feels like to not see your family for 30 years. Missing your family for that long is incredibly painful. It’s like you’re living a lie.”
Long journey home
In 2008 a bilateral Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) recommended the establishment of a commission for the disappeared that would include looking for children who were separated due to the conflict.
“It’s a delicate issue,” says Jacinto Alves, one of the Timorese Commissioners. “It’s been eight years and not much has been achieved.”
The person now in charge of following up Indonesia’s response to the recommendations is Wiranto, a former military general indicted by a United Nations panel for atrocities in East Timor.
As army chief, he was implicated by the panel in the bloodshed in which nearly 1,000 people died. His office did not respond to the BBC’s request for an interview.
But the Indonesian government supports the reunions organised through AJAR. They help participants get passports and travel documents and paid for some flights home.
The Timorese government welcomes the returning lost children with open arms and offers them dual citizenship, but Indonesia does not.
Indonesia says they help facilitate reunions in the spirit of “reconciliation”, but insists on calling them “separated children” and does not accept that they were taken by force.
Hard to come home
Many of the lost children no longer speak the local language, Tetem, and many have converted to Islam.
“All of them have lived a very hard life…they have been tough all their lives and now they need to work hard again to build up trust and fit back into a family life. I feel sorry for them,” says Isabelina.
They often return too late to see their mother or father again.
“Other than time travel we cannot reach back to the past and fill the abducted children’s long lonely nights…but there is an opportunity to right a wrong. But the remaining time is short,” says Galuh Wandita.
What kept Isabelina going all those years was something her father told her before she left.
“When you look at the sky and feel the warmth of the sun and at night, see the moonlight, your family will be seeing the same thing and you will know that they are missing you.”