Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Eight years after 1999

Eight years after 1999

Displaced East Timorese children go hungry in Indonesian West Timor

Elcid Li

Struggling to avoid hunger in their new home
Credit: Elcid Li

The big political change in East Timor in 1999 was accompanied by killing, burning, and the forced displacement of 280,000 people out of the territory by Indonesian military-backed militias. By 2002, 111,540 East Timorese had decided to stay in Indonesia, mostly in West Timor. In 2006, 53,889 of these were still living in refugee camps or otherwise squatting on land owned by locals. Some had moved into resettlement villages built specially for them.

Parents struggle to survive from day to day. Their difficult and unsettled situation is hardest on the children. For example, on 30 August 2005, Yasinta Sarmento, less than five years old, died from diarrhoea and vomiting in Tuapukan camp. A doctor had diagnosed malnutrition three months before, and she was treated in Kupang public hospital. But her parents Manuel Ximenes and Balbina Alves took her home early because they had no money to pay the hospital.

Six children passed away in this camp at the same time. Lack of clean water cost them their lives. The dry season is the worst. Manuel Ximenes still has two children, but he can take only five buckets per day from the nearest well. When they still had refugee status, the local government gave them water support.

As a farmer without any land, Manuel works for a local farmer in the rainy season, but in the dry season he has no job. The new settlers are still not well-integrated into the local social support system. As the ‘new other’, they remain marginalised. ‘I don’t have the money to register myself with the local government,’ said Manuel. Without an identity card, it is impossible to access the government’s anti-poverty fund.


Poverty drove Natalia Riberu and Rui Amaral to leave their children in Noelbaki, another refugee camp. They went to work on faraway islands. Natalia began training as a migrant worker in Java, hoping to go overseas. But when she fainted during training they excluded her. Her husband Rui worked on Sawu island as a low wage mechanic for a Chinese employer. While they were away, trying to improve life for their family, two of their teenage daughters became pregnant. ‘We do not know what to say,’ Rui said bitterly. Both Natalia and Rui were shocked by the news. But life must go on. Just like it had to go on the year before, when their eldest daughter stopped attending junior high school and started helping her mother in the paddy field of a local landowner. They were paid in rice after the harvest.

Natalia’s family will be the last one to move out of the refugee camp to the new resettlement village. They say there is a strong hierarchy in the camp. For example, a mixed couple, one Timorese and the other Javanese, would get priority to go to the resettlement village. Timorese who used to belong to the Indonesian military or the militias also get preferential treatment. On the other hand, life in the camps can have advantages. They tend to be closer to town, where the jobs are, than the more remotely situated resettlement villages.

One of Natalia and Rui’s sons, Hanuku, is studying in Jakarta in an Islamic boarding school, a pesantren. Despite the fact that they are Catholics and he has to be separated from the family, they think that this is a better option for Hanuku. The pesantren covers all expenses. ‘The important thing is, he will get a certificate; the rest will be easy to handle,’ said Rui. He thinks the new religion his son had to adopt to study in Jakarta is just an instrument to get a better education. ‘He can just take off the (new) clothes and put them in the cupboard when he comes back,’ he added with a smile.

While the parents were away, trying to improve life for their family, two of their teenage daughters became pregnant

In 1999 they lost another daughter to a high fever. They were staying in the nearby Oepoi sports hall. Rui said his family now just wants to stay close to his daughter’s grave. He does not want to return to East Timor. I asked him whether he had had any relation with the Indonesian military in the past. He just said he used to live near the Indonesian naval base in Dili. The military often used men like Rui as informers or porters. But if I persisted with my questions along those lines he would go quiet. Rui, Natalia, and their two pregnant daughters are now working as market vendors at the bus station, close to the refugee camp.

This story reminds me of a conversation with a boy I met six years ago in Kupang. He called himself Jon dos Santos. He said his age was about ten and that he came from Ermera, East Timor. He was a street vendor. While we were talking, he asked a very difficult question, ‘Where can I look for life?’ I could not give the answer to his question, so then he gave me one, ‘I know. We should look for life in rich people’s houses. We should work there and we would get paid.’

He posed another difficult question, ‘Do you think ten years is old enough to work?’ and continued with another one, ‘Do you really think that you should not get revenge for the killing of your father?’ He said that his father was killed by an Indonesian soldier. He wanted to join the Indonesian mobile police brigade in order to avenge his father’s death. His story remains unclear, although I tried to confirm it later with his boss in the market.

For a time Jon lived in an orphanage run by the Ebenhaezer Protestant Church in Kupang. After school he sold cakes on the streets. Many East Timorese children had been brought there from various refugee camps in 1999. But lack of funding meant the orphanage had to close. One day a woman called Aci Leang took him away and asked him to work at her own house. Like Jon, the other children scattered all around, to anybody who was willing to take care of them. Most of them were not treated as children but as child labourers. This is a common thing in Kupang. Some time later Jon ran away and started working in the Oeba market as a plastic bag seller.

East Timorese families in camps give away their children to charity organisations because they no longer have the social backup they once had

I asked Aci Leang about Jon. She said Jon dos Santos was not his real name. His real name was Ago Pito, and she created the new name for him. She said his parents were still alive in East Timor. But what I could do about it? I have not met Jon or Ago Pito since he ran away. If it is true, it is very tragic. It means he does not even remember his village, his parents, or his brothers and sisters. He said to me once, ‘If they are still alive, they will look for me, so I think they are already dead.’


One of the reasons why East Timorese families in the refugee camps are willing to give away their children to charity organisations is that they no longer have the social backup that they had just after the crisis in 1999. In 2001 Yayasan Hati brought several groups of such children to Catholic orphanages in Central Java. Yayasan Hati is a pro-Indonesian East Timor foundation. After reading about these children in the news, I visited one of these places, in Bendungan, near Ambarawa, Central Java, in 2002. After several humanitarian NGOs and the UNHCR protested about these child removals, they were eventually returned to their families. Some of them were in camps in West Timor and others in East Timor.

Back in their original village in East Timor, if one family is unable to provide a proper life for their children, the wider families will support them. In the camps this does not happen, because the families are dispersed in different camps or even regions. This is why beggars are so common in Atambua, a town near the border with East Timor. Beggars are familiar in big cities, but not here, where people see them as signifying lack of solidarity within the group. The family will feel very ashamed if one of them becomes a beggar. Clearly these children and their families are now more afraid of hunger than of losing their own dignity. This phenomenon has brought back six UN bodies to work in Belu regency since September 2007, where 40,000 East Timorese live.

Hunger and malnutrition are common. Several decades ago, F.J Ormelling in his geographical book, The Timor Problem (1956), distinguished the seasonal hunger period, lapar biasa, from famine. Everyone has this problem in West Timor, whether they are from East or West Timor. But those who do not have the same livelihood assets have more difficulty coping with hunger. It is they who suffer the most from premature mortality. As a journalist, even eight years after the events of 1999, I can still take tragic pictures any time in the refugee camps and third class public hospital wards in West Timor. During the months of the ‘normal hunger’, sensational news reports bring them to public attention. But soon afterwards they are forgotten again. Just like last year, and the year before. There is still no way out.     ii

Elcid Li (elcidli@yahoo.com ) was a journalist in West Timor (2001-2006), and is now a postgraduate student in the Sociology Department, University of Birmingham, UK.

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007

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