At the age of 8, Alis Sumiaputra was plucked from the streets of his village in Timor-Leste by an Indonesian soldier and taken to West Java.
‘It’s a way to break a family, break a person, break a society by taking their most loved members.’ Human rights worker.
The soldier adopted the stolen child into his family, converted Alis to Islam and changed his name. Eventually, Alis took over the family farm. His Timorese family was never mentioned. Until, in 2019, a woman called Nina came looking for him.
Like Alis, Nina Pinto was stolen from Timor-Leste as a child. She was sexually abused by the soldier who took her and treated like a servant by his family.
“All I could do was cry. I longed for my family. But I couldn’t do anything. I was helpless”,
– says Nina.
At age 17, she ran away and later managed to reunite with her Timorese family. Now she’s helping people like Alis connect with their birth families.
Nina and Alis are among an estimated 4000 Timorese children who were ‘stolen’ from their homeland after Indonesia occupied Timor-Leste in 1975.
In the early chaotic days of the invasion, the soldiers took the children opportunistically. Later, children were taken as part of a state-sponsored mission by Indonesia to educate and ‘civilise’.
“Maybe in the beginning, there was a feeling of trying to save children who were perhaps separated from their families’,
– says Galuh Wandita from the NGO, Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR).
“Later on, there were religious institutions that were involved.”
AJAR is now tracking down Timor’s ‘stolen children’ and helping reunite them with their birth families.
In a powerful and moving journey, Indonesian correspondent Anne Barker follows Alis and a group of Timor-born adults as they return to their country of birth to reunite with their families.
For Alis, there is pain, guilt, joy and an awakening.
At his parents’ graveside in his village, Alis, whose birth name is Kalistru, bows his head and weeps.
“My dear father. My dear mother. When you died, I wasn’t here. I am your son, Kalistru Momode, asking for forgiveness.”
“This was one of the most moving stories I’ve ever covered. The moment we landed at Dili Airport I had a lump in my throat as I watched the emotion of those ‘stolen children’ on board who were returning to their homeland for the first time in decades. I only hope that thousands more will have the same chance that Alis and Nina have had.”
– Anne Barker, the ABC’s Indonesia correspondent.