by Mulki Makmun, Asia Justice and Rights
This story was written to honour the victims of Enforced Disappearances as a commemoration of the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on 30 August 2020.
Working for almost three years with Stolen Children from Timor-Leste, I will never forget the moment I first witnessed a reunion back in November 2017. It was memorable, not only for the Stolen Children and their families, but for everyone touched by their stories.
One particular story that deeply affected me was that of Antonio, a man already in his 40s, who had been taken from his family in Manufahi when he was just a child.
We landed at Nicolau Lobato Airport in Dili and were welcomed by a group of human rights defenders and government officials. On that day almost everyone was overwhelmed by emotion, not only Antonio.
We were taken to the CNC office, a ten-minute drive away, where the families were waiting for us. There we witnessed the Stolen Children being greeted by their families, who had gone to great lengths to come to the city from faraway villages.
But no one from Antonio’s family came except his niece, who was not very familiar with Antonio’s story. Antonio saw tears of joy everywhere and, perhaps, the scene triggered something inside him. I talked to him about plans for the next day, and explained that Inno and I would accompany him to his village, so he need not worry. Antonio whispered that he was not feeling well and that “even if I die before reaching home tomorrow, I am already grateful that I was on my way back to my sister.”
Maybe, after decades of separation, this moment felt unreal for him, and the road triggered memories of the conflict and unfulfilled expectations. He was already so close to his sister, could he endure one more day?
The next day, we hit the road early to accompany Antonio to meet his sister. The road was smooth with no obstacles, although it was the rainy season. We expected to reach our destination by noon, but we were very late as we had to stop every 30 minutes or so as Antonio wanted to vomit. Inno, his niece, and I tried to cheer him, but nothing worked. We tried to give him something to eat, and we slowed down, but nothing could stop his vomiting. There was not much else we could do for him.
Finally, at around 6:30 in the evening, we reached the house. Our car stopped right in front of the house and I could see his sister waiting for us at the front door. We were all very excited except Antonio, who said he was not well and needed to calm down. He seemed to not want to catch his sister’s eye, or even to look at the house. We thought that maybe Antonio was just nervous and needed some time alone in the car.
“Maun Inno, what should I do before I meet my sister?”
I heard Antonio whisper inside the car. His sister was still waiting at the front door only seven meters away.
Inno somehow understood Antonio’s distress and said “you can start with slowly stepping out of the car, then take a handful of dirt and wipe it on your forehead, then hug your sister.” Antonio, although very nervous, did everything Inno suggested except, after wiping his forehead, he knelt and kissed the land again, while mumbling prayers. His sister waited patiently by the front door.
Just two steps from his sister, we saw her tremble and open her arms, holding back her tears. She splashed a glass of water over Antonio’s head, while throwing small pebbles behind his back to ward off evil. Then she wrapped him in a long thick woven scarf or tais. He was warmly welcomed by his sister while he apologized for not coming home since the 1980s. They hugged and cried releasing years of longing.
In the house, Antonio carefully unfolded a tattered black and white photograph of his sister from his wallet and showed it to her. “I have carried this picture with me for 35 years. It was my source of strength.” His sister immediately took the photograph and placed it in the Bible, and then he hugged her tightly, stroking her head.
“The family thought you had died when we heard rumours that a group of students trying to get back to Timor in 1999 were drowned when their ship was sunk by Indonesians after the referendum”.
I discovered that in fact Antonio had been taken by the Indonesian military while he was looking for sweet potatoes as a gift for his sister. They never met again until this moment, and Antonio held his sister in a long embrace.
If you ask what is my most memorable experience working for human rights, this is definitely one of them. I remember it vividly, in Antonio’s sister’s house with Mount Kablaki in the background. I felt radiant and richly rewarded for being able to play a small part in Antonio’s reunion with his sister.
As with Tito, Kaoka, Luis, Maria, and other Stolen Children that I have been lucky enough to meet, I remember moments when they were finally able to smile in the warm embrace of their families. The cruelty of abducting children, and of forcibly separating them from their loved ones is unspeakable and affects everyone.
It is not just the Stolen Children that feel reborn, but also us Indonesians, who in the name of our nation did something terrible. Now we can shed light on the past and right our wrongs. We need to really advocate for more accountability, redress the wrongs of victims, continue to look for those still lost, and demand justice for all. As of today, thousands of “stolen children” are still waiting to experience something like Antonio.
Let’s make it happen before it’s too late.