Prabha Chandran in Dili
The euphoria of freedom is over in East Timor as Asia's poorest country struggles with the enormous challenges of independence. While the government, supported by a large United Nations presence, deals with the urgent tasks of security and nation building, it is binding the wounds of this war-torn island that concerns the country's charismatic president, Xanana Gusmao.
It is also one of the most sensitive tasks for the fledgling East Timor Red Cross (CVTL), which is providing crucial support to national reconciliation efforts even as it builds its own organization across the country.
"A country which has emerged from a long conflict is necessarily under psychological pressure from the political violence of the past," said Gusmao speaking during a visit to London last October, "and it is in this context that the maximum attention was afforded to the needs of reconciliation."
For there is hardly a family in this nation of 850,000 that has not suffered separation and loss in two decades of fighting for freedom. But it is stories like that of 12-year-old Pedro which make the painstaking task of reunifying families both rewarding and essential.
When the militia came to his home in Los Palos in 1999, Pedro's world turned upside down. The bloody months leading up to and after the referendum on independence had been the worst his terrified parents had seen and they simply fled with the children - at least the ones who could keep up with them - into the mountains.
In the confusion, Pedro, then aged eight, and his older sister were separated from the family. In truth, they were more or less abandoned as the family. Pedro's parents, forced to endure years of grinding poverty and persecution, could no longer provide for their many offspring.
But destiny smiled on the young boy and his sister. Somehow, with the help of aid agencies, they made it safely across to West Timor where they were sheltered by the Jesuit Refugee Service.
They were among the lucky ones. Of the estimated 5,000 East Timorese children separated from their parents in 1999, some were allegedly kidnapped by childless Indonesian soldiers, others were trafficked as domestic slaves and sex workers and many more have simply disappeared from records.
There the story of Pedro might have ended but for the efforts of a committed group of people who worked tirelessly not only to reunite him with his family but to give him an education and a new life in a free country. This is as much his story as that of men like Dionisio Maria de Jesus, tracing co-ordinator for the CVTL in Dili.
Using the International Rescue Committee's 1999 database of 4,200 missing children, Dionisio and the five tracing officers who cover the country from their branches in Baucau, Ainaro, Oecussi, Maliana and Dili, set to work in October 2002. By then 3,300 cases had been closed.
With the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Red Cross team started combing the villages. "We go from door to door asking if anyone has information about the parents of a missing child,” says Dionisio. “Sometimes we are lucky and we find the parents, in some cases three years after they reported the child missing."
A detailed questionnaire on when, how and why the children got separated is filled out. "Did they go voluntarily or did they flee? In most cases we find the kids were already neglected while sometimes militias also took children," says Dionisio.
Once the questionnaire is completed, the CVTL gets in touch with the Jesuit Refugee Service in West Timor for assistance in tracking down the child.
"If the child is found, an exchange of letters may begin. We study the family situation because very often parents want their kids back but they are better off economically in West Timor with guardians and relatives and don't want to return. We are not a travel agency and it is very expensive to take families to the border if they aren't serious about reconciling," says Mona Lisa Calitto of the UNHCR, which works closely with CVTL on the project to restore family links.
The truth is that many children have grown apart from their parents over the years and are deeply attached to their adopted parents; others feel reluctant to return to a more Spartan way of life. According to official estimates some 2,000 East Timorese children continue to live in the West.
Nevertheless, the team visits the family every two weeks and writes a report on the development of each case. If all agree, a border meeting is arranged between the estranged child, guardian and the parents. This usually takes place at the Maliana camp, run by the International Office of Migration, which also provides funding and transportation for families.
"It is very emotional, this first meeting between mothers and children. Some of them just cry and cry as they keep hugging each other. I was told to video the reconciliation process but I just couldn't do it," confesses Mona Lisa. Usually, five or six families meet in an atmosphere that is carefully kept as relaxed as possible.
"We separate the cases in groups and for the first half an hour the parents and care-taker talk about the child's future. After that the child and parents talk for half an hour and then they all sit together to decide. We are often asked for advice but we are very careful to be neutral,” says Dionisio.
After four hours and a shared meal, it's time to make some hard decisions. "Children find it very hard," he says, "and many want to live together with both parents and guardians, so very often it ends with the parent's signing a temporary transfer to the guardian."
He remembers Pedro was living with his sister in West Timor and did not want to return.
"He wasn't going to school and he was already 12 years old and his parents were concerned. They sent his elder brother to bring him back. Pedro returned to Los Palos but he was still not going to school. The family was unhappy. There is a lot of discrimination against repatriated children and I had to meet his teachers and ask them to accept him," Dionisio explains.
Pedro is now receiving the education which is every child's right but not everyone is that lucky in a country with the lowest primary school attendance in South-East Asia.
"We deal with children from five to 17 years and very often the oldest ones are too ashamed to go back to school. So we have asked UNHCR to run some adult literacy programmes," says Dionisio.
Clearly, it isn't enough merely to bring back missing children. Equally important is ensuring their access to basic education, health and nutrition. The CVTL tries to follow up on every case by getting in touch with other humanitarian organizations for assistance.
Very often, families are also in need of emotional counselling as they struggle to bury a painful past and live together in harmony. This sometimes requires extraordinary imaginative efforts on the part of the case officers.
"I remember the case of Domingas who fled to West Timor in 1999 after being separated from her parents in the conflict. She was also unhappy because she had been promised marriage to a very old guy. Her parents had accepted some cows as the dowry," says Mona Lisa.
"After some years, we tracked her down and she agreed to return, thinking the past was buried. But the old man was still waiting. When she realized she would still have to marry him, she ran away to a church. We finally found a solution that enabled her to return home happily - the old man agreed that when he found another suitable bride, Domingas's parents would bear the expenses of the wedding."
Such solutions don't always materialize and the human tragedy that continues to play out long after war is over can dismay even the hardened workers. Such was the case of three sisters who lost their parents but miraculously, traced their father in West Timor.
When they arrived at the Maliana camp, he appeared with his young fiancé - who asked him to choose between her and the three girls. He chose to return with his fiancé, leaving the girls to their fate.
Given the average ratio of one repatriation to every five meetings, it would be tempting to imagine that the programme is not very successful, but Dionisio disagrees.
"Depending on the parents' situation, children may be better off in West Timor. In addition, children over 14 can make their own decisions about where they want to live,” he points out. “As long as the families come to a decision which is in the child's best interest the purpose of reconciliation is served."
The CVTL is currently working on 480 cases and while the programme should be winding down in 2004, it may well have to continue its sensitive task of patching broken families if the current demand continues.