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In Indonesia, a generation of 'orphans' from East Timor

East Timorese parents try to find their children, three years after Jakarta's brutal withdrawal from the former Indonesian province

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Maya Friera's letter home is filled with reassurances for her parents. The 8-year-old promises she's studying hard and saying her prayers every day.

What she'd most like from home, she says, is a picture of Mom and Dad. "It's been a long time since I came here,'' she says, sitting under a pavilion at the Wonosobo, Central Java, orphanage she shares with 52 other East Timorese children. "I miss them."

Maya is one of an estimated 1,900 East Timorese "orphans" separated from their parents in September 1999, when the former Indonesian province voted for independence. In response, the Indonesian military drove 200,000 East Timorese from their homes into Indonesian West Timor, dividing thousands of families.

Though international attention has focused on Indonesian courts' faltering effort to account for the brutal withdrawal, the children's stories are a reminder of the lingering wounds left by Indonesia's 25-year occupation of the tiny country.

More than distance separates many of these children from their parents. Maya – along with 156 other children – is in the care of the Timor Hope Foundation, which has farmed out children to various facilities in Java. The foundation is run by Octavio Soares, an exiled East Timorese who supported the territory's integration into Indonesia. The political ties of the foundation have led to suspicion and angry confrontations between Soares and the United Nations, and in a few cases, delays in reuniting children with parents.

"Some of these kids are a little brainwashed. They've been told that life in East Timor is horrible, so they're so worried about what could happen to them if they go home," says Choosin Ngaotheppitak, a representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jakarta.

The commissioner is currently helping 22 East Timorese parents who've responded to a radio and information campaign to reunite with their children. Over the past year, 21 children have been returned to their parents.

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