From cradle to grave, knowing only war Children who live and die knowing only war

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The Independent Online
JOSE MANUEL SOARES died last week at the age of five, on a patch of dirt near his home in Dili, the capital of East Timor. Becora, the neighbourhood where he grew up, is one of the poorest and roughest areas of a deprived and violent city. The bamboo hut where his family live is bare of all ornament, and it is fair to guess that Jose never had anything in the way of toys.

But last Monday, he and two of his young cousins found something round and shiny lying in the jungle. It is pitiful to imagine their excitement as they picked up the new thing and carried it for inspection to an empty hut nearby.

"The children were off playing somewhere," says his mother. "Then we heard a sound. When we got there, all of them were dead." The object was a hand grenade, dropped, one assumes, by one of the Indonesian army units which regularly patrol this area.

The little boy's body is in his own hut now, lying under a sheet, with bandages covering the wounds on his neck. His mother is full of grief, but shows little surprise. Jose's death serves no purpose, except to illustrate once again the truism that the most innocent victims of war are children.

No one knows how many of the 200,000 East Timorese who have died since the Indonesian invasion in 1975 have been children, but the numbers are large. In the early years, when the Indonesians were still struggling to control the territory, young children, even infants, were executed in cold blood, along with entire villages. After one of the most notorious massacres, at the village of Lacluta in 1981, survivors heard Indonesian soldiers repeating a Javanese proverb: "When you clean your field, don't you kill all the snakes, small and large alike?"

For every child murdered, there are many more whose lives have been blighted by disease, illiteracy and bereavement. Timor's many orphanages tell the story. The nuns who run the orphanages have stories of groups of children straggling out of the jungle - toddlers whose hair has turned grey, and children who cannot sleep in a bed, but who crawl underneath it. The plates from which the orphans eat are colour-coded - one set is for healthy children, another for those who have tuberculosis.

"This situation is unique," says one nun, a psychologist who is organising workshops on trauma. "These are children whose whole lives have been lived under the shadow of war. They're caught inside an envelope of suffering."

Today, with a referendum on independence just round the corner, hopes for justice in East Timor are higher than ever. But, for children, things are getting worse. Since January there has been an exodus of Indonesians - not the soldiers and police, but the providers of essential health and education.

Last year, infant mortality was reduced to one child in 20, and illiteracy was about 15 per cent - a proud achievement by Timorese standards. But this year, according to Gregorius Fernandez, the local head of Unicef, the figures will certainly have declined. Of the 67 regional health centres, only 34 now have doctors.Teachers are leaving their schools, on extended, permanent "vacations".

Dili is now full of street children, earning a few coins by selling newspapers, or flagging down taxis for visitors to the hotels. Their families, if they have families, are too poor to send them to school.They look happy enough - free to wander and play where and with whatever they like, as was the five-year-old boy now lying under the white sheet, Jose Manuel Soares.

Richard Lloyd Parry