Abdul, or the story of Timor’s stolen children

Abdul was José before he was kidnapped. He lived in East Timor. Indonesians took him when he was 9 years old. He found his family again 35 years later. But to be reintegrated he had to experience a ceremony of “rebirth.” For a good reason, because his family believed he was dead and had organized his funeral.

The opening sequence is a feast. Abdul Rahman, his wife and daughters break their fasting month of Ramadan. It is 3:30 AM, and the action takes place in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. Abdul Rahman is a sad and withdrawn person. He hides under the hood of his sweatshirt because he is afraid of evil spirits. With his family, he prepares a long voyage to his country of origin, Timor.

Suitcase, airport, taxi, four-wheel drive. Day sweeps away night and the family continues its journey. And then, suddenly, the door of a van opens and Abdul falls into the arms of his brother. He is reunited with his siblings, uncles and aunts that he has not seen since 35 years, since the Indonesian army kidnapped him during the invasion of East Timor.

Returning to his childhood home and playing fields, he remembers. The memories flood back, and tears begin to flow. “I was 6 or 7 years old, we were running, we wanted to bring the goats and buffaloes with us. I didn’t understand anything, I was a child, but they said: ‘flee, the Indonesians are here, they will kill us!’ So I ran, we hid beneath that boulder,” says Abdul whose name was José at that time. “I was with my young sister and adopted brother, we were supposed to stay hidden because they were dropping bombs from airplanes. A rock slid, killing my sister and brother. The adults remained in hiding, children went out from time to time to find water. I went out once and that is when I saw the corpses of my friends, the blood. We finally left our hiding places, going in every direction and that is when they took me.” Abdul was put into a boat in the middle of a stockpile of munitions and sent to Indonesia.

His story echoes that of thousands of other children. “About four thousand,” says Bety Reis who produced the documentary Abdul et José. Filmmaker, she is Timorese and was herself kidnapped. “I had the chance to quickly find my family,” she says. But the issue is close to her heart.

Timor was first invaded in December 1975 when the Indonesian armed forces entered the newly independent country. The violent occupation lasted 25 years. In East Timor, between 60,000 to 100,000 soldiers and civilians were killed. Most of the stolen children were raised in Indonesian orphanages. “It was a way to further weaken Timor by removing people and breaking up the population.” This documentary, launched as a cry to the populations and governments, was made to shed light on this segment of history and to encourage families to come together. Its intent is also “to show the difficulties in bringing two lifestyles together, for the people in Timor are Catholic and Animist, whereas in Indonesia they are Muslim.”

To reintegrate his family, Abdul, his wife and daughters had to participate in a ceremony in Timor. Believing him to be dead, his relatives had organized a funeral. Following the ceremony, Abdul not only was reunited with his family but also regained his joie de vivre and self-confidence. “Before, I felt like a ghost.” However, this does not erase the years of suffering. Abdul came back too late and never saw his mother again.


Abdul et José has been broadcast on television, in Lusophone countries (it was partly financed by the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries). According to Bety Reis, the documentary did not leave its audiences indifferent. Its screening at the FIFO is a step further. It is also a step further for the FIFO, which presents its first Timorese documentary.

FIFO / Delphine Barrais