Selected postings from east-timor (reg.easttimor)

Subject: Kirsty Sword Gusmao: A Dutiful Life

also: In freedom's footsteps

Sunday Telegraph Magazine (Sydney) August 18, 2002


As the fledgling nation of East Timor finds its feet, MAREE CURTIS talks to Kirsty Sword, the Australian-born former spy playing first lady to a legend. And photographer NICOLE CLEARY takes her camera on a road trip through the aftermath of independence

Just before Melbourne-born Kirsty Sword Gusmao became first lady of the world's newest nation three months ago, a friend gave her a gift, a T-shirt which reads: "Living with a saint is far more gruelling than being one." As we speak, the "saint" in question - the first president of the independent nation of East Timor, Jose Alexandre Gusmao, the legendary Xanana, resistance leader, hero, freedom fighter - is being annoying in the background, his deep voice vying for his wife's attention. Which is what prompts Sword to mention the T-shirt. "I can verify that it is certainly the case."

A moment later she excuses herself. Sword is speaking on a mobile phone because there is no telephone service in East Timor. She is in the office of the presidential home, a cluster of small bungalows at Balibur in the hills above the capital Dili, where she lives with Xanana, their two-year-old son Alexandre, and a variety of helpers, volunteers, bodyguards and houseguests. Much of the affairs of state are carried out here.

Although it wouldn't be untrue to describe 36-year-old Sword's life as a fairytale, the word - like her title First Lady - tends to conjure images far removed from the reality of life as the wife of the president of one of the world's smallest and poorest nations. The story is without doubt romantic. Sword, codenamed Ruby Blade, met and fell in love with her husband while working as an undercover agent (she hates the word spy) for the East Timorese resistance movement of which he was leader.

But the road to independence has cost East Timor. After almost 500 years of occupation by Portugal and a brief civil war the tiny country was invaded by Indonesia in 1975. In 24 years of Indonesian occupation a third of its people, more than 250,000, died from disease, starvation or violence. Then, in 1999, Dili was virtually destroyed by the burning, looting and massacres that followed the independence vote. As Sword says, her life is more daunting than glamorous.

"I'm sorry," says Sword, returning to our conversation. "Xanana was shoving something under my nose that needed to be done immediately. I can't even get half an hour quietly on the phone to myself." Her voice rings with mild exasperation.

Along with the more traditional roles, meeting-and-greeting and playing hostess to VIP guests, Sword carries a heavy workload. As well as lobbying the new government for financial support and official recognition for the office of first lady, an imprimatur she believes necessary if she is to do any good, she is the founder and head of the Alola Foundation. The foundation supports programs broadly described as women's issues. Sword is also her husband's principal, private, social and every other type of secretary. This, apparently, is the gruelling bit referred to on her T-shirt.

"Of course, I admire him tremendously." Her husband, the saint. "But I've worked closely with him for years, particularly when he was under house arrest (after being released from prison in Indonesia in 1999), and I've come to know where his weaknesses lie." Sword is laughing but you sense that at moments like these she could happily strangle the national hero.

"There are some aspects of the way he operates that don't suit him very well for the role of president. He is not a born manager and he has no notion of the importance of administration. Why would you when you spent 18 years in the bush? But I see all these other sides of him that other people don't see. Still, I suppose it would be somewhat odd living with a hero who didn't have a human side."

If Sword sounds a little weary, who could blame her. On top of her workload and the difficulties of living in a country with an average temperature in the 30s, without telephones, where the electricity is notoriously unreliable and where more than half the population lives in poverty, Sword is pregnant with her second child, due any day now.

Sword, like many others, has worked hard to help bring about freedom for her adopted country, but independence has not brought her personal freedom. In the same way that her husband is a reluctant president, she has taken on the role of first lady more out of duty than desire.

Given a choice, the Gusmaos would be living in rural East Timor painting, writing poetry, tending cows and growing pumpkins. "For many years we have had the prospect looming of Xanana becoming president and I guess we both accepted that we probably didn't have any choice in this whole matter of whether we take on these roles or not. Just as he feels ill-equipped to fulfil the role, so do I. But I guess nothing prepares you for the role of president or first lady of a nation."

Reluctant she may be, but now that she has committed herself to the job, Sword has every intention of being an active member of East Timor's new order. She is definitely more Hillary Clinton than Barbara Bush. "The needs are tremendous and I would like to think that I can respond in some way to the call to do something of a practical nature to help the people and alleviate poverty."

In an interview with the ABC's Australian Story earlier this year, in which Sword spoke about her undercover work for the first time, former freedom fighter and Nobel peace laureate Jose Ramos Horta, East Timor's new foreign minister, described her as indispensable to the resistance movement. She is, he said, "reliable, discreet, humble". "That woman is perfect." Others have called her a true heroine, but Sword scoffs at the idea.

"Basically, I was just responding to the needs I could see in front of me. I was not doing it to be a hero, I was doing it as a human being with a conscience. There is nothing heroic about responding when a group of people come to you and say, 'this is our story, can you help us?' Once I started to get involved there was tremendous gratification in actually being able to do something. It was a good feeling because I admire the East Timorese people tremendously."

Following the ABC program, Sword was criticised for admitting she had worked as a spy while employed by an aid agency, potentially endangering the lives and work of other such organisations and their staff around the world who are already viewed with suspicion by jittery foreign regimes.

"I think the use of the word spy is rather unfortunate. Working on human rights issues does not make you a spy. The program really did portray accurately the role I played and I think there was an overreaction by some people. Let's face it, any aid work is political and anyone who says that it's not is deceiving themselves and deceiving others.

"My employers at the Overseas Service Bureau knew the work I was doing and were extremely sympathetic. There was no deception happening. I was working on a contract basis, I was not a full-time, fully fledged staff member so I was not subject to the normal codes of conduct etc which apply to other aid workers. My employers weren't in breach of any code of ethics, nor was I. I was simply an individual who was concerned and acting on her conscience."

Just how a nice girl from the Melbourne suburb of Northcote turned into a spy - sorry, undercover agent - running secret messages under the noses of the Indonesian police and army, was, apparently, more accident than design.

Fluent in Indonesian after completing a degree at the University of Melbourne in the late 1980s, Sword went to Bali for a holiday and fell in love with the place, as she puts it. In 1991, she was approached by Yorkshire Television to work as a researcher and interpreter for a documentary they were making on East Timor.

Soon after leaving the country, the Dili massacre took place and many of those filmed for the documentary were killed. It affected Sword profoundly. "I basically packed up my bags and went to Jakarta."

As well as her work with the aid organisation, Sword taught English and used the money she earned to finance her clandestine activities, which mainly involved carrying communication for the resistance. "I was a bit of a bridge between the different elements of the resistance inside East Timor and in Indonesia. Often it was really rather menial, getting documents from one place to another and doing it safely. I moved into it gradually. It was after I made contact with Xanana and he asked me to do things for him, that I realised that I was in pretty deep. Up until that time I had taken it as a bit of a side interest. After that it really did became the main thing in my life. I was deeply involved in the resistance long before I actually met Xanana."

Xanana Gusmao had been arrested and imprisoned in Jakarta in 1992 after almost 18 years living and fighting in the bush. Sword did not meet him until 1994. In order to do so she arranged to visit an Australian in the jail who agreed to pretend he was her uncle. "I shook hands with Xanana and I had to pretend that I wasn't particularly interested in him."

They managed little more than polite conversation and what she calls "a small amount of intimacy, given the circumstances". It would be more than four years before she saw him again. "We had very regular communication via letter. Xanana is a very warm, open person who is very generous with his feelings and his emotions. He communicates very well through the written word and I guess I'm similar. We were able to get to know one another in a way that probably wouldn't have been possible if we were different personalities."

There were, however, times then, as now, when she wondered if all the sacrifices were worth the price. "Sometimes, particularly in the early '90s, it seemed very unlikely that East Timor was going to get its independence and it was quite a job to maintain motivation and spirit. But, like Xanana and the East Timorese people, I always believed so strongly in the justness of the cause. I believed in my heart of hearts that sooner or later the world would see the truth and see the light and that this moment would come about."

Few of Sword's friends were surprised that she fell in love with the dashing resistance leader. Although 20 years her senior, Gusmao's good looks are obvious and his charisma is legendary. Her mother, Rosalie, claims to have known before Sword was even aware of it herself.

Gusmao managed the resistance from prison for seven years and, once released in 1999, Sword became his secretary. At the time Gusmao was married. His wife of 28 years, Emilia Baptista, had moved to Australia with their two sons in 1990, two years before he was imprisoned. Gusmao divorced his wife after he was released and, in July 2000, married Sword. She gave birth to Alexandre two months later.

Sword is, without doubt, widely admired by the East Timorese, but not everyone is comfortable with a foreigner as first lady. She is aware of the mumblings but dismisses them as insignificant. "I'm sure I have my detractors, you always will in these situations. But I'm certainly not confronted by them on a daily basis and my experience is that people are warm and welcoming and very happy that I am engaged and committed to the same huge job that they are."

If the money for her job as first lady is not forthcoming, Sword will have more than enough on her hands with the Alola Foundation. "I don't think it is any more violent here than any other society and given the level of economic disadvantage and unemployment I think the East Timorese are doing really well. But obviously this is a country with a violent past and there are some dangerous precedents set because of the military dominance over such a long time. Unless you raise these issues and bring about a gradual change in the way women are viewed, you are never going to eradicate violence against women."

Sword was attacked and stabbed in the leg with a screwdriver about a year ago while walking down the street with her mother and Alexandre. Her bag was stolen and she required a trip to hospital to bandage the wound. "It was not politically motivated. There was a spate of attacks on foreigners at the time and I think it had a lot to do with the stage of political development. There was a feeling that the UN was here to stay and I think the Timorese people were feeling disempowered at many levels and some decided to take out their frustrations on internationals."

She hates the restriction on her life, but these days she has bodyguards. "They are a really wonderful bunch of people . I appreciate them very much but it took a lot of getting used to. I am a very independent person who values being able to be spontaneous. I like to jump in my car and drive to just clear my head but I can't do that any more. It's just a whole new way of approaching your life."

Sword, of course, knew she was marrying a man who would always belong to his people, and while she remains completely committed to her role as first lady, she admits she occasionally allows herself to dream. "We have fantasised in the last couple of years about what it could be like if he had managed to avoid this fate of being president. We would like to travel around East Timor as ordinary citizens, and paint and draw and write and indulge all those creative pursuits. Grow pumpkins. We have cows, but they don't actually live with us. They were donated to us and they are being cared for until such time as we find a plot of land." She is not kidding herself that it may be any time soon.


Sunday Telegraph Magazine(Sydney) August 18, 2002

In freedom's footsteps

We are in the back of an old Toyota Ute, heading for the hillside village of Ermera. It is only about 100km from the East Timorese capital, Dili, but the road is rough and winding. Wild dogs sleep by the warm road or run out in front of us as we dodge enormous potholes. I can just make out the coconut trees merging into coffee plantations, the bamboo huts becoming stone dwellings, as we climb higher towards the tallest mountain in Timor, Mt Ramalou.

It is dark when we arrive. Gas lanterns light tin sheds that double as market stalls where men gather to drink beer and chat. We are directed to a restaurant where a crowd is gathering to watch a Jackie Chan film. The Timorese are big fans of martial arts - the Falitil freedom fighters began as a martial arts group.

We are greeted like old friends and, with some prompting, strike up a conversation with Peter. Not yet 20, he has recently been made a police officer in the serious crimes unit of Dili, charged with bringing war criminals to justice. But he has trouble talking about his job and looks down as if ashamed when he explains he's trying to be re-assigned.

After dinner we are taken to an abandoned house to bunk for the night. Candle-lit, it is so dark I can barely make out the front steps. But in the following morning's soft light I find a gorgeous house with tiled floors, wooden shutters and a white, Portuguese-style exterior. It is hard to believe someone could leave this behind.

Then I recall a story I heard only a few days earlier. Maria, an East Timorese woman on her way home from Australia, told me of her sister-in-law who had her pregnant belly slashed, and the baby removed and killed in front of her. The stricken mother was left to bleed to death. Maria also lost her first husband. He remains one of the "disappeared" taken by the Indonesian militia but whose bodies are yet to be found. There are many such stories. Locals say Indonesian solders were paid $20 for every scalp. Fear was a part of life.

But today Ermera and its people are on top of the world. Their new President, Xanana Gusmao, has come to visit, touching every hand that is put in front of him, kissing every face. Teenagers hang out on the street till well after dark, free from the curfew that has plagued most of their lives. They whistle to each other, check out the talent. Couples on motorbikes fly the East Timorese flag from the handlebars. And we are moving on.

In Taci Tolu, closer to Dili, we hear that, despite the strict Roman Catholic upbringing, pre-marital sex is common among the young and there are fears of an AIDS epidemic. Safe sex is not considered an option when condoms cost money.

Many teens eschew the old ways. Marriage is not a priority. Some harbour the familiar Western dream of becoming rock stars. I meet an all-girl group, the Tony Pererra Band. The quintet learned music by ear and had been together for just a month before playing the "Big Gig" - the independence celebrations concert in May. They had boyfriends, but "maybe would marry them in three million years". "Before, when Indonesia was here, we couldn't play music, we couldn't do anything," one of the group said. "Now, we have had our Independence Day, we are free, we can do anything, go anywhere and everywhere."

We head for Los Polos, a mountain town in the north-east highlands. On the way, roadside stalls sell everything from rice in little cane baskets to pumpkins, melons and monkeys. And every village has a war memorial, the new flag taking pride of place above it.

The bridge into Los Polos is down, so we walk into town in search of its famed market and run into a gang of teenage boys.

With more than 50 per cent of the population illiterate, it's not surprising they're not at school. Girls, if they're lucky, can go in the afternoons - they must take care of younger siblings while their mothers work in the fields. Boys can go all day, but the trouble is keeping them there.

The boys of Los Polos - a town virtually destroyed by fighting - wear T-shirts emblazoned with images of Che Guevara, Kurt Cobain, Bob Marley, even Osama Bin Laden. Freedom fighters and rebels everywhere are heroes. One of the boys has a guitar and plays us some of his own songs, about a place in his heart for the right girl.

Throughout East Timor even very young boys keep roosters. The kings of the back yard, they herald a new day, make a nice meal or could be a prize fighter. Handfed corn and regularly groomed, they're encouraged to fight other roosters as training for big bouts.

When Timorese lived as tribes in forests, they were gifts from the Mother Earth and Father Star, the first star seen at night. The rooster started the day with its crowing, the buffalo held the tools needed for the day, the dog would show the way through the forest. Once the rooster crowed again, signifying the end of the working day, the dog would lead the way back to the campsite. If the rooster didn't crow in the morning, it was believed danger lay ahead, and the family would stay home.

Now, as refugees who fled in 1999 are forced to return, they discover a severe lack of infrastructure: food shortages, 80 per cent unemployment, regular blackouts, patchy phone lines and destroyed homes occupied by squatters. Land disputes choke the courts.

And as the world's focus shifts from East Timor, Western companies muscle in. The tiny nation's production of rice, corn and soybeans is almost completely organic, but foreign companies are offering inducements to buy fertilisers and genetically modified crops.

The last stands of native sandalwood were taken by the Indonesians when they left in 1999. Re-planting of the burnt-out plains could take years, but who will fund it when even basic health care is scarce? And how do you tell a man with six hungry children he should recycle?

With change comes opportunity and cost. However with careful planning this beautiful country could preserve its cultural heritage and resist fast-food chains and dumped Western products. It is now free to decide.

Back to 

Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from



make a pledge via credit card here

Bookmark and Share

Background | Take Action | News | Links | What You Can Do | Resources  | Contact

ETAN Store | Estafeta | ImagesHome | Timor Postings | Search | Site Index |