Love and revolution (Kirsty Sword Gusmao)
Brave words from E Timor review of Woman of
Independence in Mercury (Australia)
November 8, 2003 Saturday
Love and revolution
There's little pomp and privilege for the First Lady of one of the world's
newest nations, writes Sandra McLean
DURING East Timor's independence struggle, few men were more revered than
Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the resistance movement.
Gusmao was like a god to his people -- now he is the president of East
Timor, which was declared an independent nation in 2002 after 27 years of
But there were times during those days of struggle and subterfuge when
Gusmao was shouted at and ignored by a young Australian woman from Bendigo.
Kirsty Sword Gusmao didn't want to argue with Gusmao. In fact, she loved
him. However, unlike Xanana, who had lived in the jungle and forsook his
own family to fight for East Timor's rights, she had no experience of the
commitment, sacrifice and stamina needed to free a country and its people.
In her newly published book, A Woman of Independence, Sword Gusmao reveals
how hard it was to share Xanana with East Timor.
For years, she led a strange existence, punctuated by danger, secret
missions and contrast. There'd be a lovers' tiff in the middle of
organising complex communications about East Timorese operatives. An organ
recital followed by a phone call from an imprisoned and grumpy guerilla
Sword Gusmao writes how she went to a music recital with her mother in
Ballarat, to arrive back to her flat to find a message from Xanana,
"glumly" requesting that she contact an East Timorese associate and ask
him to pass on three million rupiah to a former bodyguard of his who was
in need of an operation to remove a bullet.
The night before she had returned home to find five messages from Xanana
on her answering machine. Five years earlier they had declared their love
for each other.
"He was clearly irritated and curious about my reasons for being out so
late," she writes. The conversation ended badly when she told him that
just because she had decided to spend an evening doing something other
than thinking or writing about East Timor, didn't mean she was having a
Four years later, living in a newly independent East Timor, Sword Gusmao
accepts hers will never be a pedestrian existence.
She married Xanana in 2000 and the couple has two children, Alexandre, 3,
and Kay Olok, 1. They live on the outskirts of Dili, East Timor's capital,
in a house she describes as "hardly presidential".
Certainly, one didn't expect to hear a chicken clucking in the background
of a conversation with a First Lady.
"It is not the life you would imagine for a head of state," Sword Gusmao
says. "But the reality is that East Timor is the poorest country in
There are frequent blackouts and Sword Gusmao warns that at any time our
phone call could be interrupted. She has just recovered from a bout of
malaria. Her two young children also contracted the disease.
Xanana is overseas on presidential business. He is frequently away from
the family. Sword Gusmao says finding time together is a battle, although
she did manage to convince Xanana to occasionally watch The Wiggles with
"Now he watches soccer to wind down," she says. "We have very little
private time as a family and that presents challenges and stresses. All
modern relationships have that element to them and I suppose it is a
question of degrees.
"We just have to fight that little bit harder to carve out that time and
space as a family."
There are other challenges for Sword Gusmao -- whenever she steps out the
front door, bodyguards go with her. Also, although she has a busy agenda
representing East Timor, her position as First Lady is not officially
recognised -- the country can't afford it.
Kirsty Sword's life-changing journey began when she was a 24-year-old
student visiting Timor. Her interest increased when she became a student
of Indonesian studies at Melbourne University. In the late 1980s, she
worked as a volunteer for Inside Indonesia magazine reporting on human
rights, the role of the Indonesian armed forces, or ABRI, and the plight
of minority groups.
Through a broad network of Australian and Indonesian friends she learnt
about the socio-political life of Indonesia and the facts regarding the
country's invasion of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, in 1975.
"Indonesia and Indonesians were never the enemy," Sword Gusmao writes in
her book. "The enemy was repression and ignorance, including the ignorance
of our own Australian community about conditions in Indonesian society."
In 1992, she moved to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, to teach. Her work
for the East Timorese independence cause intensified and she ultimately
came in contact with the charismatic Falantil guerilla leader Xanana
Gusmao, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence.
By then she had a pseudonym, Ruby Blade, which she used to identify
herself in written communications with political prisoners and supporters
of East Timor.
This was later changed, on Xanana's suggestion, to Mukya, a word in the
Fataluku language of Los Palos, meaning fragrant. Sword Gusmao should have
known then that the guerilla leader, when it came to his attractive
English teacher, had more than grammar on his mind.
Sword Gusmao introduced Xanana to e-mail, which he described as her
"sophisticated weapon", and over the next few years it became a vital mode
of communication between the imprisoned leader and key independence
fighters such as Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor's diplomat in exile.
Xanana's letters and the daily business of the struggle for independence
became an integral part of Sword Gusmao's life. The pair finally met in
Cipinang prison in 1994.
The couple's romance is almost a case of fact being stranger than fiction
-- a charismatic guerilla fighter falls in love with a young female
Even so, she says she did not want their love story to overwhelm A Woman
of Independence, a testament to those who have struggled for the Timorese
"My involvement with East Timor predates my involvement with Xanana," she
However, Sword Gusmao wasn't spared East Timor's pain -- her father was
killed by militia. A young nun who befriended her, Sister Celeste Carvalho,
also became a victim.
A Woman of Independence, by Kirsty Sword Gusmao. (Pan, $30). Kirsty Sword
Gusmao will speak at a Mary Ryan's literary lunch on November 13 at the
Conrad Treasury Hotel.
The Mercury (Australia)
December 13, 2003 Saturday
Brave words from E Timor
A Woman of Independence
By Kirsty Sword Gusmao
Macmillan Australia, $30
KIRSTY Sword is a Melbourne languages student and human rights activist
who has devoted more than 10 years of her life to helping the people of
When she began her volunteer work she never dreamed she would end up
the First Lady of the poorest nation in Asia.
Now married to the charismatic freedom fighter and president of East
Timor, Xanana Gusmao, she spent years in a difficult and often dangerous
battle to help the East Timorese resistance.
Armed with a computer and an ability to speak many languages, she
worked as an undercover activist to support East Timor's fight for
independence from Indonesia, which invaded its tiny neighbour in 1975 and
sparked a bloody battle which claimed more than 200,000 lives.
In this autobiography, Sword Gusmao details her work in the Indonesian
capital of Jakarta.
She also tells of her love affair with the man who went on to become
the president of the world's newest independent nation.
Through letters, paintings and gifts smuggled in and out of an
Indonesian jail where Gusmao was imprisoned for more than seven years, the
pair developed a relationship which overcame significant age, cultural and
In this honest and plainly-written book, she tells how she stayed one
step ahead of Indonesian intelligence outfit and also explains the
incredible frustrations of loving a man who was detained as a political
She paints in the heartbreaking scenes that were played out when East
Timor voted for independence in 1999 and was then subjected to appalling
acts of militia violence which left the capital Dili in ruins and
As East Timor, known locally as Timor-Leste, works to rebuild after
years of occupation, Sword Gusmao works alongside her husband. She has no
personal assistant or secretary and as First Lady of the country and the
mother of two small children she manages a heavy workload.
"At the end of each exhausting day it is my children who affirm my
knowledge that every sacrifice involved in marrying the father of a nation
was a sacrifice worth making," she writes.
"After all, they embody all the hope, promise and potential that is our
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