Subject: IPS: ET First Lady's Vision of a Better Life for Kids


March 31, 2005 6:44pm English IPS News

by Alecia D. McKenzie

SIEM REAP, Cambodia, Mar. 31, 2005 (IPS/GIN) -- The first lady of the world's newest nation, East Timor, is sitting in the audience of an international meeting, listening to the prime minister of Cambodia give an impassioned speech. In her arms she cradles a cherubic-looking baby, who smiles frequently.

As Prime Minister Hun Sen raises his voice to make a point, he is accompanied by a few gurgling noises, which come from the first lady's son, four-month-old Daniel.

A few people look around and smile at mother and baby, while the first lady strokes the infant's head. The two cut a striking figure.

"This is a meeting about children, so I thought it wouldn't be out of place to have Daniel with me," said Kirsty Sword Gusm o, in an interview later. She was in Siem Reap to attend the March 23-25 Seventh East Asia and Pacific Ministerial Consultation on children, a two-yearly meeting sponsored by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and hosted this year by Cambodia.

She was here not only as the wife of President Jose Alexandre Gusm o, the 58-year-old former resistance leader known popularly as Xanana, but also as director of the Alola Foundation -- a non-governmental organisation she started in 2001, which deals with issues related to women and, by extension, children.

East Timor became independent from Indonesia only in May 2002, after a bloody conflict, and it is now trying to learn from the "experiences and challenges of other countries," Sword said.

"We want to put the issue of children squarely on the agenda," she added. "They are among those who were most affected by the conflict and they can be easily swallowed up as we move forward with development."

And there is a long way to go for the tiny new country. After being under Portuguese rule for almost 500 years, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975. During the next 24 years of occupation, more than 250,000 people (a third of the population) died from various causes, including starvation and murder, according to various sources.

In 1999, the East Timorese voted for independence in a U.N.-sponsored referendum, and pro-Jakarta militias subsequently went on the rampage, virtually destroying the capital Dili. Many children died in the violence.

At the Ministerial Consultation (MINCON) in Siem Reap, the official East Timorese delegation included several young people, taking part in a UNICEF forum. One of them, 14-year-old Dahlia Maria Pereira das Regras, looked at her Indonesian counterparts and said, "We don't feel any anger towards them. We have to work together to find solutions for all of us."

Commenting on the young East Timorese delegates, Sword said, "They are very inspirational. We are so proud of them." She and her husband have three children, including baby Daniel, the youngest "participant" at the MINCON.

At first glance, Sword seems an unlikely representative of East Timor. Born in Australia, the 38-year-old author and activist stands out in Asian-Pacific gatherings. But by most accounts, she has earned the right to speak on behalf of her adopted country.

Her story is a romantic, intriguing one, and the book she has written about her life - 'A Woman of Independence' - would make a good film. One can already see Nicole Kidman in the lead role.

Sword, who studied Indonesian at the University of Melbourne, first went to East Timor in 1991 as a researcher and interpreter for a documentary-making television crew. Soon after they left, the Santa Cruz massacre took place in Dili, where Indonesian troops killed more than 200 young people, including many of those featured in the documentary 'In Cold Blood' by British cameraman Max Stahl.

Xanana, who was leading the East Timorese guerrilla fighters at the time was arrested by the Indonesian military in November 1992. In May 1993, he was sentenced to life imprisonment by an Indonesian court.

Meanwhile Sword had moved to Jakarta almost immediately following the massacre, determined to help out the East Timorese resistance movement. She got a job with an aid organization and also taught English, using the money to fund her undercover activities which included passing messages among members of the resistance groupings. The movement's leader was Xanana, who was now serving time in a Jakarta jail.

"I was a bit of a bridge between the different elements of the resistance inside East Timor and in Indonesia," she has told one newspaper.

"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," she said.

"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."

She met Xanana in 1994, and they married in 2000, a year after his release from prison and after his divorce from his first wife, who had been living in Australia with their two children since 1989.

East Timor became independent in May 2002, and since then, Sword has been trying to find the right role and voice for herself.

"There's very little of a proscribed role for a first lady in East Timor," she acknowledged. "It's up to me to create the role."

The establishment of the Alola Foundation, she said, was a means of pursuing the issues that are important to her. The organisation started out with a focus on gender-based violence, which has been a big problem in the country, but now also works to improve maternal and child health as well as to promote the handicrafts industry.

"Tremendous expectations exist of East Timorese women and their ability to contribute to the social and economic life of their families and communities and yet they are accorded little acknowledgment and granted very little power in public and political life," Sword has written on her organisation's website. "I set up the Alola Foundation in response to the great needs of East Timorese women and their families because I believe that my situation affords me the profile and opportunity to do something concrete."

"There is so much still to be done in East Timor to restore the most basic services. Every area is a priority, the renewal of one sector depending on the recovery of another," her message continued.

"The needs of the people are overwhelming and Xanana and I grapple with them at a very personal level each day. Most days we have little time to enjoy one another's company or that of our...boys. Nevertheless, I believe that having young kids in our circumstances helps to keep us grounded and focused on the future."

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