=Subject: SMH: Xanana - "If it is my time to die, then I will die"
Date: Sat, 01 May 1999 08:59:53 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <fbp@igc.apc.org>

Received from Joyo Indonesian News:

Sydney Morning Herald 01/05/99

EAST TIMOR

"If it is my time to die, then I will die"

Militiamen have vowed to kill Timor's resistance leader but it will not stop him returning home, reports Louise Williams.

AFTER 17 years living hand to mouth on the run in the mountains, and almost seven more years in jail, the East Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmao believes he is now facing death.

With the landmark peace agreement due to be signed next week, and a United Nations team ready to move quickly into the troubled territory, Gusmao knows he will soon be going home.

"Manatuto", he says with affection, savouring the sound of the name of his dusty home town on the flat, dry coastal plains which slide into the brilliant turquoise sea along the northern coast of East Timor. That is where he would like to cast his vote on August 8 in the ballot which will secure the territory's future.

But the pro-Indonesian militia forces have promised "to fight to the death", even if Gusmao and his pro-independence followers win the UN-sponsored vote, and his name is at the top of the death lists being circulated around Dili. So deep are the wounds of the war that few doubt the willingness of shadowy forces within the Indonesian military and its intelligence wing to sabotage the peace process at any cost.

The triumphant return of Gusmao, considered a common criminal by much of Indonesia's political elite, to Dili will be a profound insult to much of the Indonesian military, who lost more than 1,000 men during the war.

"If it is my time to die, then I will die," he says bluntly, in the plain, white- washed living room of the Jakarta house where he is being kept under house arrest, two huge biblical paintings hovering over the lounge settee.

"The threat is real. I believe that because many people with less responsibility than me [in the independence movement] have been killed. Yes, I accept the threat; it is part of the risk of the job," he says, then laughs at his own dramatics, generously breaking the tension of the moment.

Gusmao is always laughing, but beneath his comical gestures and huge grin lie a deep sadness and a very serious man. The past few weeks, with the massacre of civilian refugees in Dili by pro-Indonesian militia forces, have carved new worry lines in his face, and created fears of more violence in the lead-up to the election.

"No, no, no, no," he says, "you never become numb to death. Every single death you feel some more of your own blood is being drained from your body. It is very, very difficult. We used to be more than 30,000 armed fighters and to see yourself reduced to 700 guerillas to face a very long war, it is very, very difficult.

"Sometimes we were walking over bodies on the forest floor, because there were so many bodies and we did not have time to bury them."

The Indonesian Government has consistently said that Gusmao could not be released before next week's peace deal, despite international pressure to free him to take part in the peace process. Now, diplomatic sources say, there is no real justification to keep him under house arrest.

But Indonesian Government sources said they feared for Gusmao's safety if he returned to the turmoil of his home territory now, and that he may be kept in his prison to cast his own ballot from behind bars on August 8. But, then, at the latest, he will go home.

"I just know from [Indonesian Foreign Minister] Mr Ali Alatas, that I will be part of the [peace] package. They haven't told me when I can go." But, he says, "from a psychological point of view, I haven't yet had time to think about how I will feel because there will be so many problems to deal with when they expel me from this house".

Right now, Gusmao is wrestling with an idea for another round of peace talks between the pro-independence factions and the pro-integration groups which led the massacre in Dili almost two weeks ago.

These days, the 53-year-old guerilla leader lives something like a caged diplomat, with a couple of assistants juggling mobile phones to set his heavy daily schedule of appointments within his prison home. In the small living room the steady steam of officials, foreign politicians and diplomats rotate, Gusmao changing in and out of his suits and ties as affords the occasion.

Today, he says, he is practising his English. An assistant sits nearby prompting him to speak up louder and so he carefully pronounces "from the jungle", mimicking a Berlitz taped English lesson and laughing.

Switching into Bahasa Indonesia, he laughs again: "I learned my Indonesian from the gang members in Cipinang [Indonesia's maximum security jail], so it is also very lousy."

How Gusmao came to lead the Falintil movement, the armed wing of Fretilin, was almost a matter of fate. Born into an elite family in Manatuto, he was part of the small minority of East Timorese who were educated under Portuguese colonial rule, and later worked for the colonial government. Portugal did not provide education for all, so the educated elite naturally rose to positions of leadership in the power vacuum they left behind.

When the Portuguese left in 1974, Gusmao became a member of the Fretilin movement, which briefly seized independence before the Indonesian military invasion of 1975.

For almost three years Gusmao, the guerilla forces of Falintil and tens of thousands of their supporters lived on Timor's Mate Bean, "mountain of death".

In 1978, the leadership of the movement asked the civilians to surrender, knowing many would be killed. The most educated people with positions of responsibility, says Gusmao, were the first to be killed when they came down from the mountains.

Then, the leadership split up. Gusmao was assigned to the eastern zone. His seniors went to the central region where all but one of them, Mahuno, was killed, leaving Gusmao virtually alone to lead the remnants of the guerilla army. It was Mahuno who took his place when Gusmao was captured in 1992, and of all the men who have led Falintil since 1975 only Gusmao, Mahuno and the current commander, Taur Matan Ruak, have survived.

Three years later, Gusmao stood crying over the dead bodies of three of his best commanders. His guerillas had moved from one zone to another and did not yet know the terrain. In six months three companies, at least 120 fighters, were killed, he says.

"I was standing crying and my soldiers came to me and said: 'Don't cry for the dead, take care of those who are still alive'."

East Timor is a deeply Catholic society, but Gusmao does not look up at the religious pictures on his walls. Instead, he says, it is the support of his people which has given him the strength to go on, reaching back into the socialist roots of the Fretilin movement.

But he is not ready to blame those who have taken an easier path.

For the future, Gusmao says, he has many, many dreams. His list is long and visionary and peppered with words like democracy, justice and harmonious development.

So again, he breaks the tension, and laughs.

"I might be dreaming too much?" he asks, rhetorically. "But, I know this will be very difficult and I don't think I will see this in my own lifetime, but all that I can contribute will be aimed in that direction."

Back to May Menu
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu
June '98 through February '99