Subject: Guerillas in the midst ... Ex-guerilla's wife tells of struggle

Also: East Timor still fragile: first lady

Manly Daily (Australia)
November 4, 2003 Tuesday

Guerillas in the midst ... Ex-guerilla's wife tells of struggle; Campaign for justice

KIRSTY Sword Gusmao, the Australian-born first lady of the world's newest nation, once shared two of her husband's big dreams  for an independent East Timor then, when the long battle had been won, to settle down to a rural life growing pumpkins and breeding animals.

They achieved one, perhaps a little earlier than they dared hope, but will now have to wait a few more years before the other becomes possible.

A year and a half after her husband, Xanana Gusmao, was sworn in as East Timor's reluctant first president, the nearest they have come to it is the rural setting of a hillside village outside Dili which is the site of the presidential compound.

Last week, with roosters providing a background chorus, Sword Gusmao spoke about the remarkable turns her life had taken since she left Bendigo to study languages at Melbourne and later Monash universities.

Those turns have taken her from East Timorese resistance supporter to committed activist and, finally, undercover agent serving in Jakarta as the principal conduit for information smuggled between an imprisoned Xanana Gusmao and the outside world.

The 37-year-old mother of two young sons, who will be special guest at a function in Manly tomorrow night, has been described as a modern-day Nancy Wake and a true heroine because of her undercover work and the risks she took for the independence cause.

But those descriptions don't sit comfortably with her.

"I do feel uncomfortable about that, not through any false sense of modesty, just because I always considered that everything I did over the years was really just acting on my conscience and what I knew to be the truth about the situation in East Timor and I had always been told to stand up for just causes," she said.

But Sword Gusmao did consider it important to document that long period of struggle in the new nation's history, which she has now done with her autobiography, A Woman of Independence.

As well as describing the resistance activities, it also charts her love affair with the charismatic former guerilla leader, which grew and was sustained almost entirely through letters and later phone calls from his prison cell.

"I had wanted to record the story of my involvement in East Timor and the remarkable events that led up to independence for a long time, but the demands of my daily life are so tremendous that it seemed a little bit too self-indulgent to be spending time reflecting on the past and writing about it, so I kept putting it off," she said.

THE offer of a publishing contract was the impetus she needed to get started.

"The demands of the whole rebuilding process and the needs are just so overwhelming at present and there's just so much to be done that I think it's really salutary occasionally to stop and think back and count our blessings really," she said.

"We have to be thankful for what we have achieved already, which is basically getting rid of fear and oppression and intimidation and be grateful for the fact that people are no longer being 'disappeared' from their houses.

"There is no longer arbitrary detention and torture and massacres happening across the country. Hopefully my contribution to recording history will have the effect of reminding people of the struggle and what it took to get to where we are today."

No one associated with that struggle would have expected the next phase  reconstruction and the forging of a new nation  to be without enormous challenges but Sword Gusmao accepted her destiny was by then inextricably linked with that of Xanana and East Timor.

"I wasn't particularly happy about Xanana's decision to stand for the presidency, nor was he, but it was something that was demanded by the people so I guess you would say it was his destiny, therefore it was mine too," she said.

She had recognised very early in their relationship that it was never going to be easy  whether he remained in prison for the full 20 years of his sentence or was freed.

"I knew it was going to be a rocky road and it certainly has been," she said.

"Nowadays we are obviously living in freedom but there are huge needs to be met and big expectations of what Xanana is able to contribute to the process, and me as well."

She said living up to people's expectations had been one of the most difficult parts of the job and her new life.

"Obviously nothing prepares you for taking on a role of this magnitude  you can't do a course in how to become an effective first lady so I guess I have been learning as I go along, just as Xanana has been learning how to be a president and how people in government are learning how to govern and it's been a sharp learning curve for everybody."

Given East Timor's unique situation, there were no modern-day role models she could follow so she decided to shape the role of first lady for herself by taking hold of the issues close to her heart, which principally have revolved around women and their communities.

Two years ago she set up the Alola Foundation as a means of getting justice and support for East Timorese women who had been raped or had suffered other forms of violence, after being inspired by the story of young Juliana dos Santos.

The 15-year-old, known by the nickname Alola, saw her brother murdered by militia then was kidnapped by a militia leader and carted off to West Timor as a war prize. Despite efforts of her parents and representations to the United Nations, moves to bring her back to her family have been blocked by Indonesian authorities.

It is in the fight for justice and support for women where Sword Gusmao acknowledges she has had most influence in the shaping of policy and influencing her husband's priorities.

This leads to a discussion about the dynamics of the relationship between the former guerilla commander and leader of a patriarchal society and his strong and independent Australian-born wife.

"I think I'm probably one of the few people in Xanana's life who challenges him on some of his decisions and some of his attitudes because, having been the guerilla commander and now president, obviously he commands a great deal of authority and respect and often his word is taken as gospel," she said.

"That has probably been a bit difficult for him to accept, but on the whole I think he has benefited from the fact that I'm a very independently-minded person, as the country has. If I didn't feel passionately about a lot of the issues I am involved in I probably wouldn't have dedicated myself so fully to addressing those issues.

"I have always been an independently-minded person and I like to think those qualities are appreciated and encouraged. That's not to say it's not difficult at times and I do have to sometimes think twice about my approach to ensure that it is in line with the dominant culture, which is essentially a very patriarchal one here in East Timor."

Since she and her husband returned, Sword Gusmao has had to accept that the demands of his job mean having to share him with the nation and putting its needs ahead of her own. But this has become harder since her sons, Alexandre, 3, and 14-month-old Kay Olok have come along.

"I have had to accept that Xanana is father of the nation as well as father to his children and I have had to accept that he has very limited time to spend with them and with us as a family," she said.

"But I suppose I have always been aware of that need to sacrifice my own personal wishes and needs to the needs of the country, so I knew what I was getting into."

Not surprisingly Sword Gusmao won't be sorry when the president's five-year term comes to an end and says that he, too, is "very much counting on being able to retire at the end of his first mandate".

She knows there will be pressure on him to stand again, but says she hasn't felt the need yet to try to counter that push.

"I'm not sure I would have to do too much convincing, I think he's going to be very reluctant to put his hand up again," she said.

*  Kirsty Sword Gusmao will be speaking at Manly Art Gallery from 6.30pm tomorrow in conversation with former Manly MP Peter Macdonald, who previously served as medical co-ordinator for Timor Aid. Tickets are $30 with $10 going to the Alola Foundation. To book call organisers, Angus & Robertson Manly, on 9976 3188.


Manly Daily (Australia)
November 7, 2003 Friday

East Timor still fragile: first lady

JUST four years after the vote for independence in East Timor, the country's first lady, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, believes the country's peace is still too fragile to enter into the politics of the region.

The Melbourne-born wife of East Timor's first president, Xanana Gusmao, said she believed it was more appropriate to support West Papua and Aceh against the Indonesian military privately rather than publicly.

"I think it's all a question of timing," Sword Gusmao said at a launch of her book, A Woman of Independence, on Wednesday night at the Manly Art Gallery and Museum.

"I can't speak on behalf of the Government of East Timor but as a private citizen of East Timor I can say I have a great deal of sympathy for that cause and continue to follow it with great interest.

"(But) I think it would be very unwise for East Timor to put its neck out for causes like that in West Papua at present.

"The reality is that East Timor is newly independent. You could say its peace and that independence are somewhat fragile.

"It would be foolhardy in my view for the East Timorese to put in jeopardy the security and peace they fought so hard for and paid the ultimate price for, to express solidarity with a cause which I don't think would really make the difference between the winning and the losing of their struggle."

The Angus and Robertson Manly launch was one of only two Sydney events marking the release of Sword Gusmao's account of her life as East Timorese resistance supporter, activist and romance with the former guerilla leader Gusmao.

Interviewed by former Manly MP Peter Macdonald, who served as a medical co-ordinator for Timor Aid, the 37-year-old mother of two said she thought Australia's involvement with the US in the war against Iraq had more impact on Indonesian relations than support of East Timor.

"I think that today we are obviously living in a very different geopolitical situation than in '95 and the East Timor leadership see the importance of building a constructive new relationship with Indonesia based on shared values," she said.

"There are probably certain sections of the Indonesian community that will not easily forget what happened in East Timor and will continue to vent that and feel bitterness about it.

"But in terms of Australia's relationship with Indonesia I don't think the stance Australia took in relation to East Timor in 1999 would have long-term adverse effects.

"There are probably a lot of other factors which are far more decisive in shaping that relationship with Indonesia today."


Back to November menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu