Subject: HeraldSun: Interview with Kristy Sword Gusmao

Herald Sun May 25, 2002

The first lady

Kylie Hansen talks with the world's newest First Lady and traces Kirsty Sword's journey from Melbourne to Dili

KIRSTY Sword Gusmao, first lady of East Timor, lives teetering on the boundary between developed and developing world.

Born and raised in Melbourne, she lives in the hills overlooking Dili with her young son and her husband, East Timor's new president, Jose 'Xanana' Gusmao.

Her link to Australia is a mobile phone and an e-mail account, modern instruments that help her navigate a path through myriad new roles, played out against the rigours of life in Dili.

Her days see her balance life as mother, women's activist, wife of a president and one of his key advisers.

Sword is talking to Weekend magazine from her refuge -- the hillside retreat where she and Gusmao retire at night to grab some moments of privacy and peace.

"We are half an hour from town and moved here for a bit of privacy.

"We used to live in rented accommodation in the centre of Dili, but last November moved up here. It is luxurious from the point of view that it is in a cool area with fewer mosquitoes and slightly rural and clean and healthy with lovely views. I can concentrate here."

It is also there she finds she can add a sense of normality to the family's life.

"On an average day, I wake up and spend one and a half hours with my son Alexandre (19 months old), bathing him and trying to give him and me some normality in our lives."

W HILE she finds the history and nature of modern East Timor a wonderful education for her son, she does seek out time to offer him some sense of structure.

"East Timor is such a cultural melting pot that Alexandre is getting amazing exposures to different cultures. It is more about how I can offer him a degree of stability given the demands on our time."

She is learning to live with a very fluid notion of time.

After a morning with Alexandre, her days are spent juggling commitments to various local projects, dealing with international media and other public demands and continuing in her role as conduit to a still very under-resourced presidential husband.

"The dilemma I face is the same as that of women all over the world -- how to divide my time between family and the things outside the home that concern me," she says.

"I am continuing to play a role in Xanana's own work as he still does not have proper paid support staff. I still act as a kind of link to him and that is not likely to change for the next couple of months."

In fact, resources are still so slim, she says, that Xanana is running the country out of the hotel that functioned as his campaign headquarters.

Sword, 36, says the transition to First Lady has not been too difficult, as she had been playing that role in a de facto sense for some time.

The way her relationship developed with Gusmao is like something out of a movie -- filled with high drama and intense romance.

After studying at university in Melbourne, Sword moved to Jakarta, working as a teacher and later as an aid worker with Australian Volunteers International.

It was there she made contact with the East Timorese resistance movement, the leader of which was Gusmao, who was sitting in an Indonesian jail.

Sword became an underground link between Gusmao and the resistance soldiers. The couple's first meeting was while he was still in jail in December 1994. But she says she had developed feelings for him well before they actually met.

"I had already built up a strong impression of him as a person. I was very aware of the high regard in which he was held and admired him for his courage.

"I built that impression from exchanging correspondence and felt he seemed extremely humble and modest and open and a warm and humane person. So I confirmed all those impressions when I finally met him."

Their relationship continued once he was finally freed and they returned to East Timor to marry in the hills there in July 2000, surrounded by a small group of family and friends.

When she is not helping her husband, Sword officiates at functions and makes daily visits to the Alola Foundation "which grew out of a private concern for the plight of women in East Timor, especially victims of violence".

One area which she says hits home as a mother of one with another on the way (her second baby is due in August), is maternal and child health.

"I am concerned that East Timor has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world and many women have no access to health facilities while pregnant."

She has also shown she won't hold back from putting her name behind issues, even if they possibly renew political tensions. One such stand has been her campaign to highlight the case of teenage girls raped during the East Timor massacres.

SWORD estimates East Timor needs many more years of assistance to ensure what she calls the "experiment" works. And she realises this means lots of travel for her and Gusmao to keep their beloved country in the news. She is also aware it helps that she has strong links with Australia.

"At the moment, there is a huge amount of interest with independence celebrations, but the real challenge is to maintain that interest, given there are so many other conflicts around the globe which need donor dollars.

"So I do see my role as coming back to Australia regularly to raise awareness, as well as to countries like Portugal and around the region."

It's all a long way from a childhood in suburban Melbourne.

As a teenager, Sword says she dreamed of a career in journalism or film-making or even one of her first loves, ballet dancing.

Her parents, Rosalie and Brian, brought up a well-read daughter, and by university, she was keeping her options open and developing a strong interest in politics and development issues, particularly Indonesian affairs.

That led her to writing for a magazine called Inside Indonesia and later, to development work. Some time in this period, her development work began to overlap with her connections to the East Timorese resistance, a merger of roles that has drawn criticism, but that Sword says has been overstated.

She says Australian Volunteers International was "an inspirational place to work which broadened my horizons".

The experience with development work could not have prepared her better for her present role, she says. "Just being involved in briefing people and moving into a new culture was very useful."

While she is not sure when she will get back to Melbourne again, she did make a brief visit back in February to begin yet another project -- trying to write a book.

It gave her some time with her family, including brother Michael who runs a garden maintenance business on the Mornington Peninsula.

While her family was planning to visit during the Independence Day celebrations, Sword decided it would just be too hectic, and instead is looking forward to meeting them again later in the year.

By then, there will have been more time to settle in as First Lady.


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