|Subject: SMH: East Timor's Excalibur
Received from Joyo Indonesia News
Sydney Morning Herald September 2, 2002
East Timor's Excalibur
photo: "I'd like a holiday house down by the beach. I'm still
Australian." ... Kirsty Sword with Xanana Gusmao and Alexandre in May
this year. Photo: Craig Abraham
Kirsty Sword was a resistance fighter who became the First Lady. Now
comes the hard part. Susan Wyndham profiles the wife of the East Timorese
When Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and Xanana Gusmao joined the
guerilla fight for his country's independence, Kirsty Sword was a
nine-year-old Melbourne schoolgirl learning ballet and Indonesian - her
first step towards becoming Ruby Blade, underground Resistance worker, and
Kirsty Sword Gusmao, First Lady of East Timor.
The bravery (a few call it irresponsibility) of her information
smuggling for the East Timorese and her romance by letter and phone with
an imprisoned Gusmao made the young Australian woman a textbook heroine.
"Her work for the East Timorese Resistance helped to change the
course of history," said Caroline Jones on ABC television as Gusmao
announced he would stand for president in last April's election. "She
was a fantastic undercover agent for us ... That woman is perfect,"
Jose Ramos Horta, now East Timor's Foreign Minister, said then. "She
is like a modern-day Nancy Wake - a true humanitarian who risked her life
on a day-to-day basis," says Sydney journalist Laura Demasi, who
interviewed her for a new book about outstanding Australian women, The
Sword says there's nothing heroic about her. An interview has to be
scheduled around breastfeeding her new baby - a brother to two-year-old
Alexandre - named Kay Olok after Gusmao's paternal grandfather. Her own
brother, a gardener on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula, is visiting and
there are other guests around as she talks to yet another journalist on
her mobile phone, the easiest way to communicate in a country with little
On Friday, Gusmao addressed his people on the achievements of the first
100 days of independence, and the many challenges that remain in
rebuilding the country. Twelve-hour days in his office leave him little
time for his wife and children at home in the hills outside Dili.
"It's hard balancing a role that demands so much from him as father
of a nation and also a family," says Sword, who at 36 is 20 years
younger than Gusmao. "But it helps keep things in perspective for him
to come home at the end of the day and be forced to watch Sesame Street
and see a new life and personality budding."
Although Sword is well aware she was not elected, she has used her
prominence for causes such as the Alola Foundation, founded last year to
help victims of sexual violence, and a UN-backed project on infant
mortality and women's death during childbirth. Before her own baby's
birth, her days were consumed with phone calls, letters and meetings with
women's groups, visiting foreign dignitaries and friends of East Timor.
"I end most days with a list of 10 messages that people want urgently
conveyed to Xanana."
Even on maternity leave, the demands continue. On the day we speak, a
request for help with school expenses has arrived from a girl in Dili, and
Sword is arranging delivery of 200 tables and chairs donated by her old
primary school in Bendigo. Oddly, that's where her interest in Indonesia,
and so East Timor, began.
The daughter of two Melbourne primary school teachers, Sword learned
her first few words of Indonesian from her father. When she was eight the
family moved to Bendigo, which had become a centre of Indonesian language
and culture thanks to several committed teachers. At Melbourne University
and then Monash, Sword majored in Indonesian studies and worked for Inside
Indonesia magazine, which often criticised the Soeharto regime.
She was "enchanted" by her first trip to Bali and Java in the
'80s but it wasn't until she returned with contacts among Indonesian
dissidents and East Timorese refugees that she began to realise the
country "wasn't all palm trees, gamelan music and papaya juice on the
Sword went to East Timor as researcher and translator on Cold Blood, an
English documentary that covered the "breaking point" in 1991
when a Portuguese parliamentary delegation was due to visit and prepare
for a referendum on independence. Witness to weeks of terror and
intimidation as the Indonesian military intervened, she interviewed
students, clergy and others desperate for a sympathetic listener.
While she was in England working on post-production, hundreds of East
Timorese, including people she had met, were massacred during a funeral
procession at Santa Cruz. That pushed her to move to Jakarta, where she
took part-time jobs teaching English and did voluntary work for
non-government organisations with ties to East Timor.
She is diplomatic about Australia's long support for Indonesia's
occupation of Timor. "It wasn't just a case of Australia preferring
to turn a blind eye to blatant human rights abuses but the whole
international community - anyone with a trade relationship with Indonesia.
At times it was frustrating. It wasn't possible to talk openly and you
were a bit of a leper working on things that were not favourable to the
"I had to be very careful but by nature I'm not someone who pushes
barrows. My close friends wouldn't classify me as politically driven. But
I was responding to a call from my conscience and I felt that as a white
foreigner I was in a position to do something, however small. It was
important for my personal development but for East Timor it was one small
contribution among many people."
Sword's quiet manner made her an ideal undercover agent. Even at
university she had been asked to translate papers from Gusmao for East
Timorese acquaintances. In Jakarta, she was seen as a valuable contact for
her sympathy, skills and access to email.
Despite the code name Ruby Blade, she says, "I wasn't doing
anything glamorous. I'd go to a five-star hotel to pass on a report to a
UN rapporteur or fax a letter from Xanana to Bill Clinton from the local
Gusmao, who was jailed for life in Jakarta in 1993, valued her
discretion and with her help was able to run the resistance from his cell.
"He was quite demanding as a boss, let's put it that way, starting
then and it hasn't really stopped. At times I wanted East Timor to go
away, just for a day or two," she says with a tired little laugh.
Their love grew out of a shared passion for East Timor and often made
Sword nervous. For a start, Gusmao was already married to an East Timorese
woman, with two children, though they had moved to Melbourne for safety
and had not seen him for years.
"At times I felt I was his way of living life vicariously,"
says Sword. "He saw prison as a necessary sacrifice for the struggle
but it was very difficult personally because he's extremely gregarious and
he loves nature and living life to the full and he was unable to do that
for seven years."
There was no certainty that Gusmao would ever be released but the
couple found a kind of intimacy through letters, tapes, photographs (the
first he saw was of her back) and a mobile phone she smuggled into his
cell in 1995 by bribing a warden. She sent him books and painting
materials, taught him English, and enjoyed his sense of humour.
"Sometimes we were on the phone to each other 10 times a day so it
was like living in the same house."
They first met at Christmas 1994, when Sword pretended to visit an
Australian "uncle" in the prison and was able to spend a little
time with Gusmao under the watch of wardens and prisoners. That was it for
another four years, when Soeharto's fall led to some relaxation of the
Meanwhile, Sword realised it was only time before her work was
discovered and she was thrown out of the country. After helping students
seek asylum with foreign embassies, and organising demonstrations that put
her in contact with possible pro-Indonesia collaborators, she also thought
her phone was tapped. So she went home to Melbourne but found her head
still full of East Timor and Gusmao.
When he was released into house arrest and then freed in 1999, Sword
returned to Jakarta and helped set up an office to assist Gusmao. Suddenly
she was organising political and diplomatic meetings, acting as
interpreter, preparing reports for foreign governments and hearing that,
as East Timor voted for independence, massacres had killed people such as
the nun who had been her guide there. "I lost six kilos and looked
like a stick," she says.
But the following year she and Gusmao married in Dili and she gave
birth to Alexandre. She is accepted as one of his family and has an expat
network, including friends from Melbourne who work in Dili. While she's
comfortable in the local culture, she has heard whisperings about the
"foreign" First Lady and was stabbed in a robbery last year. She
says, "I have by no means adopted all aspects of an East Timorese way
of life, practices and traditions. Many of them run counter to deeply held
beliefs I have, such as those relating to childbirth, health and
Australia could offer more to the scarred country in the way of
official assistance, she believes. "There's much more pledged to PNG
and others in the region. But at the community level I'm constantly
overwhelmed at the extent of the goodwill. My uncle in Maryborough, one of
the poorest towns in Victoria, called a meeting of people interested in
forming an East Timor friendship group and hundreds turned up."
Although Gusmao could be re-elected for a second five-year term, he has
long talked about his dream of growing pumpkins. Sword says firmly,
"I would prefer he stopped after five years. I hope our life could
become a little less intense: Xanana would like the farming life and for
me, I'd like a holiday house down by the beach. I'm still
The Ladies' Room: Stories Behind Some of Australia's Most Fascinating
Women by Laura Demasi is published by HarperCollins, $24.95.
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