Selected postings from east-timor (reg.easttimor)

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 leader.

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 Ladies' Room.

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 infrastructure.

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 beach".

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 regime.

"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 telecommunications office."

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 rules.

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 superstition."

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 Australian."

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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