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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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."
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