Subject: The Age: Hail The Poet Warrior [portrait of Xanana Gusmao]

The Age [Melbourne] Saturday 30 October 1999

Hail the poet warrior


High on the mountain peaks of Timor

The grass grows

And warms the fractured bones

Of a fighter who fell.

Down on the grassy plains of Timor

A flower shows

And beautifies the bones

Of a fighter who fell.

Xanana Gusmao

THE POET warrior: in the mythology of resistance it is an alluring, enduring image. In truth it fits few. This one, though, seems true.

His camouflage uniform may be crisp and new, his nom de guerre stitched neatly over his right breast, the name of his remnant army, Falintil, on his left shoulder, but his reality is written in his face. He is coffee-brown, high-cheekboned and handsome. His wavy hair has been greyed by a quarter-century of battle and flight, hunger and hiding, jungle and jail. His eyes are dark, infinitely deep and inexpressibly sad.

He stands on the steps of a ruined Government House and, at last, talks to his people. Shouting, his usually soft voice husky with hurt: Viva Timor Loro'sae! Viva o Povo Maubere! - Long live East Timor! Long live the Maubere people! He talks of sacrifice and victory, rebuilding and, here among the wreckage, even of forgiving. "Today we finally find our liberation," he tells them. "Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, be happy."

Someone fails and gives a single, wrenching sob. It runs like a tremor through the crowd until all are in tears. And now Xanana weeps, too.

"I tell you this," says Jose Ramos Horta, his elegant comrade, who fought his lonely war of resistance living out of an overnight bag and tramping the world of diplomacy, "and I tell you frankly: this is the most extraordinary human being I have met in my life and I have met many, many great people."

HE WAS born Jose Alexandre Gusmao in the beautiful north-coast town of Manatuto. It was either the night of the 20th or the early morning of 21 June 1946. Either way, he recalls in his soon-to-be-published autobiography To Resist Is To Win, it was "in the scorching heat that ripens the rice".

His earliest memories are of seaside afternoons, "an earthen bowl of steaming chicken soup, with locust from the plains at harvest time, or with balchao, seafood preserves whose aroma of algae would waft even into a child's dreams, amid stories of crocodiles and shrieks of fright at the sticky touch of a dead octopus".

His father, Manuel, was a schoolteacher, the only son of a poor peasant family, but nevertheless an "assimilated Timorese" eager to sever the links between his children and "a barefoot culture". But already the rebel Xanana was being formed. As a boy he was repelled by the sight of shanghaied gangs of laborers and prisoners being whipped.

After four years of primary school, Gusmao was sent to the Our Lady of Fatima Jesuit seminary in Dare, in the hills above Dili. Popular, but less than diligent, and unhappy, he ran away at 16. For the next three years he worked in Dili and Manatuto, as a typographical designer, Portugese tutor, unpaid typist and fisherman while completing secondary school at nights. He grew bitter watching public service opportunities bypass him for "the children of bigwigs" and those who had thrown in their lot with the colonialists.

"Disenchanted, I took to gathering with like-minded friends, swelling the number of thinkers among the tintanas, those who spent their nights drinking red wine, and the frustrated," he wrote.

Ramos Horta remembers him dimly but differently from those days: "He was always a serious person, maybe too serious at times," he says, laughing.

"Whereas, in school I would run off to go swimming, or join with others in drinking ourselves to death in a pub, he never cut school, he never got drunk. While we would chase women he would behave like a priest."

In 1968 Gusmao began his army national service and the following year married Emilia Baptista. Back in the public service he became aware of a "chatting and grumbling" clandestine anti-colonial group, formed by a young urban elite including Ramos Horta. This was the beginning of Frente Revolucionara do Timor Leste Independente, or Fretilin.

In 1974, after a left-wing coup, Portugal began to decolonise East Timor. After living and working in Darwin for five months, Gusmao returned home in November. In May 1975, in spite of his elders' tears, he finally decided: "If I wanted to fight for my homeland, there was only one way to do so: to join Fretilin".

Fretilin had formed a short-lived coalition with the other pro-independence group UDT, but in August, after Fretilin won 55per cent of the vote in local elections, the UDT launched a full-scale coup. Savage fighting raged through Dili and Gusmao was briefly imprisoned. Fretilin's armed wing, Falintil, prevailed in the three-week civil war and took control of the territory. On 28November, Gusmao, now a journalist, filmed the low-key, almost fearful ceremony as Fretilin declared independence in the palace at Dili.

"If there was any joy, it was hidden in our hearts," he later wrote. "It was a treasure that was hard to share. On people's faces, fear, reflecting the seriousness of the situation, and nobody asked about the future."

It was just nine days in coming. On 7 November the Indonesians, who had been launching border incursions for months, invaded. Gusmao remembers being woken by the incessant rumbling of aircraft flying overhead. "What we witnessed throughout those days was pillage," he wrote. "Bombardment weapons vomited flames over Dili's hillsides, while cargo ships emptied the custom house of its contents."

As many as 2000 people were killed in Dili in those first days. Tens of thousands fled. "I saw no fear in their exhaustion. I saw resignation in their eyes and anguish that must have been torturing their souls ... but they smiled, as if that might somehow relieve their suffering."

Gusmao, like 20,000 Fretilin troops, retreated to the mountains. Emilia, their son, Nito, and baby daughter Zeni, were trapped in Dili. He would not see them for almost 20 years.

IT CAN BE said that he was reborn Key Rala Xanana Gusmao - the first two words in honor of his grandfather, the third, rooted in the middle syllable of his middle name, Alexandre - on Timor's "mountain of death", Matebian, at the end of 1978.

For the previous three years the Indonesians, with their US-supplied Bronco aircraft and napalm, had battered Falintil and the thousands of starving civilians it was protecting. Perhaps 100,000 people had already died and the resistance army was reduced to a few hundred guerrillas.

In December Falintil commander Nicolo Lobato was killed by Indonesian commandos and Fretilin's remnant leaders were hopelessly corralled on Matebian. Gusmao decided to take a handful of fatalukus, the most disciplined men, and try to break through the Indonesian cordon and reorganise.

For about two years the outside world heard nothing of them. But this, many observers believe, was the making of the warrior statesman the world now knows as Xanana. It was the beginning of his Long March.

"I think it was in that two-year period that he was transformed through crisis into a leader," says Sarah Niner, his Melbourne-based biographer and editor of To Resist Is To Win. "Until then he'd been a fairly junior military leader in the east, he certainly hadn't been part of the main leadership structure. But I get this impression of him being the last bomb there on Matebian ... he just looked around and thought `I'm the last one left'. That was the blackest period, they were the dark years. He says he cried every day."

Through 1979 and 1980 Xanana and the men who became known as the 50 fugitives from the east walked from village to village, dodging enemy strongholds, surviving on tubers, banana tree stalks and aibubur, a kind of eucalyptus, asking people whether to continue the struggle. The answer was emphatic: "The old people embraced me, weeping, and cried: `Son, carry on the fight! Never surrender. You are our only hope!"'

Niner says it was this knowledge of his people, and the 14 years in the mountains, that made Gusmao so confident this year's independence ballot would be overwhelmingly carried: "I think he was soaking up the pain of the people he came across. That's what I think is so interesting about him, this ability to take on their pain and in some way to tap into a sort of national consciousness."

Xanana set about rebuilding the resistance. He set up the clandestine support base and transformed Falintil into independent, mobile units. Critically, taking advantage of a six-month ceasefire, he began transforming Fretilin from a leftist group into a truly inclusive, nationalist movement through a policy of "national unity". Even the old enemies of the UDT were embraced.

This was Gusmao's great achievement, says Scott Burchill, a lecturer in international relations at Deakin University. His charisma was matched by discipline and organisational skills. "Simply by the presence of his personality he's been able to unite the resistance behind him into one structure and one leadership."

Adds Ramos Horta: "200,000 people had died and the country had been thoroughly destroyed. This is the country, this is the movement he inherited and he turned it into an incredible political force."

SUCH WAS the stature of Xanana that even after his betrayal and capture in Dili in November 1992, he was soon returned to the leadership.The independence struggle was renewed from his prison cell.

Imprisonment worked to his advantage. He became a focal point for the resistance and more accessible to the UN, foreign governments and human rights organisations. The world began to learn his name.

On his first visit to Jakarta in 1997, Nelson Mandela asked President Suharto for a meeting with his captive. Gusmao was not told until the last minute. He was told to get dressed and driven through the streets of Jakarta to the presidential guest house where he sat down to dinner with the world's other famous political prisoner.

Many have made the comparison with Mandela: both were freedom fighters, though Gusmao was far more intimately and dangerously involved in the armed struggle; both suffered the torment and isolation of prison. But mostly because both personify the power of forgiveness.

"Like Mandela he has no deep rancor in him about the Indonesians," says long-time Timor observer, Catholic Bishop Hilton Deakin. "He has every reason to hate them and all the destruction they've perpetrated on his people for 24 years and on the country. But he doesn't. I think he'd feel absolutely wretched about them, but he will not articulate any concept of revenge."

And like Mandela, Gusmao's sacrifice has cost him his family. After years of harassment in Dili, Emilia and the children fled to Melbourne in 1990. Nito, a student, says he and his sister have never really known their father. That has hurt them deeply.

"Of course he is a father to me, I carry his blood inside me, but I have also come to understand that he is also father to a lot of young Timorese that lost their own parents during these 24 years. I'm sure the time is coming for us to get to know him again."

This is the hopeful life that grows

>From life's release

The life that every woman knows

Who calls for peaceWith every waking breathBut not the peace of death

Throughout the peaks and plains of Timor

The life-blood flows

And animates the bones

Of the fighters who fell.

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