East Timor’s first couple: from rebels to royals

DILI – He was a political prisoner. She was an activist. Together they sought to end the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Now Xanana Gusmao is free and president of the worlds newest nation while Kirsty Sword is his wife and the countrys First Lady. They talk to Jakarta News Editor Samantha Brown about how they made the transition from rebels to East Timor’s equivalent of royals.
When East Timorese guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao languished in an Indonesian jail, Australian activist and English teacher Kirsty Sword was a crucial link to his fighters and the outside world.

Sword helped smuggle illicit letters and tapes — along with paints and brushes that allowed the charismatic poet-warrior to pursue an art passion — and through their own correspondence, the pair began an unconventional love affair.

Today, Gusmao is president of the world’s youngest nation, which was freed from the shackles of Indonesian occupation four years ago, and he jokingly complains that his wife gets home from work later than he does.

At his sparsely decorated office in an unlikely beige bungalow in beach-swept Dili, trim-bearded Gusmao shrugs off the significance of his place at the helm of East Timor.

"I feel myself I’m still an ordinary person. The fact of being president is only a duty, a job," he says of his largely ceremonial position, speaking in Portuguese-accented English, the language taught to him by his wife.

His wife, Sword Gusmao, has taken a break from her hectic schedule as founding director of the Alola Foundation, a women’s advocacy organisation, to join him, and similarly plays down her role in the former Portuguese colony.

East Timor has no budget or office for its First Lady — despite Sword Gusmao lobbying hard to get both in 2002 — but she concedes considerable expectations do come with being married to Gusmao from the East Timorese.

"Essentially you’re the mother of the nation — I mean that’s what people have said to me, which is a scary thing when you’re finding it difficult to be a mother to three children, let alone to a whole nation," the 40-year-old says, referring to the Gusmaos’ three young sons.

Despite their modesty, the unassuming couple, who trade playful banter while also ending each other’s sentences, have travelled an arduous road both to be in their marriage and their "ordinary" jobs today in East Timor.

Indonesia’s iron grip on East Timor, today Asia’s poorest nation, began with a United States and Australia-condoned invasion in 1975, which triggered a resistance movement that Gusmao, who turns 60 this year, quickly came to lead.

The independence movement had become active "even before the war" when Dili fell under Lisbon’s rule, Gusmao points out, but the toughest times came when he spent his years in the jungle with his men, "when we were a handful of guerrillas and we tried to tell ourselves that we would win".

Gusmao achieved legendary status among his men and ordinary East Timorese in the ensuing decades when with few resources they battled Indonesia’s military from East Timor’s rugged hills and proved a constant thorn in their side with small-scale attacks, forcing them to be deployed right across the territory.

He was eventually captured by the Indonesian military in 1992 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, where he painted, wrote poetry and continued to help the resistance through a clandestine network with tentacles in Jakarta.

Melbourne-born Sword Gusmao, who studied Indonesian and Italian at university in her home town — where "like most young Australians" she says she first became politicised — first travelled to East Timor in 1991 as a researcher and interpreter.

Soon afterwards she based herself in Jakarta, where she worked as a teacher and began clandestine work for the East Timorese resistance.

In April 1994, she received her first letter from incarcerated Gusmao — addressed to ‘Ruby Blade’, her pseudonym — that led to an unconventional courtship of smuggled letters and tapes, and eventually brief face-to-face prison encounters.

But in her book, Sword Gusmao describes receiving the first letter where Gusmao told her he loved her.

"I smiled to myself, feeling my cheeks flush red with the blood of pure happiness. Xanana Gusmao in love with ME? Disbelief, relief and a dull ache of longing competed for space in my brain."

They were not freely united until Gusmao was released from house arrest on September 7, 1999, three days after it was announced that more than three-quarters of the East Timorese had voted for independence in a UN-backed referendum sanctioned by Jakarta.

The result unleashed a murderous wave of violence across East Timor by the Indonesian military and the militias they backed. Some 1,400 people were murdered and 70 percent of East Timor’s buildings destroyed before order began to be restored by a UN-led force.

The couple arrived in East Timor in October 1999 to begin their new life among the rubble after whirlwind diplomatic trips to Australia, the United States and Portugal teasing out the details of what independence would mean.

"Together we have faced many new challenges," Gusmao recalls of their homecoming to East Timor.

"Just imagine the destruction, not only the physical destruction but mental trauma, psychological feelings. And she was what actually I needed at that time — my lover, my assistant, my everything," he recalls.

"Everything back in 2000 because we didn’t have anything!" pony-tailed Sword Gusmao interrupts. "It was multi-tasking at every level because there was no infrastructure, no human resources, no money, nothing."

"Nothing," Gusmao echoes. "She with a pair of clothes, and me with another pair of clothes…"

"… moving every month from house to house living out of suitcases," she completes the picture.

After a period of United Nations stewardship, East Timor finally became the world’s newest nation on May 20, 2002. A month earlier, Gusmao had been overwhelmingly elected as president, eschewing the pumpkin farming he had long said he wanted to take up in peace time.

Sword Gusmao says that their lives today now have a greater semblance of normality than back during the transitional phase.

"But to some extent also, not much has changed," she says, referring to the many competing demands on her husband’s time.

"I suppose I’ve come, within myself, to terms with that more and I accept it more and it doesn’t cause me as much anxiety as it did back in 2000."

Asked about what might cause strain in their high-profile relationship these days, Sword Gusmao is pleased to say things are much easier now she is not effectively acting as his unpaid personal assistant.

"There’s not so much that annoys me about him any more because I don’t have to work with him directly!" she exlaims.

Gusmao’s complaint these days is that his wife often works longer hours than he does.

"Sometimes I arrive at home at seven and she…

"And I’m not at home yet!" she finishes, as they both laugh.

But she adds: "I suppose still he’s very unable to say no to people, which is both a good and a bad quality."

In her 2003 autobiography about their relationship and move to East Timor, Sword Gusmao tells of her minor frustration over him falling asleep in front of the television watching late night soccer matches.

"Oh, he still does," she says. "And this is something actually that’s quite annoying, watching the soccer."

For Gusmao — and East Timor as a nation — however, soccer is "very, very important", he says, gesturing to an array of gleaming silver cups nestled on a bureau won by the national under-12 team.

"You know, soccer is something that brings together people. The last world cup in Korea and Japan, it could be called a peace gathering," he says.

East Timor’s team is struggling on the international circuit but, Gusmao says, "maybe in the next five years we can have a team to be proud of, a team that raises our flag in other places of the world."

As Gusmao has transitioned from being a rebel to a statesman, a recurring theme in his work has been — like South African leader Nelson Mandela who visited him while he was in prison — reconciliation and forgiveness.

The stance has earned him some criticism from activists who argue East Timor must see those responsible for the bloodshed during Indonesia’s occupation brought to justice.

A recent independent report found that at least 102,800 Timorese died as a result of the occupation, mostly of hunger and illness that resulted from policies of the Indonesian military.

Forgiveness "is important, because nobody paid us to fight for our ideas," he says. "Because we needed to be independent, we accepted all sacrifices."

He argues that looking backwards will not appropriately honour those who suffered and that justice has already been achieved with independence itself.

"The real big, great justice that we achieved was the international community recognising finally our right to self-determination," he says, adding that a Joint Commission on Truth and Friendship set up with Indonesia should provide catharsis.

"The justice that we wanted to establish is by revealing the truth," he says. Those who committed crimes "must acknowledge that it happened, and of course I believe they must apologise".

Still, progress over the past four years has been "extraordinary" in the half-island nation, he argues.

"People now accept each other. What people demand is to get jobs, to get better conditions of life."

Meanwhile for Sword Gusmao, the shift from being an activist who spoke out on such issues as Indonesia’s independence-minded Papua province to a First Lady could not have been easy.

"It’s a lot of weighing up of the value of speaking out on things as opposed to the damage that it might cause," she explains of her position.

As for the future careers of their three sons, Gusmao is certain he would prefer not to see them become politicians.

"Oh no!" he exclaims when confronted with the suggestion. "Soccer players. Or tennis players. Or businessmen — to get money!"

Sword Gusmao says it will be up to them to follow their hearts’ desire but adds: "I think it may be difficult, having the life that they have and the father that they have, that at least one of them doesn’t go into politics."

Gusmao’s presidency wraps up in May next year, five years after East Timor was born, and he insists he will not run again.

"How can I be a pumpkin farmer if I run again?" he asks.

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