Sun, 13 Jun 2004

Sword Gusmao recounts love affair with RI

David Kennedy, Contributor, Jakarta,

When Kirsty Sword Gusmao stepped off the plane from Dili this week to launch her autobiography in Jakarta, she must have given a little smile.

The Australian-born mother of two spent much of the 1990s in the Indonesian capital as an undercover activist for the East Timorese independence movement. She even changed her name to "Ruby Blade" in order to reenter the country when she was blacklisted by military intelligence.

On this occasion, however, she did not need to worry about being arrested by security forces. This time they were waiting to escort her as East Timor's first lady in a cavalcade to her hotel in Central Jakarta.

"It's quite emotional for me to come back and launch the book here," she said during an interview with The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.

"Most of the action of the story takes place in Jakarta and over many years of the involvement in the struggle, this has been a very important place for me politically and also at a personal level."

Sword Gusmao worked undercover here with human rights NGOs and the East Timorese resistance from 1992 to 1996, during the New Order regime of then president Suharto.

"Many of my closest allies and colleagues were Indonesian people and they will have a special understanding and appreciation of events. I hope that people will see in my book the story of a love affair with Indonesia which was very real to me."

Indeed while the book, A Woman of Independence, recounts the closing chapters of the East Timorese independence struggle and the birth of a new nation, it's also a vivid account of Sword Gusmao's dual life in the capital as she worked with Indonesian activists, East Timorese asylum seekers and as an English teacher.

Having studied Indonesian language and culture at Melbourne University, Sword Gusmao did not take long to adapt to local culture, even adopting the art of nongkrong -- the Indonesian habit of crouching down to chat in the street.

"It was my love of the Indonesian language and people which led me in the direction that I took. And you know, somewhat ironically, that love led me to my activism for East Timor," she explained.

"But I never felt that my aligning myself with East Timorese independence diminished my love for Indonesia and its people."

She saw the Indonesian people as victims of the same tyranny as the East Timorese: "My first few visits to Indonesia in the mid 1980s taught me that the enemy of East Timor -- oppression and military abuse of power -- was also the scourge of Indonesian society."

Sword Gusmao became involved in the East Timorese independence movement as a student activist in Melbourne during the 1980s and moved to Jakarta in 1992 to work clandestinely for the cause under the guise of teaching English. It was there she came into contact with her husband, Falantil guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao who was serving a seven-year sentence in Cipinang penitentiary in East Jakarta.

"I was very privileged to experience a lot of the key events that shaped a nation at close range, and I've tried to share that experience with readers," said the soft-spoken Sword Gusmao.

Her romance with the resistance leader blossomed through a regular flow of letters, cassettes, gifts and computer disks during the years before he was released to house arrest in 1999, and she became part of his close knit support staff.

Her story -- part romance, part intrigue -- deftly weaves in and out of personal and political events, culminating in her marriage to Xanana in 2000 and the independence celebrations for the world's newest nation two years later.

Despite having all the elements of a fairy tale, the romantic aspects of the story tend to fade into the background, eclipsed by the frenetic pace of events and the horror of the atrocities which unfold.

It vividly portrays one person's view of the human suffering caused by 24 years of military occupation and the final rampages of militias following the territory's vote for independence in 1999 that left more than a thousand people dead.

Sword Gusmao said the last four years have seen a painful process of readjustment for East Timor, emotionally, socially and economically.

"This is a nation that has been completely destroyed and is trying to rebuild itself in every sector from the ground up."

However, Sword Gusmao cites the huge welcome which crowds in Dili spontaneously gave then president Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid in 2000 and President Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2002 as positive examples of the East Timorese people's "tremendous political maturity" and will to move on.

The East Timorese Truth and Reconciliation Commission has, she said, provided a good opportunity to begin the healing process and draw a line under some of the less extreme cases of violence.

"I don't think anyone is advising the East Timorese to forget; but forgive yes, in the interests of the nation's stability and future security," said Sword Gusmao.

Often called the "Mother of the Nation" -- a daunting title, she said, for a 38 year old -- Sword Gusmao has nonetheless channeled her considerable energies into improving the plight of East Timorese women and children. She established the Alola foundation to defend women's rights in the face of what she termed "very patriarchal and discriminatory attitudes towards women".

The situation for families in Asia's poorest country is "like a pressure cooker" she explained, due to high unemployment, lack of adequate nutrition and the difficulties faced by ex-guerrilla fighters in readjusting to civilian life.

Her own family life receives little respite from the demands of her husband's job and her position as a "sort of a role model" working to defend the rights of East Timorese women.

In the closing pages of A Woman of Independence, she reflects on how the freedom of the nation ultimately led to a certain loss of freedom for its president and first lady.

"Getting time together as a family is extremely challenging," she said adding that "in the end you put more focus on the quality rather than the quantity of time you have together.

So what about finding time for a sequel to the book or a screenplay?

"When I finished this one I resolved not to do another for at least ten years," she said laughingly.

The making of a film, which she acknowledged would reach far more Indonesians and East Timorese, where illiteracy stands at 40 percent in the fledgling nation, is a distinct possibility as there have been a number of offers. At the moment the first lady is seeking advice on the matter.

"It wouldn't be for fame and glory but to get some more support from the country, both morally and financially," she said with characteristic modesty.

I-BOX: ----------------------------------------------------- A Woman of Independence, A Story of Love and the Birth of a New Nation Kirsty Sword Gusmao, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2003 320 pp Available from QB World Kemang, Jl Kemang Raya, No 17, South Jakarta Tel: (021) 7180818 -------------------------------------------------