The Australian wife of East Timor Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has spoken yesterday about how their home was surrounded by armed rebels minutes before her husband was attacked. Kirsty Sword Gusmao said armed men had surrounded their home on Monday morning while Xanana was out. She made her three children lie under the bed while the house was defended by a small local security contingent. As Sword Gusmao then tried to ring her husband, his own convoy came under attack. "I attempted to call Xanana at that point and got through to his driver, but it was right at the time his vehicle was being ambushed,” she said. “So I was hardly able to get the message through that we were in peril.”
While none of them were injured in the ambush, Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta remains in a critical condition in a Darwin hospital after a simultaneous attack. Rebel leader Alfredo Reinhado was killed in the attack on Ramos-Horta. A Timorese friendship group in Sword Gusmao’s native Bendigo in Victoria spoke of their shock of the attack. The Maubisse Friendship Community Committee raises money for the Maubisse community in East Timor’s central highlands, approximately 70km from Dili. Bendigo councillor and Maubisse committee member Wayne Gregson said “We’d had some contact with a senior bureaucrat from East Timor as recently as last week in Bendigo and he said he thought the situation was improving.” Sword Gusmao was due to visit Bendigo in April but that is now thought to be unlikely.
Born in Melbourne in 1966, Kirsty grew up in Bendigo in central Victoria. As a young girl, she seriously considered a ballet career. She abandoned this idea and studied languages (majoring in Indonesian and Italian) at Monash University in Melbourne. In 1985, while Kirsty Sword was at university, she started to mix with members of the Timorese resistance, even translating some of Xanana's letters. Her primary school headmaster father Brian taught Kirsty her first words of Indonesian when she was just four. Her family took great interest in Asia and politics and her mother Rosalie, also a teacher, marched against the Vietnam War. The family went on holidays to Bali and Jakarta. She told the Saturday Telegraph in 2003: “as a teenager I fell in love with Indonesia and was always saving up to go back,” she said.
Sword met Timorese student Joao at Monash. She said Joao "brought East Timor's sad story to life for me". Sword travelled to East Timor in 1990 on a mission to deliver materials to supporters of independence. On graduation, Kirsty and Joao migrated to England to work on the Refugee Studies Program at Oxford University. Sword landed a job at Yorkshire Television as a researcher on a documentary about the Timorese struggle for Independence. As it happens, the documentary makers were in Timor at a decisive moment and captured the massacre at Santa Cruz cemetery in the documentary they eventually called “Cold Blood”. Sword had returned to England before the massacre but had met many of those killed. The incident left a profound impression on the young woman.
In May 1992, she went to Jakarta to closer to the struggle. She supported herself in the Indonesian capital by teaching English. Five months later, she learned of the Dili arrest of the leader of the Timorese resistance Xanana Gusmao. Gusmao had led Falintil, "the national liberation army" in the mountains of East Timor since the Indonesian invasion in 1975. Imprisoned in Jakarta’s Cipinang jail, Gusmao had heard of Sword’s presence in Indonesia and asked for her help with the organisation.
The couple first met in 1994. Xanana was serving a twenty year sentence for subversion while Kirsty worked for the clandestine East Timorese independence movement in Jakarta. The pair started a romance using letters smuggled through prison bars. “There were many times when I questioned if I was being realistic,” Kirsty said of this time, 'as we could not put the relationship to the test.” But after she met him for the first time, they began to discuss marriage. They would have to be patient while Gusmao remained incarcerated.
While her fiancé languished in a Jakarta cell, Sword redoubled her efforts on behalf of Timorese independence. Her official role was development worker for an Australian aid agency, and an English teacher. However she led a double life on behalf of the clandestine independence movement. For her spywork, Sword adopted the pseudonym of Ruby Blade because, she said, “it sounded kind of Agatha Christie”.
Gusmao was released in 1999 after his nation voted for independence in a referendum. Xanana and Kirsty finally married in 2000 in a traditional Timorese wedding. Gusmao became the newly independent country’s first president two years later Kirsty Sword Gusmao became the country’s First Lady. She wrote her autobiography A Woman of Independence in 2003. "I had put my life on a parallel course with his and indeed that of East Timor" she wrote then. That parallel course could easily have run to a parallel end this week.