Kirsty Sword Gusmao
Human rights activist and former First Lady to East Timor
1, Winter 2004
2004 was the year that Dumbo Feather first launched. It was also the year in which Kirsty Sword Gusmao released her autobiography, A Woman of Independence. In our inaugural issue Kate Bezar interviewed Kirsty, who was at that time the First Lady of East Timor. Over a dodgy mobile phone connection, Kirsty and Kate covered some amazing territory, revealing Kirsty’s enduring passion for the rights of East Timorese people and her fascinating history as a human rights activist.
An unconventional First Lady and an incredibly unconventional life – Kirsty Sword Gusmao – originally from Melbourne, played a pivotal role in the struggle for East Timor’s independence and continues to fight for human rights.
DUMBO FEATHER: You’ve got a cup of coffee?
KIRSTY SWORD GUSMAO: Better now, I’ve got a coffee in front of me!
Has it been a big day?
Yeah, a fairly typical one, I had to go to the local preschool here in Balibar where we live to convene a meeting and sort out a few management problems, and then to a street kids’ lunch which was really fun.
No it was actually a celebration of their patron saint’s name day I think. I think that’s what it was. They’d invited Jose Ramos-Horta [recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize and current president of East Timor] to be present, but he’s overseas, so he’d asked me to stand in his place. Anyway, it was great, it was lovely, it was a group of East Timorese youth who manage this centre for street kids, so inspiring.
I’ve read your autobiography, and I absolutely adored every second of it – you’ve got the most amazing story.
Yes, it is pretty amazing. I’d wanted to write the story for a long time but of course with the daily demands on my time and energy, it was one of the things that I kept putting on the back-burner, so when Pan Macmillan approached me to see if I would write a book for them, I thought well this is a way of tying myself down and making me make the commitment! So I did, and of course, I didn’t meet the original deadline because I fell pregnant with my second son in the meantime – and there’s no better excuse than that! So I had to extend it somewhat, and yes, it was a challenge, it was a challenge to make the time, and create the space to do it, but I’m certainly glad that I did. I guess another motivation was really to record the story for my kids – for them to know a part of their country’s history that they haven’t been a part of, that they don’t know, and won’t know.
Absolutely, they’ll grow up in quite a different East Timor than the one you experienced. Have you been getting some interesting responses from people who have read the book?
Yes, yes I have – both coming in through the website and also just snail mail letters from people who have found it a good read, but who have also been inspired to do something, and who are kind of asking my advice on how they can best do that. I’m struck every time I go back to Australia by the discrepancy that exists in terms of opportunity and just basic living standards. It’s quite bizarre really, the two worlds, how different they are.
I think it’s important to keep in people’s consciousness in Australia the need for keeping East Timor on the radar screen and just reminding people of what they can do to make a difference.
Both in terms of what they can offer technically, financially, but also reminding the politicians in Australia of the need for a government commitment and policies at the national level in Australia that are in East Timor’s best interests.
I would imagine that it probably has fallen off the radar since…
Yeah, there are so many other conflicts erupting around the globe, and the donor dollar is stretched, and the attention of governments has shifted elsewhere. We need to keep reminding the pollies that East Timor’s still Australia’s neighbour and still has huge needs.
Well, I’m sure the book will be helping to keep it on, possibly not the politicians’ radars, but in the minds of other Australians.
That of course was another motivation for writing it – to keep people focused on what’s going on here.
I found it a great education in terms of the East Timorese struggle for independence – you know, you hear all these things, and you read the odd newspaper article, but to read such a comprehensive account which is also riveting because it has such a personal element to it was a fantastic way of absorbing that information.
I found it wonderful that, when I was at home in Australia at Christmas time, I saw it on the shelves of K-mart and Big W, not just the big bookshops. I thought it’ll be reaching an entirely different market by being available through those outlets, and being read by people who wouldn’t normally perhaps take an interest in issues in the region. So hopefully open the eyes of another section of the Australian public.
You’ve described yourself in the past as a human rights activist. Does that description accurately capture the fundamental motivation behind what you’ve done? Is it really the fight for the rights of other human beings?
I think it is essentially. I mean, I hate it when I get referred to as a spy because that gives some sense that I was actually, officially working for the resistance – that I was actually in the pay of the resistance, which of course is ridiculous. My motivations were that
I saw that there was a tremendous violation of the rights of a people, the right of self-determination essentially, and I felt I had a duty as a citizen of Australia, and indeed of the world to do my bit to improve the situation for the Timorese.
Which is wonderful, I guess in that regard you’re a rarity.
Well, I was a member of a sort of worldwide movement and of course there was a huge amount of support within the Australian community for the independence cause and lots of very active people involved. So, I mean, I think maybe some of the things I did went beyond what was ‘normal’ for a human rights activist but I certainly wasn’t alone. I worked closely with a lot of activists both in Darwin, and Melbourne, and Sydney and indeed around the world that were concerned about the same issues.
Do you think there was a defining moment when your commitment to the struggle for independence really was cemented?
I think it was probably following the Santa Cruz massacre and the fact of having been here [East Timor] very shortly before. I describe that as being a really defining moment for me, and one that really galvanised my will to do something in a more concrete way for Timor. And I suppose that was what lead me to my decision to move to Jakarta in 1992 and to work from there rather than just being an activist. Yeah, so I think that experience of working on the film [the 1991 Yorkshire Television documentary In Cold Blood ] and getting to know personally many of the people that we interviewed, some of whom subsequently were shot dead at Santa Cruz. So that really left a big impression on me and, as I said, galvanised my will to do something more.
And you did just pack up and move to Jakarta.
Yes, I think it was May of 1992. I’d been living in England for a year or so up until that point, so I had a few months back in Australia and then packed up and went without really an idea of what I was going to do, where I was going to live, what work I was going to do in Jakarta. But having lots of friends there and knowing the scene fairly well, and the language, I was pretty quickly able to find a job and settle down.
And fairly quickly, you seemed to fall back in with the independence activists within Jakarta.
Yes, I started with a fairly small circle of student friends and that kind of extended over time as more and more people came to know of my presence there – which included of course political prisoners! [referring to her future husband, Xanana Gusmao, the jailed leader of the East Timorese guerrilla resistance].
And you became ‘Ruby Blade’ – which I think is the most gorgeous code name.
That sort of came from ‘Kristina Blade’, which was a pen name that I used when I’d contribute articles for Inside Indonesia magazine in Melbourne. So it was just an adaptation really of ‘Kristina Blade’ and I thought the ‘Ruby’ was kind of nice.
Reading your story, it feels almost as if it had a momentum of its own. You started by translating and drafting documents and then it just snowballed.
It did, as I came to know more people, and
as I was asked to do more and more daring things, I suppose because I felt really strongly that it was a just cause and was worth taking some risks for, you know, I said yes to most opportunities that came my way.
Of course, everything moved onto a new level when I started communicating with Xanana and he started involving me in his world of activities as well.
You speak in the book of succumbing to the seductive power of that trust that other people were placing in you…
Yes, it was a strong motivating force.
Did you ever feel that that trust was almost misplaced in you? Did you ever feel that you were incapable of doing what was required?
I did often wonder why it was that people were seemingly able to trust me quite easily when they didn’t… you know because in many cases it was people that I didn’t know, in many cases new acquaintances. There was a sense in the East Timorese movement that their problem was an international one, and an international responsibility, and I think there was a feeling that, “Well, you’re doing this because you should, it’s your duty to do it”.
I mean, I think too, there weren’t a lot of foreigners resident in Indonesia at the time who really were prepared to stick their necks out and so it was “Well, we don’t have a lot of places to turn, or nobody to turn to”. In many cases it wasn’t as if I was doing things that required any tremendous skill or bravery, just a little bit of nous and… In many cases, just the language skills I had were enough to make it possible for me to translate things, and of course my knowledge of the history of the struggle, and having been an activist in Australia too I knew a bit about public and media relations – how to put together arguments that were convincing to the outside world.
I don’t know if I’d say that not a lot of it was dangerous! I think smuggling seven asylum seekers into the Finnish embassy must have taken some guts!
Yeah, that was certainly pretty scary, a pretty scary moment but you know, on other occasions it was just a matter of delivering a message or sending a fax from someone. In itself they weren’t very risky acts, but it was in that very oppressive political environment during the Suharto years that there was an element of danger involved.
Which eventually led you to have to flee, although that was quite a bit further down the track wasn’t it? And that was more because of your relationship with Xanana?
Yeah, I’m not sure how much of it had to do with my links with him, and how much of it was a combination of working closely with lots of East Timorese over a period of five years. To some extent it was probably inevitable that it was going to catch up sooner or later. I think it was more probably some contact that I had with some students in December ’95 for the 25th commemoration of the invasion [of East Timor by Indonesia] and I think I did an interview with some guys who were possibly informants for the Indonesian military, and I think that might have lead them [the military] to me more than my links to the prison.
And the story of your relationship with Xanana is an amazing sub-story within the broader story of your life to date. You obviously knew of him as the charismatic leader of the guerrilla resistance even prior to his incarceration, but it wasn’t really until 18 months into his life sentence that you really began corresponding?
[Mobile phone connection to Dili fails]
Actually that’s better, don’t move.
Is that fine?
We don’t have a fixed line phone up here actually. Sorry about this… Timorese telecommunications…
It’s alright for the moment – let’s just battle through. Your relationship really did develop through mail correspondence and then you managed to smuggle a mobile phone into him which must have been a huge boost to your relationship in terms of communication?
Yes, it was absolutely – it was a boon. Again, pretty risky. The first phone that we had was actually a borrowed line, it was sort of a stolen line, and so about a month into using that one I actually had phone calls from the telecommunications office wanting to know my identity, which of course made me completely paranoid thinking that they had, you know, some political motive for calling me, whereas actually it was just illegal… So anyway we quickly dispensed with that one and got ourselves a legitimate line and that made things a bit easier.
And was it only really on three separate occasions that you saw him in the five years [of your relationship] while he he was in jail?
Yeah, the first time December ’94 and then I didn’t see him again until August ’98, and again in December ’98.
You dedicate A Woman of Independence to your father, and you thank him for teaching you “a lot about dragons and to never shy away from the difficult” which you certainly have never done. I’m really interested in understanding what it was about your upbringing that really gave you that level of courage and determination.
I think it was just my parents’ commitment to social justice within the Australian context, particularly through their work in the education field. My father was always really committed to social justice within the state education system and worked for many disadvantaged schools in Victoria, and advocated on behalf of the rights of people from underprivileged backgrounds to be integrated into the mainstream education system. So I think it was probably that, that sort of environment that I grew up in that contributed to my own feelings of wanting to do something to better the lot of other people.
You seemed to choose very early on, a path that was by no means going to bring you material wealth – in fact from the beginning you were prepared to give almost everything you had in order to help others. Was that again something that your parents led by example?
Yeah, yeah they were always extremely generous people and extremely concerned about, as I said, social justice usually within our own community, and I’m sure a lot of that rubbed off on me along the way.
And you’ve never thought, I do everything for everyone else, what about Kirsty?
Yes, I do have moments when I wish I had more time for myself to read, and to indulge my own interests, and even to have a bit more time for personal growth and development. Just to be able to have enough time to learn Tetum [the native language of East Timor] properly – you know I speak it because I have to, and the same with Portuguese – but I’d love to be able to do a course in both those languages, and even contemplate further study at some stage… I can’t see how that’s possible with my current situation! Of course, I often have moments of real deep resentment that I don’t have more time in my daily life to devote to my kids, because I’m so busy tending to everyone else’s needs, and demands on my time and energy.
You have one other big child, which is a country I guess.
Yeah, and I have to say at the same time that it is really rewarding to be in a position to actually be able to do something to respond to some of the needs of the nation and the people around me. It never seems as though I have enough resources and enough time and energy to do what I would like, but it’s a contribution, and it’s extremely enriching and rewarding.
When you do find time for yourself… I remember reading somewhere that you enjoy video and film production and dance… are they also things that you’d like to indulge more of?
Mm yeah, maybe not so much the dance these days although I do enjoy a bit of creative dance with my kids, but there’s not much room for anything more on the average day! I still really love making films – I’ve got a little video camera that I use and often entertain the dream of one day being able to sit down and edit it all together into something. But that’s probably about as ambitious as the book project!
This might seem like an odd question, but do you believe in fate? Your story certainly seems as if you were destined for the role you are now in as First Lady, more possibly than any other story I’ve ever heard.
I don’t really. I mean
there were certainly moments where it seemed to me that the path that I’d taken just equipped me somehow perfectly to play the role that I’m playing now.
Even the period of working for Australian Volunteers International in the aid and development field, which acquainted me with issues of community development, and part of my job involved preparing Australians to work in another culture and familiarising them with some of the issues and dilemmas they would face to do that, and of course those are very relevant problems and issues for myself! I think that background certainly prepared me to cope with some of the challenges I face on a daily basis.
The work that you did with Australian Volunteers International or the Overseas Service Bureau… you’ve spoken about the importance of that kind of experience for Australians, and I guess people in general – giving them the opportunity to move beyond their comfort zones and to build a greater understanding of the world and our place in it…
Absolutely, in many ways I continue to facilitate opportunities for Australians to do that. We receive lots of expressions of interest from Australians who’d like to come and volunteer in East Timor and want to know how best to make a contribution. So we do have volunteers coming and working with us from time to time, but it’s not easy as well. You know for Australians it all seems very romantic and idealistic to come and lend a hand, but the reality of daily life here…
You know, of coping with the frustrations of not being able to get things to happen as quickly as they would in Australia, the problems of communication barriers and so on, represent a challenge. Some people cope with those very well, particularly those who have experienced living in a developing country before, and for others it’s an impossible mission. So it’s very important from our point of view that we filter people out and try and get a sense of whether they’re going to be actually helpful to us or not before they come. Because in many cases they come and find it just so, so hard to adapt that they really are unable to contribute in a constructive way.
But that’s not always the case, there are also a huge number of people who’ve got tremendous skills both personal and professional to contribute.
You must have met some incredible individuals…
Yes, both Timorese and foreigners who have been involved on one level or another in the struggle. Yeah, I consider myself to be really, really lucky.
Is it from those interactions that you draw a lot of your inspiration or motivation to keep doing what you do?
Certainly I find it wonderful that
I get so much correspondence from Australians and from other people of good will around the world offering either financial assistance for my work or wanting to offer moral support, or some kind of linkages with the Australian community.
And those are really, really valuable friendships and connections for me because I’m essentially without resources for my work here as First Lady. There is no sponsorship of the role from the government, so I depend very heavily on that good will and the contributions of individuals in Australia and elsewhere. So it is a huge motivation and source of moral support and encouragement to keep going.
Anyone in particular who stands out as a huge influence in your life?
I would have to say my mum, who’s an extremely caring, warm, loving person who spends a lot of time on individuals and getting to know people’s stories and being responsive to their needs. She’s a wonderful ambassador when she comes and spends time here because people love her for her human warmth and she exudes… In fact, I say to her that she’s a fantastic ambassador for me because sometimes I feel that because I have to meet with just so many people in the course of a day that I get a little bit lazy with my relationships with people, and don’t spend a lot of time on nurturing them in the same way that she does and is able to. So I love it when she is here because she fills in the gaps that I leave for my own sort of survival.
You must miss her.
Yes, it’s great when she’s here, or when we’re able to spend time in Australia, which is a couple of times a year, so we don’t do too badly.
Now that you’ve got the book out of the way, does that mean that you can devote some more time to the Alola Foundation?
Yes, in fact I’m looking forward to a lot of consolidation of our work in the next couple of months which will be non-travelling months! We very much hit the ground running and we are sort of really only now putting in place administrative procedures and structures to ensure the sustainability of what we’re doing.
We’ve grown tremendously from being an office the size of a broom cupboard at the rear of the World Bank with two employees, to being quite a large organisation with four major projects and about 25 staff
– huge changes and lots of adaptation required, but basically I’m really happy with the team of people we have together and they’re taking the initiative.
You know, within a year, what I’d really like to see is the place run without me, and I just go in there and offer my moral support and encouragement when it’s needed, and not have to be involved in a hands on way.
And Xanana’s presidency – how long has that got to go?
It’s a five year – so I guess May 2007.
Right, so a little way to go yet… and that may not be the end I’d imagine.
I hope so, for his sake as much as mine.
And for the pumpkin patch!
Yeah, that’s kinda still… one of these days. Someone sent me some pumpkin seeds actually – a woman in NSW – a few days ago, who was wanting to encourage us to keep hold of our dream of being pumpkin farmers!