Kirsty Sword Gusmao

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A Woman of Independence, by Kirsty Sword Gusmao, Pan McMillan Australia, 2003

Jenny Haines

Orthodox Marxists, Trotskyists and anarchists may wonder why this book is being reviewed on Ozleft. After all it is written by a woman who does not claim to be a socialist or a Marxist, but an activist in the cause of national liberation for East Timor.

In this book, Kirsty Sword tells her own story, from 1990 onwards, of her life as an undercover activist for the East Timor independence movement. The story that she tells provides a guide for anyone who wants to work undercover in any country, for any movement, of any ideological persuasion. Her activities reminded me a lot of the activities of the women of the French Resistance during World War II. While she worked for official organisations during the day teaching English, at night and after hours she spent many hours translating and producing documents, raising funds for solidarity committees, encouraging and supporting activists and drumming up support from overseas organisations. She was probably one of the first underground activists to use encrypted email, a laptop computer and the mobile phone, which in the later stages of her activities proved very useful for her communication with Xanana Gusmao.

Kirsty did not meet Xanana in person until long after she had met him on the printed page. Their love story is one of destiny. Events led them inevitably to be together. They fell in love through their letters, smuggled in and out of prison. When they finally met it was ever so brief, on December 22, 1994. They remained in contact while Xanana was in jail, using the mobile phone and through letters and documents smuggled in an out of prison for Kirsty to translate and send on to Falintil commanders, supporters and world leaders. Kirsty became Xanana’s private secretary but also his counsellor, confidante, emissary, lover and eventually in July 2000, his wife. Kirsty does not pretend that their love life was one long line of bliss. The stresses of the struggle took their toll with bitter fights between Xanana and Kirsty by letter and phone and tearful sessions making up to each other, with recognition that the context in which they were living and working imposed impossible demands on each of their lives.

Xanana was released from jail on February 10, 1999, not long before the popular consultation on August 30, 1999. Kirsty tells the story so well of the horror she and Xanana felt at destruction and death that followed, but for Xanana there were also the burdens of leadership, evacuation to the Northern Territory, then going off to the United Nations in New York to draft the timeline for independence. For them both the intervention by the Australian troops was a relief tinged with extreme sadness at the destruction wrought by the militias. But there was much to be done to get East Timor on its feet, and Xanana and Kirsty got on with all of the preparations for independence. Xanana, possibly tired from the length of the struggle, reluctantly agreed to become East Timor’s first President and Kirsty became its First Lady, a long way from the dusty offices of Jakarta, working underground in the early 1990s.

A reading of this book is very timely given the tense stand-off that is now developing between Australia and East Timor over the Timor Gap Treaty and rights to oil. It is worth reminding ourselves of the extent of the struggle and the sacrifice by the East Timorese for independence. Kirsty’s book gives us an insider’s account of that struggle and how it was done. It is also a personal account of her own struggle to maturity as a nationalist independence activist.

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