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Long awaited return to E. Timor

A cross etween Mandela and Castro, 'Xanana' reunites with followers in the hills

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 25, 1999


At long last, Xanana is home.

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Jos Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmo is the leader of East Timor's independence movement and in all likelihood its first president. For the East Timorese who are slowly rebuilding their lives after Indonesia's destructive departure from this island territory, his arrival is the surest sign yet that they are truly free.

"It will definitely make things better," says Agostinha dos Santos, presiding over her makeshift stall in Dili's rubble-strewn main market. "Because we have gained our independence now."

But for Mr. Gusmo and many of his supporters, the joy of this homecoming - after seven years in prison and exile - is tempered by the memories of the thousands of East Timorese who died or disappeared during 24 years of Indonesian rule. Because he has led the struggle for independence, his presence here seems to evoke its sacrifices.

Yesterday, Gusmo traveled to a mountain town outside Dili to embrace the Falintil fighters he still commands. Many of the camouflaged guerrillas - veterans of years of jungle warfare against Indonesian forces - wept openly during their reunion. "Our war is not finished," Gusmo told them. "Our people are hungry, our people are crying, our people are dying. We must wage war not with guns but to care for our land and look after our people."

Wearing camouflage fatigues over a crisp white T-shirt, the bearded Gusmo manages to combine an occasionally Mandela-esque message of reconciliation while carrying himself with the revolutionary swagger of a Fidel Castro.

Roughly 5,000 people gathered in Dili on Friday for his first public appearance - a speech in front of the whitewashed colonial-era building on Dili's waterfront where Portuguese, and then Indonesian-appointed governors once ruled.

Gusmo's supporters hopped up and down, whooped with joy, and punched the air chanting "Viva Timor Leste." And when Gusmo spoke of the dead and missing, the people wept.

At the rally Ms. dos Santos cried because, "I remembered my brother and father." She says Indonesian soldiers killed her brother Joo, a guerrilla fighter, in the early 1980s. And one day in 1984, her father left for his shift on the local neighborhood-watch patrol and never returned. He also was in the resistance, and she says he was "kidnapped" by the Indonesians.

Speaking from an outdoor podium watched over by Australian sharpshooters, Gusmo forcefully proclaimed Friday "the day of freedom for East Timor. All of our suffering, we can leave behind. Today we see our future. This land is ours. We will be independent forever."

He quickly honored the fallen. "Because of their suffering, East Timor will be a nation, like other nations of the world. We spilled our blood for East Timor. So many of us have died to be here today." Many in the crowd began to weep. It was as if happiness and grief overwhelmed people who had suffered in silence for decades. Their clearly beloved Xanana sobbed too.

Timorese losses

Frederico Almeida Santos da Costa, an elderly man with a flowing beard, says he thought of the two sons he had lost. Anatalino was a guerrilla fighter who was killed in 1990. Freddy went off to school on Nov. 12, 1991 - the day Indonesian troops massacred hundreds of people, including students, at Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery. "I didn't say he was dead," Mr. da Costa cautions. "He is missing."