Long awaited return to E. Timor

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At long last, Xanana is home.

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."

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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."

Paulo Justinho Mendonca, an office worker, cried for his brother Armando, killed during Indonesia's 1975 invasion following Portugal's withdrawal. But he also felt very happy to see Gusmo at last. "Because he is our father," he explains. "For more than 24 years we have fought to reach this final destination: freedom."

The cost of East Timor's freedom is not just human. A few days after voters in the territory overwhelmingly favored independence in an Aug. 30 referendum sponsored by the United Nations, anti-independence militia groups began a spiteful campaign of destruction.

These armed civilians, often operating with the support of Indonesian soldiers, killed an unknown number of people, drove hundreds of thousands from their homes, and torched or removed much of the territory's infrastructure.

Gusmo was arrested at a hideout in the outskirts of Dili in November 1992, and later tried and sent to a prison in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. He was placed under house arrest in February 1999, and released a few days after the Aug. 30 vote. The city to which he now returns is full of charred, shattered buildings and families living under plastic sheeting.

Since Sept. 20, an Australian-led multinational force has worked to restore order, allowing humanitarian agencies to help the East Timorese rebuild. Security and sovereignty concerns have kept Gusmo away until now. Because he remains the ultimate target for anyone interested in furthering the destruction of East Timor, the Australians are protecting him closely. His appearance on Friday was advertised only a few hours in advance.

And it took until last week for the Indonesian government to acknowledge formally the results of the referendum.

Now the rebel leader must transform himself into a politician, although in a press conference Saturday he rejected the suggestion that appearing in battle dress might not be appropriate for the man who will almost certainly become East Timor's first president. "Absolutely not," he said, adding, "I was arrested as a guerrilla fighter, and I return as a guerrilla fighter."

He and his fellow freedom fighters will now work alongside a UN transitional authority, which will run the territory until new elections are held in an estimated two to three years' time. Any administration at all will come as precious relief for East Timorese, some of whom have been wondering why it has taken so long for their leaders to return.

"The most important thing is for us to have a government as soon as possible," says one East Timorese who would only identify herself as an "activist." "Otherwise there will be chaos."

Mandela-like goals

On Friday, Gusmo stressed the need for discipline and unity, qualities that will be needed as East Timorese leave their hiding places in the island's hills and mountains and head to towns and cities ill-equipped to receive them.

"Gusmo's return," says Ross Mountain, the UN's coordinator of humanitarian assistance here, "is one of the major factors that will inspire people to believe that the nightmare is over." But he worries as well that Dili is "becoming a magnet for the whole country," since this is where relief efforts have been concentrated.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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