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From unlikely undercover agent to East Timor's first lady

Australian Kirsty Sword Gusmao played a key role in the resistance movement in the 1990s. Today, as first lady of East Timor, she advocates for women's rights. 

By Kate HodalContributor / May 23, 2012

East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao, holds his son Alexandre Sword Gusmao as his wife Kirsty Sword looks on in 2001.

Dan Murphy/Staff/File

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Dili, East Timor

Young, blonde, and Australian, she was an unlikely undercover agent for an unlikely cause: a far-flung province on a Southeast Asian island that had been in a bloody fight for independence for more than two decades. 

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Most of her colleagues were either guerrilla soldiers fighting Indonesian troops in the jungle-thicketed hills of their native East Timor, or resistance leaders serving life sentences in prison in Jakarta.

From her apartment in the Indonesian capital, however, Kirsty Sword Gusmao – who worked as a human rights activist by day and as Ruby Blade, her nom-de-guerre, by night – was a key element in the eventual success of the underground Timorese movement that become the cause-célèbre among Western outsiders in the mid-1990s on the heels of a bloody massacre.

Working as a courier shuttling correspondence between guerrillas, Ms. Sword Gusmao also facilitated asylum applications, lobbied for international media coverage, and acted as personal secretary to the leader of the resistance, Jose Alexandre “Xanana” Gusmao, who was serving a life term in Cipinang prison in Jakarta.

“Most evenings, I would have Timorese knocking on my door," Sword Gusmao explains from the home she shares with her now-husband Xanana and their three boys in Dili, East Timor's dusty, village-like capital of roughly 250,000 that overlooks a turquoise bay framed by palm-fringed hills.

"They were either in trouble or the military was coming after them, or they needed help getting out of the country, or a human rights report that needed translating and safely e-mailed out of the country.”

Her relationship with Xanana began as furtively as her work in the resistance. Smuggling in English grammar lessons and document translations to his Jakarta prison cell, Sword Gusmao also managed to smuggle in video cameras, laptops, and cellphones – materials that greatly helped Xanana’s capacity to undermine Indonesia’s hold over East Timor.

Xanana was released from prison in 1999 and, after serving as the country's first president in 2002, was elected prime minister in 2007.

“Kirsty has greatly understood my personal limitations and obligations, and without her, my life would have been very difficult,” says Xanana today from his office in the colonnaded Government Palace.

The new struggle

It has been 10 years since East Timor finally declared independence from Indonesia after a UN-brokered peace deal three years earlier. Sword Gusmao has transitioned from helping the nation fight for independence to fighting for women’s rights – keeping with her the resistance movement’s motto “a luta continua” (the struggle goes on).

Through the Alola Foundation, a women’s empowerment organization that she founded in 2001, Sword Gusmao has lobbied for greater gender equality by establishing literacy, advocacy, economic development, and maternal and children’s health programs. One of the foundation’s greatest successes, she says, has been helping to secure a 2010 law criminalizing domestic violence. 

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