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Ex-East Timor First Lady Kirsty Sword Gusmao enjoys Melbourne life

Herald Sun - January 22, 2016

Sarah Marinos – It's a weekday afternoon at Coburg Library and Kirsty Sword Gusmao and her youngest son, Daniel, 11, are browsing. Since she and her three sons settled in Melbourne's northern suburbs last year, the former First Family of East Timor has relished quiet moments like this.

Each morning during the school term Sword Gusmao's two eldest sons, Alexandre, 15, and Kay Olok, 13, hop on a tram in Sydney Rd and head to University High School, blending peacefully into the rush-hour crowd.

"When we moved to Coburg one of the first things we did was get on Gumtree and buy bikes," Sword Gusmao says.

"We love exploring the Merri Creek Trail. The boys love their independence and anonymity here. Timor is a small place and we're known everywhere – from the mountains to the local shopping centre. We love being 'normal' people and being able to disappear."

Sword Gusmao returned to Melbourne last March after she and Xanana Gusmao, her husband of 15 years, announced their separation. He remains in East Timor, but he and Sword Gusmao, 49, make frequent trips to visit each other.

"Xanana and I have always had a strong and productive partnership, and that will continue," she says. "I look back on my time there with a sense of real privilege. It was challenging and I could have had an easier life if I'd married an accountant from Box Hill – but I wouldn't do anything differently. "I can't think of any regrets. It's been a rich life."

Sword Gusmao first met Xanana Gusmao in December 1994. He was imprisoned in Jakarta for leading an East Timorese resistance group fighting for independence from Indonesia. She was based there as an aid worker and human rights campaigner. Their mutual desire to see East Timor achieve peace and independence brought them together.

Sword Gusmao first became aware of the plight of the East Timorese while studying Indonesian at the University of Melbourne. There she met students who recounted Indonesia's horrific human rights abuses.

So, after graduating, Sword Gusmao joined what is now Australian Volunteers International, working on Indonesian programs. She was also engaged as a researcher and interpreter for a TV documentary about human rights abuses in East Timor.

"That galvanised my will to do something more than just participate in demonstrations on the streets of Melbourne," she says. "It confirmed everything I knew about the terrible atrocities going on in the country."

In 1992 she moved to Jakarta and became enmeshed in helping the East Timorese resistance, operating covertly under the alias Ruby Blade.

"I don't like the term 'spy'. It was human rights activism-plus. First and foremost I was a human rights campaigner and I had that extra bit of courage – or foolhardiness – to do a bit more," she says.

"For example, I met visiting UN special rapporteurs because the Timorese wanted access to them to give their testimonies. But, of course, the Indonesian authorities wouldn't let the Timorese anywhere near these people. So as a white foreigner I'd front up at their five-star hotels and pass on reports from the Timorese."

Her clandestine work brought her into contact with Xanana Gusmao and a relationship blossomed. They married in 2000, soon after Xanana was freed. So began Sword Gusmao's journey from Bendigo schoolgirl to First Lady of East Timor. She admits it sounds more glamorous than it was.

In 2001 she began the Alola Foundation, aimed at improving the lives of women and children. It still takes up much of her time. Last year her service to Australia-East Timor relations – particularly in the areas of education and health – was recognised when she was appointed an Officer of the order of Australia.

As well as the challenges in rebuilding East Timor, Sword Gusmao has also faced challenges of a personal kind – most recently a diagnosis of breast cancer. She and her boys temporarily relocated to Melbourne during treatment.

Now recovered, Sword Gusmao is making the most of being home permanently. "I miss Timor but I have regular and reliable electricity and water now. And the children are enjoying the enormous opportunities here," she says.

"But they've gained a huge amount from their upbringing in Timor. Each has grown up with a great deal of empathy for people who are not as fortunate as them and with a commitment to doing something to change that.

"I see myself and my husband in each of them. The youngest is extremely caring and if he sees someone begging in the streets he is adamant he has to give them money. My oldest is a little shy and I was a shy and retiring child, too, so I see a little of myself in him."

And what of Kay Olok? Sword Gusmao laughs. "My middle son is very charismatic. He's a sportsman and he's ambitious and quite competitive," she says. "If any of them will become the politician like their dad, it will be him."

Source: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/exeast-timor-first-lady-kirsty-sword-gusmao-enjoys-melbourne-life/news-story/bca7b27ded4195768d231e9fc9109d6a