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From the December 2000 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 47, No. 12)

Kristy Sword

East Timor's First Lady

Sarah Hammond

When Indonesian soldiers killed East Timorese protesters in Dili’s Santa Cruz cemetery in 1991, Kirsty Sword, then a 25-year-old from Melbourne, Australia, was in the middle of the massacre. She had gone to Indonesia “wide-eyed and enchanted with the beauty of Java and Bali,” as she told Michael Maher of Sydney’s The Bulletin. But what she saw in Dili led her to support East Timor’s struggle to secede from Indonesia. Sword became an underground agent for the independence movement.

September marked the first anniversary of East Timor’s independence. Sword, 34, now lives in Dili and is married to the independence leader and East Timor’s first president, José Alexandre “Xanana” Gusmao.

While the West ignored East Timor’s struggle, Sword worked to get the independence movement on the international agenda. Fluent in Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, and English, her position as an English teacher and aid worker in Jakarta gave her the liberty that was invaluable to the resistance. She even earned a nom de guerre among the East Timorese: Ruby Blade. “A foreigner like myself could get away with so much more…,” she told The Bulletin. “Often my role was to meet visiting overseas delegations that East Timorese couldn’t gain access to.”

In 1993, she brought seven East Timorese students to the Swedish and Finnish embassies in Jakarta to seek asylum, then took their stories to the international media, setting off weeks of coverage on East Timor. “To me it was only a matter of time. I didn’t believe the international community could keep its eyes closed for too long.”

In 1994, an undercover mission took her to Cipinang prison, where she met her future husband, Gusmao, who had been sentenced to 20 years in jail on subversion charges. Indonesia’s military intelligence targeted Sword in 1995, and she had to flee the country after three-and-a-half years of underground work.

Sword, who once considered becoming a ballerina, doesn’t see her work as daring. “I was staring the truth in the face and doing what a good citizen of the world...should do. I was responding to calls for help.”

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