I was at first surprised when Sara approached me to launch her biography of Xanana Gusmao.
Because, it is of course, my husband Steve Bracks, in his role as Special Governance Adviser to Prime Minister Gusmao, who is usually asked to do this sort of thing.
I enthusiastically said yes however, before she could change her mind.
I had met Xanana Gusmao and his wife Kirsty on a number of occasions in Melbourne and in Timor-Leste. I had also worked with Kirsty as co-chair of the Friendship Schools project as one of the many programs of the Alola Foundation, an organisation set up by Kirsty to help women and children in Timor-Leste.
And I certainly encouraged Steve to take on the challenging role as Special Governance Adviser to Prime Minister Gusmao when the stars aligned, and Xanana took on the new leadership role, just as Steve was stepping down from his.
I have joined Steve on three of his many visits to Timor-Leste and our three children have all accompanied him on a visit.
We haven’t lived there, but we have certainly lived with stories of the incredible individuals like Xanana, who are working 24 hours a day to make the reality of independence worth the struggle.
But there has always been a big gap in the story of Timor-Leste. There are many accounts of the Indonesian invasion in 1975, and Robert Connolly’s recent film Balibo, took us back there with confronting realism.
And the events of 1999, the triumphant ballot and its bloody aftermath, were played out on our television screens.
But the long dark years of Indonesian occupation have always been shrouded in mystery. How did Xanana and his guerillas survive in those desolate mountains? How did they feed themselves and communicate with each other? How did they maintain the motivation to keep up the struggle? How did Xanana transform from a non-political public servant with a love for poetry and painting, into one of the most successful guerilla leaders of our times?
Thanks to Sara Niner, and her incredible book, we at last have the answers.
This book is a labour of love, over a decade in the making.
It is the result of hours of interviews with Xanana and his friends and foes.
Thanks to Sara we now know that Xanana carried a pistol every minute, he mostly slept in the bush - except for when it was raining when he slept in “small rough hewn-huts”, - that he, and his army, ate everything “that could be digested by the stomach”, they drank coffee from small plantations under their control and occasionally palm wine, and sometimes they walked for two or three days without eating anything at all.
There were tough rules about contact with family and interaction with villagers. There was in fighting and petty bickering. Death was a daily reality.
We also know that Xanana was constantly thinking strategically and somehow, despite the appalling conditions, managed to write detailed plans for internal restructures and external peace proposals. And yet, as Sara notes, he was “determinedly pragmatic, forward-looking and would never be hemmed in by strict ideology or policy.”
Sara’s book explains the ideological conflicts over Marxism and over military versus diplomatic tactics that absorbed Xanana’s time and intellectual effort.
It details the complex history of Xanana’s relationships with the key political leaders in Timor-Leste today – the exiled diplomatic campaign leaders Jose Ramos Horta and Mari Alkatiri, now respectively President and Leader of the Opposition and other players like Fretlin Commander, Taur-Matan Ruak, now Brigadier-General, and former Indonesian appointed governor, Mario Carrascalao, now Gusmao’s second Deputy Prime Minister.
When Steve read Sara’s book he said he was fascinated to learn just how far back the relationships between Xanana and some of the members of his government went. According to Steve, “it explained a lot.”
By the time I’d finished reading Sara’s book for the first I was no longer quite so surprised that she had invited me to launch it.
It is a meticulously researched book, that rarely editorialises – Sara generally lets the extraordinary facts speak for themselves.
However, there is one issue on which Sara does occasionally offer a personal opinion – the under recognition of the critical role women played in the resistance.
In her words “Xanana retells several anecdotes of assistance by women but makes no overall acknowledgement of their fundamental political and strategic importance to the armed struggle.”
I suspect Sara has another book in her.
But before we burden her with those expectations I take great pleasure in officially launching Xanana: Leader of the Struggle for Independent Timor-Leste and invite Sara to say a few words.
- ▼ Jan 2010 (4)