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The Activist and the Rebel: Love and Revolution in East Timor

In 2002, the world recognized Timor-Leste as the first democratic nation of the 21st century. The path to independence from Indonesia for this tiny island in the Pacific Ocean was paved with violent conflict. Over 24 years of resistance, hundreds of thousands of Timorese were killed. The country’s rebel hero, Xanana Gusmao, was jailed for many of those years, but he led the liberation movement from behind bars with the unlikely aid of a young Australian woman.

That woman was Kirsty Sword, an aspiring documentary filmmaker turned activist. Their unlikely and true-life love story and that of Timor-Leste’s independence is chronicled in “Alias Ruby Blade” by documentary filmmakers Alex and Tanya Meillier. The film recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

Sword said she moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, “inspired and impassioned by the cause of East Timorese and their tremendous will to achieve self-determination and independence.”

Gusmao was serving a life sentence from 1993 in a Jakarta prison. Soon, Sword was helping in the resistance movement, smuggling letters in and out of his jail cell through friends who would visit him. She adopted the name “Ruby Blade” because everyone in the clandestine movement had to disguise their real names for their own protection and that of others in the resistance.

“I chose Blade because it was similar to my last name and Ruby just sounded very Agatha Christie and very romantic,” said Sword in an interview with Christiane Amanpour.

Though she only met Gusmao once during his prison term, Sword said they established a deep bond through their correspondence. That eventually turned into love.

“In the beginning of the relationship, I was plagued by many doubts about my feelings,” said Sword. “I was not sure if I was simply attracted to him because he was a charismatic leader of an inspiring struggle. What allowed us to develop that bond into something longer-lasting was our shared passion for and love for the people of East Timor, for the country - a passion for seeing a better life created through independence for Timor-Leste.”

They could finally be together with the fall of Indonesia’s Suharto regime in May 1998. Gusmao was released from prison and into house arrest. They were married in 2000.

After the East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999, the newly named country of Timor-Leste held its first elections in 2002. Gusmao was easily elected president and Sword became first lady. Gusmao now serves as prime minister.

“We have very high hopes for the country,” said Sword. “People hold in their memories the images of rock throwing and violence dating back to 2006 during a political crisis. But things have been very peaceful since then. It’s vital to our nation-building efforts.”

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