I haven’t had the privilege of travelling with a previous First Lady of any nation before. But joining the 2019 Study Tour of Timor-Leste hosted by Kirsty Sword Gusmão and Nandy Gurr in August was likened, in my opinion, to be the type of tour accorded royalty. In fact, Kirsty and Xanana seem destined to be held at that pinnacle of esteem by all the beautiful Timorese people and dignitaries that we had the exciting pleasure of meeting … and they were numerous.
Timor-Leste came into my orbit when a family connection was posted to the Australian Embassy in 2017, with an invitation extended to me to visit them shortly afterwards. A health problem put a stop to my going then. I cannot recall, I admit, how I received the information for the 2018 Study Tour, but I applied and was not successful. (In retrospect, lucky) Not deterred, I applied again in early 2019 and was overjoyed to learn they this coincided with the 20 years celebration of Timor-Leste’s Independence. Great news, I was accepted. A meeting was organised in Melbourne to meet fellow travellers. I was the only one from Sydney in a very learned, representative group of eight interstate women. It was to be a really blended team.
Having travelled quite widely, I now can say that this Timor-Leste tour engendered in me the greatest admiration and spirited educational expose of history, persecution, resistance and ultimate triumph in one of the world’s poorest, but emerging nations. It was through Kirsty, a guest speaker in 2006, at the Zonta Club of Sydney 40th birthday celebration, that I learned a little of her background and subsequent life in Timor-Leste. I was interested to see first hand, some of the common types of projects that both the Alola Foundation and Zonta International shared, that is, empowering women through service and advocacy; and promoting human rights, education and economic independence for women and girls, to mention a few. My visit to Timor-Leste provided me with the first hand exposure to all of these in this one tiny nation and within such compact boundaries.
After our private dinner with Xanana, at his residence, on our day of arrival, we started our extraordinary introduction to the historical sites, the museums and places of immense relevance in Timor-Leste’s 25 years of resistance. To quote Xanana Gusmão – “to resist is to win”. Most importantly, we were able to visit Alola’s projects in Dili and the site of two schools unfolding in isolated rural communities, Belola and Faluwai Ai-asa.
We had the honour of meeting Maria Guterres, the acting CEO of Alola in Dili. We dined with Dulce de Jesus Soares, the Minister of Education and two of her team. We later shared The Mother Tongue Pilot presentation with her. Imprinted on my memory was the warm hospitality and introduction to Sujana Ximenes, Director of Casa Vida Cafe. The second was the emotive tour of the Guido Valadares National Hospital, where the lives of premature babies hang in the balance of the team of dedicated doctors and nurses – who have benefitted from Cuba’s University Medical education – but with the most primitive medical equipment and supplies (by Australian standards). International and Australian support is so essential in these traumatic circumstances.
Other VIPs we met were; Max Stahl, the cameraman, who was able to smuggle his film to the Western world, showing the Indonesian massacre of Timorese students in 1991 at Santa Cruz cemetery; Australian Pat Walsh, who was instrumental in setting up the Truth and Justice Reconciliation Museum (CAVR) in Dili; and Ian Martin, the UN Representative in Timor-Leste during the years 1999 and 2002. We also met Michael Stone, who was an Australian special adviser to Jose Ramos Horta in the early 2000s and now runs a rehabilitation project in Timor for Australian veterans suffering from post traumatic stress. He claims running the rehabilitation project is more therapeutic than walking the Kokoda Track.
Another travel group from Singapore joined us for part of the 20 years celebrations and we were hosted for lunch by Jose Ramos Horta at his home on the outskirts of Dili. Afterwards, several of our group walked up to Cristo Rei and enjoyed sunset over Dili and its barren hillsides dotted with humble Timorese dwellings.
A visit to the Xanana Gusmão Reading Room led us to view the library and its valuable collection of memorabilia accorded to Xanana during his term as first President. Here we were also introduced to Timorese artist, Jacinto Batista, who Kirsty has mentored, since he wrote to her asking for support. We viewed several of his beautiful paintings. Recently Kirsty organised for him to come to Melbourne for an exhibition of his major works.
A cocktail party was thrown in and held at the Museum of the Resistance.Kirsty gave thanks to her many friends and supporters who were there for the celebrations. The evening also included the screening of Alias Ruby Blade followed by a Q and A with Kirsty and Pat Walsh.
The major highlight, of course, was the day of the Anniversary – 30 August 2019. Starting as VIP guests at a special session of Parliament, we then attended the long awaited signing of the Exchange of Notes with the Prime Ministers of Timor-Leste and Australia. We had previously visited the Maritime Boundaries Office with Simon Fenby so this was a bitter-sweet moment considering the background of the Timor oil/gas agreement. Tasi Tolu was the culmination of the formal celebrations and the festivities carried on well into the evening with traffic blocked for miles returning to Dili.
A sobering but relaxing two days at Balibo was most welcome. After a scenic trip along the coast, our three car convoy arrived at the hilltop township. We stayed in the historic Portuguese Fort. We had taken a walk over the border into Indonesia en route with the guards anxious to be photographed with Kirsty.
On return to Dili, we were farewelled with dinner at the home of the Australian Ambassador, Mr. Peter Roberts and wife, Lisa, with DFAT representative Carli Shillito. A fabulous, hectic, once in a lifetime experience……planned and executed so THOUGHTFULLY AND GENEROUSLY by Kirsty and Nandy. Each one of us I am sure would agree. If and whenever Timor-Leste welcomes you, it is guaranteed that its people, its places and its historical background will embed themselves in your heart forever. THANK YOU so very much for the opportunity to