I would do same again, leader says

'Xanana' Gusmao has gone from exile to advocate for his embattled country. David Shanks met him in Dublin

EAST TIMOR: The putative president of a free East Timor, a state missing half its people, yesterday took his first walk as a free man on the streets of Dublin. There would be no questions on the short walk from the Conrad Hotel to Iveagh House. "I just want to look around," said Jose Alexandre Kay Rala "Xanana" Gusmao, a man clearly taking his new destiny in his stride.

Almost half of his 53 years have been spent as a mountain guerrilla or as a prisoner of Indonesia, the last year of it under house arrest in Jakarta; "Yes, my holiday bungalow", he smiles as if at a private joke. He would admit to no personal regrets: "I would do the same again." His face is clear and open, his carefully delivered quiet words exude dignity, savvy and passion.

"My people do not need food and medicines. They want above all to go home, women to find their husbands, fathers, or to find the bones and bury them," the future president of Timor Lorosae told a group of solidarity and NGO activists at Iveagh House.

We could send tons of food and medicine, but the people needed to bury their dead. "They cannot eat when they are crying. It is not a relief."

He wanted to dramatise the situation of 250,000 East Timorese held in Indonesian West Timor's "concentration camps". Indonesia has said they can return home. But to make sure the Indonesian military follows through on what may well be "bluff and lies" by President B.J. Habibie and the Foreign Minister, Mr Ali Alatas, more international pressure must be exerted.

Even rebuilding houses destroyed by Kopassus's proxy army of anti-independence militias is less of a priority than getting the people home. He wants an international agreement so that ships can be chartered to bring them from Kupang, the West Timorese capital, and from Indonesia's main island of Java, where there are 4,000 students moving from house to house each day hiding from militia murderers.

Gusmao's FALINTIL army is at odds with the international peacekeeping force, Interfet, over decommissioning. But that does not stop him backing the extension of the UN mandate to allow Interfet into West Timor "if the situation remains as it is with infiltrations" from across the Indonesian border. He is pressing for an international consensus on this too.

As it is, Interfet is not even yet able to control the entire territory of East Timor. But the mandate could be broadened, he says, even before the UN force gets to its envisaged full strength of 8,500 and the process enters "phase three".

This would happen after the Indonesian parliament (MPR) presumably approves independence at the end of this month, when he hopes to return to his ruined country. Here he is, however, open to "the possibility" that the MPR might try to thwart the ballot result by, for instance, revoking the invitation it gave to the UN force.

FALINTIL wants to help with the peacekeeping but Interfet's demand that the now 600 guerrillas disarm is so serious that Portugal has offered as a venue for negotiations a frigate, the Vasco da Gama, with a helicopter. It is now on its way to nearby Darwin.

"I think Interfet doesn't understand the substance of the problem in East Timor," Gusmao says. "FALINTIL is a liberation army, not a group of banditos and criminals." The struggle that led to the ballot is because of FALINTIL and 24 years of international agitation. The rebels never responded to violence and provocation. It is a "a legitimate force and that is why we don't agree to disarm". It should be part of the peacekeeping effort. His fighters are willing to be stationed on the border and protect Interfet troops.

The genocidal intention of the Indonesian special forces (Kopassus) and the militias is still there. "It is part of their character", and the only thing that will stop it is if the top brass in the military aware, he says. With political confusion in Jakarta as its parliament prepares to select a new president he is confident Indonesia knows what side its bread is buttered on.

IMF and World Bank aid is under threat because of the "barbarity that shocked the whole world at the end of the millenium. No one believed such will to kill just like in the Stone Age." Nor does he care who wins the Indonesian presidency because all candidates are aware of the seriousness of the country's economic crisis.

But Xanana Gusmao had come to Ireland to express thanks to the Government and solidarity activists for their support which was "extremely meaningful to us because it comes from a small country just like ours", especially one connected to the EU. He was also here to mark a shift from activism to liberation, to nationbuilding "from ashes and rubble". Even most of East Timor's vehicles have been taken west by militias.

Another purpose of his trip, including New York, Washington, Lisbon, Dublin and today London, is to underline that his National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), as an "umbrella, is the only interlocutor of the Timorese people", following the 78.5 per cent vote for independence of August 30th.

Yet another was to talk to the World Bank, which is sending an assessment mission to his country to revise its pre-violence figures for reconstruction.

Nursing bitterness is no part of Xanana Gusmao's message. Just before the vote he offered a "general amnesty for all political crimes committed until now". Now, however, after thousands of post-ballot murders, he does not want the amnesty promise to be "an incentive for other violence and animal-type behaviour".

In the context of a spirit of national unity he says that all those who were pro-autonomy (pro-Indonesia) but anti-violence can be encompassed. And he had some names here for a government of national unity. Among them are Mario Carrascalao, a former governor of East Timor under Indonesia and brother of Manuel, a CNRT leader whose son was murdered last April during the visit of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Andrews, and of Joao, the official CNRT spokesman.

But "for all those who are murderers and destroyers of our people they must return and explain what they did to the people and acknowledge seriously their crimes," Gusmao said. Amnesty can hurt the feelings of people so the people must decide.

Accompanying "President Gusmao" was Jose Ramos Horta, the Nobel laureate who has been known as East Timor's "foreign minister in exile". He says he is tired of travelling and, while he will work with his leader until December, he has not yet decided to accept an offer of a place in government.

But Gusmao deferred to him on several questions yesterday as if Ramos Horta were his prime minister. And Ramos Horta suggested another name, Father Filomeno Jacob PhD, for the foreign portfolio. So it may not be true that he will write silly books and open "an Irish bar in Dili" as he has been telling me.

Turning the other cheek has been the mark of Gusmao's recent leadership of FALINTIL. Had the army become a mainly "symbolic force" of just 600? No, FALINTIL's observance of a ceasefire and cantonment, unlike the militias, had been a deliberate decision "not to feed into what the Indonesians were doing".

In fact FALINTIN had recently engaged the army and militias twice. In one fight they captured 19 modern weapons before freeing captured soldiers. In another, after a priest and two nuns were murdered, FALINTIN killed 13 militia fighters.

In the new state, "a market economy with selective intervention of the State to ensure equity, transparency and efficiency", the Indonesian Bahasa language will continue to be taught along with "the mother tongue", Tetum.

Forgiveness is intended to be the mark of the new country of the new millenium. Gusmao says he has already told Mr Alatas that "all that has happened has damaged the image of Indonesia and we are willing to overlook this and put it in the past." But, he says, to restore a "cleaner image" to Indonesia its government must help.

In East Timor "we don't feel revenge but justice", says the president, stressing the need for accountability to help the people's feelings of deep trauma.

'My people do not need food and they do not need medicines. They want above all to go home' `The barbarity that shocked the world at the millennium. The will to kill like in the Stone Age'