In mid-July 1997 Xanana Gusmão had spent five years in an Indonesian jail. Then, two years before his release he received a call that he should prepare to meet another freedom fighter who had also spent many years incarcerated by an oppressive regime. 

But first Xanana had a soccer game to lose. 

This post was originally published in Tempo Semano on 8 December 2013. The author is Kirsty Sword Gusmão

15 July, 1997

Today I am writing to you about something special. My meeting with Nelson Mandela!

At 4 pm I was on the football field as there was a match scheduled against another block. It was to be a decisive match, since the winner would be included amongst the 4 top teams and would qualify for the championship finals.

As the umpire hadn’t appeared, I went to the front to call another of the prison officials to take his place. As I was attempting to locate the official, they came calling after me.

I returned to the guard post of my block and the head of the prison, the Kepala Kanwil (chief of the district office of Correctional Institutions) (who I had once called an idiot) and another guy from Deplu (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) were there waiting. “Oh my God, not now!”, I said to myself as I shook their hands. They came to my cell.

I tried to explain about my participation in the match and that it was a decisive game for my team. They nodded their understanding but sat down regardless. They were all smiles and extremely friendly.

The chief of the district office of Correctional Institutions had never entered my cell before and I was a bit alarmed given that two days earlier I had received a letter saying that Anabela from Radio Renascenca was wanting to broadcast on radio the interview I had granted her, even though I had cautioned against it. She claimed that it was extremely important for Radio Renascenca. What I feared what that it had already gone to air and that ….. this was the end for me!

After the usual enquiries after my health, my activities, the Red Cross etc, the head of the prison asked me whether I would like to meet with Nelson Mandela. Shocked, I looked at him straight in the eye while the Kepala Kanwil explained that if I desired an audience with the President of South Africa, he would “do me the favour and help me out”. I was silent, not quite able to believe what I was hearing. The head of the prison asked me whether I was aware that Nelson Mandela was in Jakarta at that moment, and I said yes, that I had seen his visit covered on television.

The Kepala Kanwil insisted that everything depended on me and that if I was in agreement, he would “do everything possible to make the meeting with Mandela possible”. Wanting to be free of the doubts of I had, I confronted him with “Now be straight with me, Pak!”. And so, smiling and full of sweetness and light and in the midst of singing my praises over stupid things of no importance such as being 51 but still strong and handsome and able to play soccer etc, they affirmed that what they were saying was for real. And so I made it clear that I would be pleased and honoured to be received by the South African President.

The head of the prison explained that the conditions were that I speak to nobody of the meeting, not even to Nando, Joao, other inmates or prison guards, and that it would be our (his and my) secret. He said that due to Nelson Mandela’s advanced age, it would be necessary for me to leave the prison and to meet him where he was staying.

They appealed to me to understand the risk they faced in allowing the meeting to take place and pleaded for me to behave myself. I assured them that nothing would happen, i.e. that I wouldn’t attempt to escape, and reminded them that if I wanted to be free and living a good life abroad, I would have accepted the various offers that had been made to me ….. and that believe it or not, if I ever found myself at the main entrance to the prison and the door was open, I would shut it myself.

I also told them that I considered the meeting to be very important to me and that they could rest assured that I am a mature man and not a youth without principles. I added that if one day I was invited to participate in the Intra- Timorese Dialogue, I would accept only on the condition that after the meeting I be returned to Cipinang. If the Indonesian government failed to accept this condition, I would refuse to participate in the dialogue.

The prison head was over the moon with my response and, even though I know that deep down he continued to harbour fears of some possible debacle, he trusts me and is all too mindful of the fact that if the meeting with Mandela were to proceed without incident, this would reflect well on his formative powers as a prison chief ….

The Kepala Kanwil reinforced the trust in me displayed by the head of the prison, going all out to impress the Foreign Affairs chap. He then added that “at this stage it is only a possibility” and that what they were wanting to establish was whether I was open to the idea, but “we’ll do everything within our powers to help you out”!

Idiots! I let them think that I believed them and that it hadn’t in fact been Nelson Mandela himself who had requested the meeting with me. I thanked them for their attention, but added that I was about to play a decisive soccer match and … so when is the meeting to take place? Now!! Now??? More because they wanted to be sensitive to my wishes and to avoid my going to the meeting with Mandela in an irritated state of mind, the Kepala Kanwil said that I would be allowed first to participate in the match. He asked me how long the match would go on for, and I responded that it would take between an hour and an hour and a half.

“OK, we’ll wait for you at the office, and call you in one hour”, said the Kepala Kanwil. The prison head recommended that I dress neatly. I commented that this would be noticed by the other prisoners, and he therefore suggested that I wrap my good clothes in newspaper and get changed in his office. I thanked them, they left and I went to the game.

We lost 2 to 1. Damn! We dropped from 4th place on the ladder to 5th place. On the soccer field, I had tried to erase from my mind all thoughts of the “miracle” which was happening to me.

After the game, I returned to my cell, took a bath and waited to be called. Joao and Fernando both came to express their condolences over our defeat. It was already past 6 pm, and I wanted to send them away as at any minute I could have been called and needed to be ready to go. In the end, they went off of their own accord, which meant that there was no need to lie to them about where I was going.

6:30 pm and still nobody came to call me. I recalled that they had said that it was still only a possibility. I was aware that the main consideration for the prison and other authorities was the security question.

At 10 past 7, I was called by an official from the office. I got dressed and off I went. Some of my fellow prisoners noticed me passing and one (serving a 15 year term) “insulted me”, thinking that I was about to be released. I put on the watch I had bought and carried with me a neck tie which Bintang had given me when it seemed likely that I would be called as a witness in the trial of Wilson. Almost the entire staff of the prison was out the front. I don’t know what was going through their minds ….

Inside the prison chief’s office, there were 5 officials dressed in safari suits and batik shirts. We conversed very amiably for a while, whilst one of them contacted the “operational command”. Nelson Mandela was apparently still out and about somewhere and would only be available in another half an hour or so.

About 20 minutes later we were ordered to depart. When they tried to get me to put on a batik shirt, I refused and told them I was going to put on my tie. They agreed and so off we went.

What looked like a Timor car was waiting outside. Three guys, probably from BIA, Bakin or the police, were my guards. They shook hands with me repeatedly, saying that they trusted me and that they knew nothing untoward was going to happen along the way etc. I tried to put them at ease and the ride to our destination was quite pleasant.

We passed alongside the Monas monument, some statues of prancing horses and then a little further on we entered the grounds of the presidential palace.

I was directed to a door and in we went. It was a small compartment, lined with mirrors on each wall. I searched for a door through which to pass, with my reflection staring back at me from every direction. It was only when the door closed that I realised I was in an elevator! The buttons indicated that we were headed for the 6th floor. Getting out of the lift, I was greeted by some officials of the Dept of Foreign Affairs. One of them told me that Chico Lopes was present too, and that I was to dine with the President. I was a little stunned, never having attended before a gala dinner, let alone with a president.

Despite the fact that back at the prison, one of my guards had addressed me in English, and so too with one of the Deplu officials there in the Istana, I was even more stunned when I contemplated how I was going to communicate with Nelson Mandela. The prospect of Chico Lopes acting as my interpreter didn’t take my fancy, since I’d already had an experience of this with Clementino Amaral and the National Commission of Human Rights and the Legal Aid Institute.

After about a 5 minute wait, I was led down some stairs by a Deplu official, probably from the protocol section. We entered a room which was full of South Africans, and then after passing through another door, I was asked to wait. As I entered, I saw Chico Lopes chatting with the South African president.

I had already prepared to greet him with “It’s a great honour for me to meet Your Excellence”. As I shook his hand, this is precisely what I said, and in response I heard him utter “I’m honoured to see you”. Inside I felt embarrassed, but imagined that such a form of address was more formality than anything. However, for my part it was truly an honour given my situation as a prisoner and his tremendous international political stature.

He guided me to a table whilst explaining that we would eat while talking. I imagine that he would simply indicate my place at the table, however he actually pulled out my chair for me and invited me to sit down prior to taking his own place. I felt … so small! And a little horrified by what was happening to me!!! Deep down in my soul, however, I also felt an unmeasurable happiness because I knew and I felt that my people were being respected and, at the same time, this was a political lesson for Chico Lopes. Only out of respect for Nelson Mandela did I contain my hatred of the guy.

There were three chairs at the table, however it appeared that either Chico was an uninvited guest or that Mandela had invited him to join us for dinner only at the last minute since there were only two places set at the table. Mandela said that he hadn’t counted on Chico’s presence, but that if he wished to eat ….. My first test was about to commence. I was a little disconcerted but at the same time quite calm. I knew that Mandela would forgive me my awkwardness in terms of table manners, and besides I was determined not to do anything to embarrass myself. My pride as a Timorese dictated that I avoid giving Chico Lopes the slightest opportunity to call me a “savage” or “man of the jungles”.

While we waited to be served, Nelson Mandela began to speak, enquiring as to whether I had been informed that he wished to meet with me. I responded that indeed I had been informed of this at 4 pm that afternoon. As you can imagine, he spoke neither Portuguese, Tetum nor Bahasa Indonesia.

He had told Suharto that it wasn’t possible for him to avoid bringing up the problem of East Timor since prior to his departure from Africa various human rights organisations had demanded that he do just this. And he had requested a meeting with me. At first, Suharto didn’t accept the request. However, Mandela explained to the dictator that when he himself was in prison he had received visits from various foreign entities (he named them all one by one, but I don’t remember now who they were) and also South African government officials.

And apparently this had the effect of changing Suharto’s mind. He told me that his intervention was in the context of achieving peace, and he spoke of the need for peace …. and we began our meal.

He spoke of the history of the process of reconciliation in South Africa, the first secret meetings with government officials who demanded that he distance himself from the Communist faction, and then the various compromises reached between the different parties involved. He said that every freedom fighter must remain true to his or her principles, without which he or she ceases to be a freedom fighter, however …. without abandoning those same principles, one must remain focussed on achieving peace. And peace can only be attained through dialogue.

The conversation was interrupted, because Mandela preferred chicken to fish …

He told me that he had known of the East Timor problem for a long time, that he is interested in assisting us to find peace, and that I should consider the possibility of autonomy. He added that Soeharto is also interested in the problem, and Soeharto “and you” are good people who have it within our capacity to come to an understanding and to achieve peace.

I had my eyes on him the whole time and gave him my full attention as he spoke, particularly since I needed to concentrate fully in order to understand his words in English. Fortunately he spoke slowly and his English was that of an African. When he started talking about autonomy, I began to eat and I let him speak … after all, I was hungry by this time. He seemed to note my attitude ….

He went on, saying that personally “I support your struggle”, but as a mediator, he needed to remain neutral. He said that the Indonesian government is prepared to enter into a dialogue with me and he asked whether or not I myself was open to dialogue with the government.

I apologized for not being able to express myself well in English and he responded that this was not a problem and that he doesn’t know Portuguese … and then he remembered …

“My companion, Graca Machel, sends you her greetings, she knows a lot about you and is a great fan of yours. Unfortunately she had to leave for London already because her son is about to undergo an eye operation” …. and then he explained how Mozambique was a great supporter of the ANC, Samora Machel, Marcelino dos Santos etc. I thanked him and had earnt the courage to go on …

I told him that I had always been open to dialogue and that we had always shown ourselves to be prepared to talk, however it had always been the Indonesian government which had taken a position of inflexibility.

He then asked whether he could take notes. This assisted me immensely, because it allowed me to think, i.e. to choose my words in English carefully. I regretted so much that Graca Machel couldn’t be present as this would have permitted me to express myself more clearly in Portuguese.

I told him that I wasn’t sure whether I should be taken the question of autonomy seriously given that Soeharto himself had rejected the notion on many occasions.

Chico Lopes then interjected, saying that Suharto hadn’t actually rejected autonomy outright, but rather that he was against the general concept of autonomy being granted to all of Indonesia’s provinces.

I’m weary, having played soccer today, but tomorrow I will continue. Good night. You must be in Irian Jaya now.

16 July, 1997

I reiterated our desire for peace and our preparedness to enter into dialogue.

I tried to remember the year in which I had proposed dialogue without pre- conditions and the idiot Chico did me the favour of prompting me by saying that it was in 1983 that there had been meetings with Mario Carrascalão, possibly insinuating that already back then I had shown myself open to dialogue with the Indonesian government. Mandela seemed interested and took a lot of notes.

He asked me some questions and I explained the process whereby I had proposed a peace plan with UN intervention, but that Benny Murdani had stated that if we didn’t surrender he would exterminate us, and that that statement had precipitated the end of the cease-fire.

I mentioned our preparedness to enter into dialogue without preconditions, given that if both sides remained inflexible it would be impossible to find a basis for dialogue and then I reminded him of the CNRM Peace Plan.

He referred to the fact that the apartheid regime of South Africa, in the difficult years of their first approach to him, had been most concerned about saving face, and so I told him that the CNRM Peace Plan provided Indonesia with a solution whereby they could avoid losing face. I stated that it has only been Indonesia’s inflexibility which has precluded the possibility of dialogue since what we want is a frank and open dialogue. Indonesia has always stuck fast to the line that it is us who must accept that East Timor is integrated.

I said to him “Mr President, I’m sure you understand that we can never accept that, under threat of violence, our people must state that they accept integration”. (I should have called him “your excellency”). “I see”, he replied as he noted down what I had said. I informed him that recently the government had arrested (and it was Chico Lopes who helped me with the word “arrest” in English) over 300 people.

I recalled that 17 July was the anniversary of Integration. Mandela asked in what year East Timor had been “integrated”. Chico Lopes replied without hesitation “1977”. I added quickly that in that year only 10% of the population was under Indonesian control and that 90% were holding out in the bush, dying from bomb attacks, hunger and disease. And that since then over 200,000 had died as a result of the war Indonesia had waged against our people.

Mandela asked whether the same percentage of people continue to resist today and I told him that in 1978 and 1979 large-scale operations were launched against the population and many were taken into custody. I impressed upon him that the 17th of July had no significance whatsoever in either the political or the legal sense.

I pointed to Chico and told Mandela that he had been the president of a nationalist party and that we acknowledged our mistakes of the past, above all our political immaturity. For reasons of ideological difference, Chico had broken away from the …. I was searching for the word “coligacao” in English, and Chico prompted me with “coalition”. I continued, saying that Chico Lopes had opted for integration. The idiot interjected with “no, independence with Indonesia”, and I shot a dagger of a look in his direction.

Now, as Ambassador …. Mandela asked me what I meant by “ambassador”, and so, no longer referring to Chico as “Mr Lopes” but simply as “he”, I went on to describe his work of travelling the world and defending the position of the Indonesians. Chico tried to correct my by saying “to handle”, and I cut him off, insisting “to defend the Indonesian government’s position”. Mandela continued taking notes and said “I see ….”.

Chico Lopes looked embarrassed, and he tried to hide this by explaining that the two of us had been colleagues in the seminary and that I was a poet and a painter …

When he had finished, I noticed that what he was trying to do was to cut short my conversation with Mandela. I explained to Mandela that it was Chico who travelled the world saying that East Timor was integrated, that all the East Timorese are happy under Indonesian occupation (Chico interrupted with “I didn’t say everybody, I said the majority”), calling us terrorists just as the regime in South Africa used to refer to the ANC. And then I went on “Mr President, it is a great honour for me to have this opportunity to talk with you, and I am tremendously grateful for the help you have offered, however I must say how very, very sad it makes me to consider that an East Timorese like Chico Lopes (I pointed in his direction) is prepared to deny the blood shed by his own people, to ignore the deaths caused by the war in East Timor …

This man has chosen to forget the blood of his own brothers and the suffering of our people”. The idiot was embarrassed and all he could utter was “ya, ya”. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to sock him in the face! Mandela and I then began to exchange a few words in English and I was just getting warmed up when Chico broke in, saying that integration was legitimate because four parties had signed the Balibo Declaration.Without hesitation, I exclaimed that four parties did not necessarily mean that their was majority support for integration. Mandela came to my defence, saying “no, not necessarily”. Chico then added that it was noted at the UN that UDT had the support of around 50% of the population. I almost shouted at him “And how can you prove that? Was a referendum ever held?”. Mandela had been following our conversation and when he noticed that I was getting heated, he said “no, no, stop fighting. Please stop fighting!”

I asked his apology and then he went on to explain that his role wasn’t to resolve the conflict, but rather to mediate in a process of dialogue between me and the Indonesian government. And that his sole objective was to see peace returned to the territory.

I told him that I had heard that South Africa intended to become a member of the Non-Aligned Movement. He said yes and that the next NAM conference would be held in South Africa.

I reminded him that Indonesia, co-founder of the Movement, had violated the principles of NAM along with international law, universal principles and the norms of decolonisation. I told him that I understood what his intention was in relating the process of reconciliation in South Africa. Whilst the objectives of the struggle of the ANC may be similar to our own, the case of South Africa and East Timor are in fact totally different. East Timor was a case of the violation of international law. UN resolutions had condemned the invasion and peace in East Timor was an impossible goal in the absence of respect for international law, for universal principles and those of the Non-Aligned Movement.

I found myself searching for the word “realçar” in English and, as had been the case a few times already, I was forced to turn to Chico Lopes for help. “Make clear” came Lopes’ reply, and so I turned to Mandela and said, “I want to make clear that, whilst remaining open to any proposals for dialogue, no solution is possible outside the context of the United Nations. I defend the Portuguese position”. Mandela then asked what exactly the Portuguese position was and it was Chico Lopes who responded with “self-determination”. I added that Portugal is recognised by the UN as the administrative power and therefore whilst I was appreciative of his efforts in attaining peace and of the approaches he had made to the Indonesian government, East Timor continues to be a problem of the international community.

As Mandela was busily taking down notes, the idiot Chico once again attempted to sidetrack the conversation, asking me how old I was and going on to inform Mandela that we used to play basketball together …

I went on, “We want peace. My people have suffered too long already. We have learnt a great deal from what happened in South Africa and I assure you, Mr President, that when peace comes to East Timor there will be no more bloodshed, no more violence, no traitors nor heroes, because what we aspire to is true freedom for our homeland”.

Mandela then said “I appreciate very much your position” and went on to state that a man without principles is not worthy of respect. He stated that he was pleased to have this opportunity to get better acquainted with aspects of the East Timor struggle. “You have many friends abroad”, he said, adding that he would transmit the contents of our discussion to Suharto (he kept saying Soekarno or Suharno), including my preparedness to begin talking to the Indonesian government. He gave his commitment that he would do everything in his power to continue to mediate, that he hoped to meet me again and that Suharno is a reasonable man who he doesn’t believe will deny him further access to me.

He said that he had already taken his leave of Suharto but that he would report to him on his meeting. As he was due to depart from Indonesia the following morning at 7am, there ended our meeting. I thanked him again for his interest in the problem of East Timor and asked him to present my greetings to Madame Machel. Chico and I then had to help to get him up from his chair due to the rheumatism in his knees!

In the interests of good diplomacy, I exchanged a word or two with Chico, shook his hand. He made some statement to the effect that he hoped we would soon reach a solution, and without hesitating I added, “yes, that doesn’t offend the spirit of our people”.

Mandela and someone who I presumed to be his secretary looked on and laughed whilst I thought to myself “another diplomatic victory. Mandela will go away with the impression that we Timorese are a politically mature bunch”.

We said our goodbyes and just as I was spouting forth about being honoured to have met him, Mandela mouthed the same sentiment, and …. home I came.

On the journey home I kept the guards amused and it was after 10:30 pm by the time we reached Cipinang once more.

All of the staff of the prison on night duty greeted me as if I was some celebrity or other. I know that they were all astounded by what had happened so unexpectedly that night, and had a thousand and one questions and doubts in their minds …

It had been the first time that a prisoner had left wearing a tie, and had then returned hours later. When I got out of the car which returned me to the prison, the military men who had accompanied me shook my hand vigorously, grateful that I hadn’t attempted to escape or something of the sort. I was aware that the prison officials, including the head of security, were also relieved and that on a similar occasion in future I would have their full support and trust.

Oh, I almost forgot. Mandela told me that, because there had been pressure exerted on him to visit me from groups outside Indonesia, he was planning not to divulge details of our conversation, if asked. Chico then took the opportunity to request that Mandela appeal to Suharto to authorise future meetings between the two of us.

At one point in the conversation Chico told Mandela that it was I who had requested the meeting with him, and that he (Chico) had relayed this request to Suharto. I thought about denying what he was saying but then thought better of getting drawn into those deliberate attempts of Chico’s to sidetrack the conversation. He was presented with a number of good opportunities to do this when Mandela was taking notes since, being 78 years old, he wrote very slowly and in large letters. I must say I was impressed that he had no need for glasses, although I did notice that he uses a hearing-aid.

As he related things about the history of the struggle in South Africa, he had his finger always pointed in the direction of Chico Lopes, even though he was speaking to me. He apologised for pointing, stating that he was aware that it was impolite in Indonesian culture, and Lopes responded that it was not a problem given that the Timorese have been influenced by Portuguese culture. I jumped in, saying “we are different, we have different cultures”.

In short, I had a very special night. I conducted myself quite well in the course of the dinner, following the principle of “do as they do”. I followed Mandela’s example, imitating his table manners, and it turned out well for me. I have no idea what the name of the dishes served were, however the food was nothing special.

The following morning at 8 am I was called by the head of prison security. I knew that what he wanted was to question me about the meeting with Mandela. I gave him a general idea, explaining that Chico Lopes had been presented, had noted everything I said and had undertaken to report himself to President Suharto.

The essential points I made were my perception that Mandela wished to act as a mediator in the conflict and that he intended to assist in facilitating contact between me and the Indonesian government. He asked me whether I had accepted to enter into dialogue with the government, and I replied in the affirmative, adding that the resistance had always been open to dialogue. I explained that Mandela’s objective was to achieve a peaceful resolution given that the conflict had dragged on for 22 years.

We were interrupted by the head of the prison. I backed off, and noted that the security head was relating to the prison chief what I had just told him. I was called back and asked whether Chico Lopes had acted as interpreter. I said no, and that he had been present merely as a witness and that he had taken note of everything I said to Mandela and vice-versa. He asked about Portugal. The question was unexpected and out of context, and I knew that Chico must already have communicated something to them in this regard, and they were seeking confirmation from me.

And so I explained that, whilst I accepted dialogue with the Indonesian government, I could not deny the fact that East Timor is a case for the UN. Even if I were to come to accept integration, the UN would continue to defend an internationally acceptable solution. I gave the example of Cambodia where Indonesia had acted as mediator but within the context of UN intervention, and went on to explain that I was unable to act in an individual capacity and to neglect the role of Portugal and the UN. He nodded his understanding and then changed the subject.

There was a problem, he said. Since June the Portuguese media had been reporting that I had written a two page letter supporting the running of a Congress by East Timorese in that country. I said at once that this was not possible and then explained that I was the leader and that it was customary in certain circumstances for the resistance leadership abroad to make statements to the effect that I support certain initiatives or resolutions.

Thus what the leadership abroad is doing gains some validity and credibility in the eyes of the international community. It is a question of moral and diplomatic support.

Timorese abroad understand that I accept personally the risks and, even if I were to be sent to Nusa Kambangan, they would continue to claim things in my name. This is part of the struggle. I explained that quite often my colleagues in the resistance, if asked by journalists, will state that they are acting with my blessing and that they have been in direct contact with me.

I had once requested of the military intelligence officials that they allow me to write directly to Ramos Horta with a request that they refrain from making declarations of this kind in future, but the intelligence had turned me down. I explained that for as long as I am in prison, this sort of thing is bound to continue. He accepted what I said, asked me to sign a statement, thanked me and that was the end of it.

Footnote by Xanana Gusmão – 8 December 2013

From this time onwards I began to have regular contact with Francisco Lopes da Cruz through Manuel Serrano (current Timor-Leste Ambassador to Indonesia), strengthening the friendship we had developed during our years at the Seminary.

Mr Lopes da Cruz sent me money for rehabilitation of the prison chapel, repair of the roof of the administration building, construction of a physiotherapy facility in the prison clinic, of public toilet facilities and of a bastketball and tennis court.

He also contributed funds to purchase of trophies for the various sporting competitions held in Cipinang prison.