The woman in black is waiting for him. Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's poet-revolutionary and de facto leader, is working his way through a crowd of admirers. When he reaches her, she throws her arms around him and sobs uncontrollably on his shoulder. Her husband and brother were killed by the Indonesian-backed militia last September--what should she do with her five children? Gusmao holds her for a very long time, all the while talking in a low, soothing voice. Then he reaches up and gently wipes tears from the woman's face, kisses her on both cheeks and moves on. The mass of people around him have backed off and gone silent.
Gusmao's life is full of such powerful moments these days. Minutes later the crowd has raised him on their shoulders, and Gusmao is pumping his followers up again with his trademark rallying cry: "Viiiiva East Timorrrr! Viiiiva independencia!"
They have no food in this village of Padiai in the Oecussi district, 110 miles west of Dili, the capital. Most of their homes are still charred remnants of the militia's rampage six months ago. Virtually everybody has a tale of torture, rape or murder. But Gusmao has come to them as savior and healer. After 500 years of Portuguese colonization and 24 more of Indonesian occupation, the people of East Timor now revel in one man's promise of freedom from fear.
When East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia last Aug. 30, many outsiders sensed a political and economic disaster. What good could come to 850,000 people living on half an island a thousand miles from nowhere? Sure enough, after the vote, the rebuffed Indonesian troops killed, burned and looted all they could on their way home. A graffito they left on the walls of Dili promised that A FREE EAST TIMOR WILL EAT STONES. Some 1,000 East Timorese died, and more than three-quarters of the population fled their homes, according to U.N. estimates. East Timor joined the world's list of nations at the very bottom: the World Bank estimated per capita GDP at $240, on a par with nations like Mozambique and Ethiopia.
But something remarkable is happening on this half an island. Gusmao, 53, a former guerrilla leader and political prisoner, has tapped into reserves that are out of reach of the World Bank and the IMF, reserves of willpower and pride the people themselves barely knew existed. Exuding the authority of Nelson Mandela and the charisma of Che Guevara, Gusmao has been traveling the country spreading his vision of the future. "All of us must let go of the bad things they have done to us," he said in his first speech after returning to Timor in October, "because the future is ours." Timorese may be hungry, but for the first time they are learning to stand on their own feet. "The man is shaping the nation," says Father Filomeno Jacob, a Jesuit priest in Dili who worked secretly with the resistance beginning in the 1980s. "He believes he is the embodiment of people's hopes."