Xanana Gusmao, who turns 60 this year, achieved legendary status among his men and ordinary East Timorese by battling Indonesia's occupying military from rugged hills during the 24-year struggle.
Despite having few resources, his tactic of small-scale attacks across the territory stretched Indonesia's military, and even after he was captured in 1992 the poet-warrior continued to direct the resistance from behind bars.
Three years after East Timor won a secession vote in 1999 and opted for independence, Gusmao was overwhelmingly elected president on a tide of people power despite his reluctance.
"I always said I would like to be a pumpkin farmer. It is still my dream," he said then. "I never ever wanted to be president. I still don't want to be president. I'm hoping that in five years' time I can serve you a big pumpkin."
Four years on, those words have not exactly come true.
On Tuesday, Gusmao assumed emergency powers in East Timor, taking sole control of the army following days of violence in the tiny, impoverished nation.
He said the decision was made in concert with Mari Alkatiri, the prime minister, who had a few days earlier accused him of plotting a coup d'etat as the country has been torn apart by a bloody factional dispute.
A 2,500-strong Australian-led
force is patrolling Dili streets
Battles between renegade soldiers and government troops coupled with mob violence between ethnic gangs has reduced the nation to a state of lawlessness, with fires and bloodshed throughout the capital Dili.
As overseas troops led by Australia try to restore order, crowds gathered in the street chanting Gusmao's name and urging him to sack Alkatiri and assume control of the fledgling nation.
On Monday, Gusmao had played peacemaker, trying to quell the street violence rather than foment it as he did during his years as a guerrilla commander.
"We promise to make national unity so things will come back to normal again"
East Timor president
"If you trust me, please, western and eastern, embrace each other in your home, be calm and help others to be calm," Gusmao told crowds outside the presidential palace.
"I ask you to calm down," he said. "Don't take up your swords. Don't burn houses, don't make violence. We promise to make national unity so things will come back to normal again."
As president, Gusmao, who is married to Australian Kirsty Sword - an aid worker he met while in prison and with whom he has three young children - is largely consigned to a ceremonial role.
Hatred and revenge
As negotiations continued at the presidential palace, Gusmao's emphasis on unity and peace struck a familiar chord.
The seminary-educated former civil servant and army corporal in Portugal's colonial administration has made it his policy to forgive and forget.
After his election in 2002, he told his war-weary and divided people: "We must do our best to eradicate old sentiments of hatred and revenge ... otherwise we are living with the ghosts of the past."
The violence of the past weeks has shown that those ghosts have not yet been laid to rest.