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Mightier Than the Sword

Australian Author Jill Jolliffe penned a book that helped rally the world to campaign for a free Timor-Leste

Balibo cover art

To hear noted Australian author Jill Jolliffe talk about her life documenting the con- flict in Timor-Leste from its very start is to get a lesson in happenstance and history.

“At the time, I was a would-be Australian author,” she says. “Almost by chance, I had a trip to East Timor in early 1975 before the trouble started. It [the scenes I witnessed] moved me enormously.”

The graduate from the prestigious Australian National University turned crusading journalist spent three months filing stories to Reuters from war-torn Dili.

Her deadlines were tight, but she was getting her first taste of war reporting, witnessing firsthand the incursions of the Indonesian army into Timor-Leste that September in an exacting conflict that would last a generation.

“It was the birth of a new young country, but it didn’t come right away. It was postponed for many years,” she said.

After spending three months in Dili, she returned to Australia to focus on investigative journalism. She signed a contract to write books; and, in 1978, published East Timor: Nationalism and Colonialism, which called attention to the atrocities committed against the Timorese.

“I wasn’t going to let it go,it could have been me very easily. And then, I had this feeling, ‘If it had it been me, my last thought as a journalist would be, ‘I hope somebody tells this story.’ I decided I would be that person.” Australian author Jill Jolliffe

Her quest to tell the story of Timor-Leste continued through the years: In 1989, she published Timor, Terra Sagrenta (Timor: The Killing Fields). In 2009, she published Balibo the product of more than 30 years of personal investigations and exhaustive research into the killing and subsequent cover-up of five Australian television journalists.

In the book, Jolliffe pulls no punches: She slept in the same hotel a fortnight before the journalists were killed and narrowly es- caped death herself.

“I wasn’t going to let it go,” she said. “It could have been me very easily. And then, I had this feeling, ‘If it had it been me, my last thought as a journalist would be, ‘I hope somebody tells this story.’ I decided I would be that person.”

The book was later loosely adopted into Balibo, a critically acclaimed film that was screened throughout Australia. “I think it’s important for the story to be told,” she said. “We need to finally have re- spect for human rights. Those are eternal lessons.”

A Continuing Commitment

Jill Jolliffe Jill Jolliffe

Jolliffe continues to stay involved in the happenings of Timor-Leste. She flies to Dili regularly and has been spearheading a project with former political prisoners and survivors of torture. She interviews them and uses video to record their stories.

The idea, she said, is to leave an oral history behind for future generations. Many in the younger generation do not know about their historic leaders.

“It is really to educate others about human rights and work for the abolition of torture once and for all,” she said.

Jolliffe says she is not done writing about Timor-Leste a country that she believes remains an ongoing story.

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