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creating yourself: an interview with jill jolliffe


© Mark Hale, Sydney 2012

© Mark Hale, Sydney 2012


‘In 1982 I reported on fighting between Polisario Front guerrillas and Moroccan troops in the Western Sahara, and in 1988 had an adrenaline-drenched experience when caught in a South African artillery attack, during Angola’s battle of Cuito Cuanavale.’

This is Jill Jolliffe, writing in Finding Santana, her book about travelling to meet an East Timorese guerrilla leader. A veteran foreign correspondent who has worked across the globe for Reuters, The Guardian, the BBC and Sydney Morning Herald, Jill is brave. The sort of brave some people call crazy.

With seven nonfiction books and several TV documentaries under her belt, Jill’s collection of terrifying scenes could fill a library. Repeatedly, she has put her safety at risk in order to uncover ugly truths. She was present when Indonesian troops stormed East Timor in 1975; travelled undercover across the archipelago, and uncovered the now prolific murders of five Australian journalists (her book on this being the basis for 2009 film Balibo).

And that’s only within two countries.

In person, Jill is similar to her writing style: pragmatic with an even warmth. Her stories, especially those from the beginning of her career, speak to me. As a young writer, I need some of that determination; I need to take some risks.

Illustrator Austin Kleon writes, ‘Forget discovering yourself. Create yourself.’ And that’s exactly what Jill did.

‘In 1975,’ Jill says of her introduction to this life, ‘There was a civil war in Portuguese Timor – the Portuguese decolonisation set it off. Following a revolution in Portugal in 1974, its new leaders announced they would withdraw from the country’s far-flung African and Asian colonies. In Timor this triggered a civil war between Timorese factions, paving the way for a long-planned takeover by Indonesia.’

An activist at university, Jill was a speaker at a Vietnamese moratorium in Melbourne. Despite her limited experience she didn’t wait for a big break or anyone’s permission; she jumped on a plane.

Jill joined an Australian delegate on a 48-hour visit to Timor, and as the team were preparing to board their return flight she announced she was staying on. Alone in a foreign country, and with little professional experience, she began work as a foreign correspondent.

Beginning is always the hardest step. At the beginning of my career, it’s easy for me to balance on the precipice of my own inexperience, frozen by my lack of knowledge.

Jill wasn’t frozen. With a little luck, she got the opportunity to work for one of the largest news organisations in the world.

‘When I got to Timor, and I made the statement that I wasn’t coming back, this guy from Reuters offered me this job.’

After securing work with Reuters, Jill reached out to a friend who worked for The Times in London. He passed on copies of his articles in exchange for her knowledge and contacts in Dili. Copying his style and structure, Jill learnt the process of newswriting.

‘I had to write these stories that were very short, and tell the world an enormous amount in such a small space. It was the best discipline a young writer could have.’

Jill stayed in East Timor for three months and faced a steep learning curve. One of the daily obstacles of a reporting was using outdated technology (even for 1975!)

‘I had to race every day to meet the radio line that was open to a telecommunications post in Darwin. They used the Marconi system. So you needed to send your stories to Darwin and you had to send them by Morse Code.’

And I feel frustrated when my keyboard freezes.

Volatile technology isn’t the only hurdling block for young writers: hundreds of bloggers have written about daily fear. One must learn to silence the Whisper of Not Being Good Enough early on. A foreign correspondent, however, often has no time for these indulgences when instead she is fearing for her life.

Jill is casual when speaking about her 1994 capture by the Indonesian government. In a dark night of pursuit by the secret police, she and a companion ran and hid. ‘We were lying in a ditch all night, and I looked up and we were surrounded.’

She knew what kind of danger she was in after years of reporting on human rights atrocities committed by Indonesian forces. Electric shocks. Fingernails pulled out with pliers. Beatings.

‘Oh, they hated me because I knew too much about Indonesia and about East Timor – they didn’t want any witnesses.’

Aware of the very real threat of rape and execution, Jill displayed her typical resourcefulness and politely demanded her captors allow her to call the Australian ambassador. She was expelled from East Timor unharmed.

In Finding Santana, Jill writes about the ongoing anxiety of avoiding capture when entering Sumatra via ferry:

‘Somehow I went through the motions, achieving external calm, but could not control a visibly trembling hand while giving my passport over the counter.’ While inner fear is a constant theme of her text, not once did Jill turn back.

Learning from this veteran, I now have somewhat of an instruction manual. Create yourself. Start writing. And be crazy brave.


Jill’s memoir Run For Your Life, will be published by Affirm Press in mid-2014.

11 thoughts on “creating yourself: an interview with jill jolliffe

  1. I would like to make contact with Jill Jolliffe. I am researching attitudes to people with disabilities in East Timor for a PhD and I have been wondering what happened to those people during Portuguese and Indonesian times. With her long association with East Timor I hoped that she may have some ideas that I could follow up.

    I have been to East Timor many times, firstly in Portuguese times and quite a few times since 1999, always working with people with disabilities.

    looking forward to hearing from someone with ideas or contacts,

    • I would like to get in contact with Jill as I knew her in the mid seventies when we were both students at the ANU I am also trying to catch up with mutual friends such as John Paisley (now working in China) and Rod Quinn.

  2. I would also like to get in contact with Jill as I am currently producing a publication which I think she may be interested in contributing towards. Is someone please able to pass on my contact details to her (or vice versa). Kind Regards.

  3. I would like to contact Jill. I was at High School with her adopted brother, Tony. I remember going back to school after the May holidays when I told Tony that I had broken my collar bone during the holidays, when my horse threw me off. He scoffed saying “no you haven’t” and with that gave me an almighty whack in the shoulder which sent almost as much pain through me, as the night I actually fell from my horse!! I did have fond memories of him, even though he did that. What is he doing now??

    • I was a Matthew a Flinders Girls Secondary School with Jill. She was always held up to us as an example of what we should not be. We were very naive and Jill’ s antics left us overwhelmed by her antics. We had no idea of what she had been through or was going through. I admired her writing and cartoon skills and followed her writings over the years. Recently I heard her interview with Phillip Adams on Late Night Live, where she shared about her early life and childhood
      Jill, I felt extreme shame at the way we treated you as classmates and all these years later would like to apologise to you for the pain& rejection you must have felt! I deeply feel the need to apologise and ask your forgiveness for shunning you, or talking about you and all the other cruel things teenage girls do, especially when the chips were down. One particular occassion was when you faced humiliation in front of the whole school, being stripped of your school blazer pocket, in order to disgrace you. I ashamed to say there were many other times when you were publicly punished or put down.
      Looking back I don’t know how you stood so strongly. It certainly seems to have given you an inner strength resilience and determination that you have turned into a real positive in revealing even worse atrocities in the lives of others across the world.
      Jill, I applaud you for you courage and strength to face the many dangers as a foreign correspondent in order to reveal the true happenings to a world where most people were either not really interested or complacently living their every day lives in the comfort of suburban Australia.
      If you would like to contact me I would be delighted to talk to you.

  4. Hi, I am Jill’s adopted brother’s Tony ex partner. Mitchell my son is Jill’s nephew and Mitchell has spoken about Jill and I know he would be happy to have contact with Jill. Regards Melissa Jantzen.

  5. I know this is a long shot on an old thread, but I’d like to contact Jill about getting copies of her books here in the US where they’re dismally few. I’ve tried inter-library loan – only 4 copies seem to exist in the WorldCatalogue of Run For Your Life here in the US but none of those 4 libraries will loan their copy. I can’t even seem to find an online store in Australia who has it to purchase. I’d be grateful if someone could lead me to a source.

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