Memoir of meeting resistance fighter

East Timor resistance fighter Nino Santana with Jill Jollife.

Finding Santana
By Jill Jolliffe
Wakefield Press, 2010
177 pages, $24.95 (pb)

Jill Jolliffe's encounter with the Komodo Dragon, a carnivorous, aggressive, pre-historic lizard, was "hair-raising". But even more threatening were the murderous agents from the Indonesian secret police, with their de facto uniform of "cropped hair, trim moustache, Rolex watch and Ray-Ban sunglasses".

Komodo Island was an unplanned diversion for Jolliffe, a Portuguese-based, Australian journalist whose memoir Finding Santana recounts her quest to interview the guerilla leader Nino Santana, in the mountains of East Timor in 1994.

East Timor was militarily occupied and under the heel of the the Indonesian Suharto dictatorship.

Jolliffe had reason to fear the worst the dictatorship did not care two hoots for journalists ("they had killed six of us during the invasion in 1975").

They were especially hostile to those reporting on East Timor's independence struggle. Along with resistance supporters, they were tagged “public security disturbers” a label of death dating from Suharto's 1965 coup during which half a million people had been killed "in the name of suppressing communism".

Jolliffe had been blacklisted since the invasion, her photo displayed inside police and military posts throughout Indonesia.

One hair makeover later, Jolliffe entered Indonesia as Jane Carlton, real estate agent from Sydney on an eight week tourist visa.

Through her contacts in the socialist Timorese underground in Jakarta, Jolliffe began her undercover adventure with all the comical mishaps of the novice secret agent.

Standing alone on a street corner at a designated meeting place, "the great master spy [is] mistaken for a prostitute and almost walks away tamely with the first man who beckoned".

Constantly on the move, "trying to remain invisible in hotels slept in for the shortest possible time", sharing cheap, nightmare digs with rats and skin lice, the seriousness underlying her 3000 kilometre journey across the Indonesian archipelago soon becomes apparent.

Only patient discipline, healthy paranoia and an ability to lie consistently keeps Jolliffe one fraught step ahead of the dictator's secret police, to a successful meeting with the 39-year-old Santana.

The guerilla leader was suffering from malaria, tooth decay, unextracted bullets lodged in his body and self-doubt about his leadership ability as the turnover of captured guerilla leaders asked profound questions of those thrust into resistance authority.

What Jolliffe found was an answer built on the resilient sinews of grassroots support for the resistance. For example, men, women and children in the villages collecting bullets, one-by-one, for the fighters at enormous personal risk.

She found "moving testimony of the dedication of ordinary people to the guerilla leadership", whose army controls the nights, countering the dictatorship line that armed resistance has been quelled.

A follow-up attempt by Jolliffe to record a TV documentary in November 1994, however, went disastrously wrong. Betrayed by an informer in resistance ranks, her every move was under constant surveillance and she was captured.

Questioned against the background of torture cells, which housed "good people who had helped us", and intimidated by the dictator's thugs, refuge seemed far off because of "the Australian consul's refusal to assist".

Australia was the strongest international supporter of Indonesia's illegal occupation of East Timor having signed a deal for control of the oil in the Timor Sea with the occupiers.

"As a public critic of Australian foreign policy, I was regarded with hostility in diplomatic circles," notes Jolliffe who was "acutely conscious" that Canberra "had conspired with the Suharto dictatorship for the annexation of East Timor".

For two decades Australia had supported the summary executions, arbitrary imprisonments, routine torture and "mass deaths in the countryside from bombardment, starvation and disease".

Jolliffe was eventually extricated through the precarious cracks in the monolith of dictatorship (not all her detainers in the immigration department were friends of the "professional nail-pullers") and through a principled ABC radio announcer whose live interview with Jolliffe embarrassed Canberra into belated, last-minute action.

Jolliffe's brush with the dictatorship resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jolliffe was also, however, one of many examples of courageous resistance that freed East Timor and toppled a tyranny.