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Working with Australian Defence Force Interpreters in Timor 1999 and Aceh 2005: Reflections Drawn from Personal Experience

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Communication, Interpreting and Language in Wartime

Part of the book series: Palgrave Studies in Languages at War ((PASLW))


Working with language specialists offers unique challenges and opportunities. This chapter focuses on the author’s experience in working remotely with interpreters on Australian Defence Force deployments during military operations. This was particularly significant during the peacekeeping campaign in East Timor in 1999 and the humanitarian aid relief provided in Indonesia following the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2005. The need to be flexible and to adapt to differing levels of language support is made apparent in these two case studies, where contributions made by various specialists in these high-tempo environments are examined.

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  1. 1.

    For more on these deployments see Peter Londey (2004), Other People’s Wars: A History of Australian Peacekeeping (Sydney: Allen & Unwin).

  2. 2.

    Author’s notes. According to a field notebook stub written by the author and signed by Agun.

  3. 3.

    ‘Commanders’ Intent’ is the military term used to neatly summarise the preferred mission outcomes intended by any number of simultaneous activities at the direction of the person in command, the Commander. Meeting the Commanders’ Intent in a public affairs sense may mean to communicate—through words and pictures transmitted by multiple news-media channels—those outcomes.

  4. 4.

    Originally the author was instructed to pack civilian clothes and fly to Phuket, Thailand as part of the Disaster Victim Identification operation. Between boarding a domestic flight from Townsville and arriving at the mounting headquarters in Brisbane, Australia, that mission had changed from Thailand to Indonesia and required field kit for what was expected to be several weeks of living in harsh conditions.

  5. 5.

    Richard Gehrmann, Matt Grant, and Samantha Rose (2015), ‘Australian Unarmed Peacekeepers on Bougainville, 1997–2003’, Peace Review, 27:1, pp. 52–60.

  6. 6.

  7. 7.

    Defence Public Affairs Press Release 277/99 released by Defence Public Affairs Organisation 16 September 1999

  8. 8.

    In the early days of the deployment, smoke began streaming from a neighbouring building to Headquarters INTERFET. The Force Regimental Sergeant Major, Dale Sales, stuck his head out of a second-floor window and enquired loudly of nobody in particular: ‘Is anyone going to do something about that?’ Together with a few others the author jumped the fence and entered the building to find a number of fuel-soaked mattresses burning fiercely and emitting pungent, choking black smoke. This was an example of a diversion, or distraction, as well as a message that the militia were still among us and could still cause us concern.

  9. 9.

    In the early stages of the deployment it was not unusual for older Timorese men to come to a rigid halt when they encountered uniformed Australia troops and offer a salute—a hangover from colonial days, perhaps, or from Indonesian rule.

  10. 10.

    The Australian Commando Association makes brief mention of the commandos attached to 1MSU; however, the author’s recollections are of the professional service provided by those members during escorted media convoys around Timor in the early months of the operation.

  11. 11.

    ‘How are you?’ and ‘Thank you.’ Diak Kai Lai was usually accompanied by a thumbs up/thumbs down gesture, literally meaning ‘good or bad?’

  12. 12.

    Tsunami Recovery: Taking Stock after 12 months, Report from the UN Secretary-General’s Office of the Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery.

  13. 13.

    While there are many available reference materials attesting to these figures they remain an estimate. The UN figures point towards 116,000 homes destroyed in Aceh as a result of the tsunami and approximately 12% of the population displaced.

  14. 14.

  15. 15.

    Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade (2006), ‘Australia’s response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami’.

  16. 16.

    Author’s notes. Personal field notes from deployment as member of Combined Joint Task Force 629 on Operation Sumatra Assist, 3 January 2005.

  17. 17.

    On my first night in Banda Aceh on 3 January 2005 a loud crash woke us. It was a shopping centre collapsing approximately one kilometre away from our location as a result of the water damage.

  18. 18.

    Well, almost. According to my field diary notes, some days into the mission, an Australian Army health officer conducted tests of the mud we lived in and found (unsurprisingly, given we were surrounded by paddy fields being worked with beasts) that the ‘mud’ was more bovine excrement than soil.

  19. 19.

    In the early days of the deployment the local mobile towers didn’t have the capacity to carry voice calls but could sustain SMS messages, which became the preferred means of communication between news-media representatives.

  20. 20.

    An Australian military term referring to rate of effort. For example, there is the ‘high tempo’ environment of the lodgement phase and once the desired long-term routine has been established, it is considered to be ‘steady state.’

  21. 21.

    A. Ride and D. Bretherton (2011), Community Resilience in Natural Disasters, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), p. 43.

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Grant, M. (2020). Working with Australian Defence Force Interpreters in Timor 1999 and Aceh 2005: Reflections Drawn from Personal Experience. In: Laugesen, A., Gehrmann, R. (eds) Communication, Interpreting and Language in Wartime. Palgrave Studies in Languages at War. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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