First on the Ground history documentary

Running time
29 min 10 sec
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Copyright 2022 Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Department of Veterans' Affairs

Australian peacekeepers have been in the field every year since 1947 when they were the first on the ground in the Netherlands East Indies. They serve with the aim of contributing to lasting peace around the world. Hosted by General Sir Peter Cosgrove AK CVO MC (Retd). Rated PG (adult themes) in Australia.

Program credits

Co-produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Presented and narrated by General Sir Peter Cosgrove AK CVO MC (Retd).

Special thanks to: His Excellency The Hon. David Hurley AC DSC (Retd), Air Vice Marshall Tracy Smart AO (Retd), Major General Cheryl Pearce AM CSC (Retd), Lieutenant Colonel Leigh Crawford, Dr Martin Hess, Major Lyndsay Freeman, Major Robert Browne, John Perryman, Lance Corporal Theogene Ngamije, Brigadier Philip Winter AM CSC ADC, Lieutenant Colonel Douglas McGuire, Squadron Leader Amanda Scott, Squadron Leader Tina Turner, Captain Anna Richardson, Susan Leithhead, Arthur Hill, Dan Sweetapple, Natalie Hunter, Defence Media, RSL Australia, ADF Peace Operations Training Centre, Australian Border Force, Australian Department of Defence.

Footage supplied: Australians at War Film Archive, University of New South Wales Canberra, Australian War Memorial, British Pathé, Reuters, Getty Images, ITN, Australian Defence Force, Care Australia, AP United Nations.

Archive Researcher: Michael Osmond.

Camera Operator: Roger Price, Robb Shaw-Velzen, Andy Wong, Peter Mullins, Brian Loewe.

Sound Recordist: Martin Cox.

Edit Assistant: Jake Simpson.

Editor: James Edwards.

Audio Mixer: Michol Marsh.

Colour Grader: Hannah Walker.

Graphics: Josh Reed.

Production Coordinator: Linda Yilmaz.

Associate Producer: Tania Doumit, Rachel McLaughlin.

Writer: Michael Reid.

Additional Writing: Tania Doumit, Carmen Pratap.

Producer: Carmen Pratap.

Production Manager: Rodney Oliver.

Executive Producer: Matt Scully.

Production Executive: Michelle Frampton.

Manager Events and Content Partnerships: Janet Gaeta.


[Narrator] The power of persuasion is the greatest weapon in a peacekeeper's arsenal.

[Australian peacekeeper] Peacekeepers deploy into some of the most fragile, hostile and complex environments on Earth. They need to be able to interact human to human with people on the ground.

[Narrator] The same soldiers trained to attack and defend, use diplomacy in the role of intermediary. Along with police and civilians, they're deployed to strife-torn regions to enforce the peace and to restore law and order.

[Theogene Ngamije] Being a peacekeeper takes courage. Of course, it serves a purpose and gives hope to many people who need it.

[Narrator, General Sir Peter Cosgrove AK CVO MC (Ret'd), former Governor-General of Australia] The Anzac legend was forged in the trenches of Gallipoli and on the battlefields of Tobruk, Kokoda and Long Tan, but few could name our theatres of peacekeeping.

[Australian peacekeeper] The attributes of a peacekeeper are similar to that of Australian forces going into a high-conflict environment – the courage, the selfless sacrifice, the mateship – are essential to being a peacekeeper.

[First on the Ground]

[Narrator] Peacekeeping is a founding principle of the United Nations, which was set up in the aftermath of World War II to mediate international disputes and counter threats to world peace.

[Newsreader] The nations who now and forever stand ready to meet and halt aggression anywhere with all the powers vested in them by the United Nations Charter.

[Indonesia] [Narrator] It wasn't long before the organisation was called to action as hostilities broke out in, among other places, the Netherlands East Indies, Indonesia today, as locals wanted to control their own destiny after centuries of colonial rule.

[Newsreader] Jakarta, capital of the Republic of Indonesia, and many other towns in Java and Sumatra, fell to the Netherlands forces. Refugees fled before the Dutch forces.

[Narrator] The 4-year conflict was marked by sporadic armed clashes and a diplomatic struggle. The first Australian peacekeepers were deployed to the Netherlands East Indies. A 4-man team, part of an international force and the first UN peacekeepers to go into the field anywhere in the world. This first UN mission set out the principles that have guided observer-deployments ever since. They should cross between both sides of the ceasefire, operating in mixed international teams to demonstrate neutrality.

[John Perryman, Royal Australian Navy (Ret'd), Chief Yeoman, HMAS Tobruk, Somalia, 1993] The last thing a society needs when it's had years of military rule or persecution is foreign forces to go in there and basically be seen to be doing the same thing.

[Narrator] Which is why peacekeepers must try to use communication and persuasion, not force, to resolve disputes. In 1949, the conflict was resolved.

[Newsreader] Queen Juliana of the Netherlands signed the document, which transferred complete sovereignty over Indonesia to the Republic of Indonesia and recognised it as an independent nation.

[Narrator] Over the last 75 years, the missions we've been involved in have varied greatly.

[Dr Martin Hess, Australian Federal Police (Ret'd), United Nations Civilian Police Officer, Eat Timor, 1999] All peacekeeping operations are different. It can be an intervention to prevent warring parties from fighting each other to separate warring parties. It can be something like an electoral mission. And it can have humanitarian aspects to it. It can involve capacity building. It can involve training. So there's a whole variety. No peacekeeping missions, no two peacekeeping missions are exactly the same as each other.

[Kashmir] [Newsreader] The place: New Delhi. The time: August 1947.

[Narrator] Freed from the shackles of colonial rule, the Indian subcontinent was in 1947 divided into 2 new states, India and Pakistan. But the parades and celebrations of independence were a prelude to war. Kashmir is an ethnically diverse Himalayan region famed for the beauty of its lakes and snowcapped mountains. Known as the ‘Valley of Heaven’. And yet, it remains one of the most volatile areas in the world. India and Pakistan have fiercely contested the region, resulting in numerous wars.

[Newsreader] The fighting was bitter over the years 1000s on both sides were dead and injured, and the fires of war cracked and scarred the Valley of Heaven.

[Narrator] A peace deal left Kashmir a divided land, facing an uncertain future. In 1949, the UN posted an international group of military observers along the ceasefire line between the 2 warring nations. Australian Major General Robert Nemo, a veteran of the Gallipoli campaign, became the Chief Military Observer in 1950. When Captain John Burgess arrived in Kashmir in the early ‘60s to serve as a UN observer, Major General Nemo told him,

[John Burgess, interviewed 27 April 2004] ‘You won't be carrying weapons. All you'll have to protect you is a white flag and a blue flag’. He said, ‘What I'm, I'll still expect that you'll be trying to stop the shooting, he said, if firing breaks out, you'll have to stop it some way’. He said, ‘I'll leave it up to you to decide how you do it’. He said, ‘But do try not to get killed’. He said, ‘It's embarrassing if you get killed’.

[Narrator] The threat was largely underestimated by those at home.

[John Burgess] As one chap said, he was under fire more times in Kashmir than he was during World War II. Their attitude here was, ‘Look, you're a peacekeeping force, you're not armed, so therefore you're not empowered to shoot back, so therefore, you cannot be in a war-like situation’.

[Narrator] Around 150 Australians had served with the UN mission in Kashmir over 35 years. UN observers remain in the territory today. There is still no final settlement on the status of Kashmir between the 2 nuclear-armed neighbours, and it remains a constant threat to global security.

[Somalia] [Narrator] While there are no easy peacekeeping missions, by the early 1990s, they became increasingly harrowing.

[Newsreader] Across much of Somalia, it's still very much a case of relief through extortion. The armed gangs taking their pick of the food long before it reaches these people who really need it. The aid agencies admit the dying won't stop here until security is fully restored.

[Narrator] When the government of President (Siad) Barre collapsed in January 1991, Somalia descended into civil war and anarchy.

[His Excellency, the Hon David Hurley AC DSC (Retd), Governor-General of Australia, Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), Somalia, 1993] Our role was really to enforce peace because there were no agreements as to what should be happening on the ground. There were no recognisable leadership.

[Newsreader] Heavily-laden aircraft are now making their way into Mogadishu's cluttered airport, carrying supplies for Australia's biggest and most dangerous overseas deployment of troops since Vietnam.

[Corporal Julie Branowski, Somalia, 1993] It's terrible. I've never seen something like this before, and it's terrible. It's a mess.

[David Hurley] So our job was to create an environment there initially so that the humanitarian agencies could get food into the country because, as well as the war that was going on, there was an enormous famine. And we would provide a secure environment so that, that food could be delivered.

[Narrator] More than 1,600 Australians served as peacekeepers in Somalia.

[John Perryman] The whole idea of the mission was basically to ensure that the armed gangs were disarmed, that the looting, the raping, the pillaging and the interruption of the lines of communications to ensure getting the aid through was halted, and I believe that they did that very, very swiftly.

[Newsreader] Law and order is returning to towns once ravaged by famine and factional fighting. In their brief time here, Australian soldiers have already seized weapons, adding to the startling array of arms confiscated by foreign forces. Regular checks are being run on vehicles as part of the near-impossible task of ridding Somalia of its deadly gun trade.

[Narrator] Operation Solace was complex. It wasn't just about delivering aid and stopping the infighting between warlords, but also trying to sort out who held power in the political vacuum.

[David Hurley] We could keep the peace on the ground, enforce peace with our troops, but there was a continuing political evolution, political struggle going on, in the country. My role, sort of in a government's vacuum, was really to run a province and try to help the elders, senior leadership, bring the population from death's door back to a reasonably healthy state, and then provide an environment for the political discussion to continue.

[Narrator] By 1993, more than 28,000 UN soldiers were authorised to use force in Somalia to ensure humanitarian relief to restore peace, disarm factions and protect aid workers. But the situation in Somalia continued to deteriorate despite the large UN presence, and with no prospect of a solution in sight, the UN withdrew in 1995.

[Newsreader] United Nations says its soldiers will only return to the strife-torn country if a ceasefire is achieved. For now, Somalia remains without a central government, once more at the mercy of rival militias.

[John Perryman] It seems to me that we tend to go in there with a view that ‘oh, we're going to fix this’, but we're always going to leave. So unless you're able to establish and empower the people to look after themselves, I fear that it'll be more of the same.

[Narrator] Somalia today is a failed state according to nearly every measure.

[Rwanda] [Narrator] By contrast, Rwanda now enjoys the level of stability and prosperity which seemed unthinkable 28 years ago. In just 100 days in 1994, about 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda by ethnic Hutu extremists targeting members of the minority Tutsi community.

[Newsreader James Schofield, ABC News, July 1994] The number of people killed within this field of death may never be fully known, for the seeds of hate was sown in the genocide that erupted in Rwanda 3 months ago, and the refugees have been left to wonder how many other bitter flowers are yet to bloom.

[Narrator] The UN had forces in Rwanda, but was not in a position to stop the killing. Australia sent 2 contingents to provide medical assistance to the UN forces and to the Rwandan people.

[Newsreader] The Australians were welcomed to a community devastated by months of civil war, and rife with diseases like malaria, dysentery and meningitis. Here the troops had to clear away the debris of war before setting up headquarters for what's expected to be a long mission of peace.

[Air Vice Marshal Tracy Smart AO (Retd), Royal Australian Air Force, Senior RAAF Officer, Rwanda, 1995] You didn't know what was coming in. We obviously had – our main purpose was to provide support to the other peacekeeping force soldiers over there. But we also had a sort of sub mandate if you like to provide health care to the local population with our spare capacity. The hardest thing is that often that spare capacity would run out.

[Newsreader] Yet more agony for Rwanda, After surviving last year's civil war that left more than a million dead, 1000s of refugees have died in a new massacre.

[Tracy Smart] The Kibeho massacre occurred while we were over there. And so we were very concerned that we needed the capacity to look after anybody who might be injured.

[Newsreader] The Australian Army's medical team is the only one in the Kibeho area tonight. And it alone has the daunting task of treating survivors.

[Tracy Smart] We had a little girl in the ward. She was an orphan. She was very unwell. She had, we think she had, measles encephalitis. And she was really deteriorating very quickly. We had to make a decision. Do we go all out trying to save this girl? Or do we let her die? Because our oxygen had been taken off the flight from Nairobi. And even if she recovered with encephalitis she would probably have brain damage, and there wouldn't be a very good quality of life for her in the country. So we had to make the decision. I had to make the decision to let her die.

[Narrator] Service personnel have directives in place that dictate the appropriate course of action in any given situation. And peacekeeping is no different.

[Tracy Smart] When you're in a war zone peacekeeping effort, you've got very distinct rules of engagement about how you protect yourself, you know. If someone's coming at you aggressively, you don't just shoot them. There's an escalation process to try and defuse the situation before you use force. So this is the medical version of that, but it's more about, you know, what are the criteria that you use, depending on the circumstance, to sort of aggressively try to save a life, or accept that, you know, you're not going to be able to have a positive impact, and you're going to have to let them die.

[Narrator] Despite the tough decisions they had to make, the Australian service personnel made a real difference. And one of the lives they touched was a young boy who had just lost his parents in a refugee camp.

[Lance Corporal Theogene Ngamije, Australian Army] Yeah, it was very, very tough. Even worse for someone as young as he was.

[Narrator] He witnessed some horrific things. But an act of kindness by an Australian soldier changed his life.

[Theogene Ngamije] So a tall Australian soldier found me. He offered me a biscuit and an Australian flag patch. So he took me and put me in a safe place. And I guess that was the, you know, the starting and the changing moment for me. It meant so much, especially with the life I was living in, to be able to have someone giving you a helping hand. It gave me the sign of hope that there is still humanity within humans.

[Narrator] This eventually led to his decision to join the Australian Defence Force. So when I came to Australia, I was like, ‘This is it. I'm here. I'm going to pay back to this beautiful nation by saving, as well, and hopefully change someone's life.’

[Timor-Leste] [Narrator] Australians have also been peacekeepers closer to home. It was the dawn of democracy in East Timor, where delicate diplomacy and an international military force led to the birth of Asia's newest nation.

[Newsreader] Late yesterday, the first 41 of 272 international officers flew in from Darwin. Australian Federal Police officers have volunteered for peacekeeping roles under the United Nations umbrella since 1964. They're a vital part of the UN's plan to control violence and ease the fear across East Timor. Civilian police met Indonesian counterparts today.

[Martin Hess, June 1999]. We're here as a neutral body, not an enforcement body.

[Narrator] In 1999, a UN-led referendum, supported by police and civilian peacekeepers, including members of the Australian Federal Police, show that local people overwhelmingly were in support of Timor's independence.

[José Ramos-Horta, East Timor independence activist, 30 August 1999] For peace in Timor and for all those who died in the last 23 years.

[Martin Hess] Once the ballot result was announced, there was a pre-planned military activity by the Indonesian forces, where they torched Dili, they torched villages throughout the whole province, as an act of revenge. It was pretty brutal. They were deliberately targeting pro-independence people that they knew.

[Sanjay Sojwal, aid worker, East Timor, 1999] They have razed to ground many of the major towns, and what they have done is they have burned the cities and the towns and now are systematically burning the villages. It's carried out very strategically, very systematically.

[Narrator] Australia faced a major dilemma: preserve relations with Indonesia, or send in peacekeepers to stop the carnage. The media's coverage of the killings and violence brought the conflict to the attention of the world.

[José Ramos-Horta, East Timor independence activist, 10 September 1999] If the international community does not stop it, in the next few hours, 10s of 1000s of people will be dying.

[Narrator] The UN Security Council called for a multinational force to restore peace and stability. Operations Stabilise, or INTERFET, included 22 countries. Endorsed by the United Nations, this was an Australian-led mission.

[Newsreader] 52-year-old General Cosgrove is in charge of a very different army than the one in which he served in Vietnam.

[Major General Peter Cosgrove, Commanding Officer, International Force East Timor, 1999–2000] This is different. In Vietnam, there was a very high-intensity war in progress. Here, it's much more sensitive, in that, war's the thing we're trying to avoid. And this conflict between political factions is what we're trying to stop.

[Narrator] INTERFET arrived in September 1999.

[José Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste] The reaction was one of absolute joy. When you are at the edge, you are on the abyss, and then suddenly hope appears on the horizon and the reaction of the people of extraordinary. Extraordinary goodwill towards INTERFET. Extraordinary goodwill towards Australia.

[Newsreader] As the chief peace enforcer in East Timor, General Cosgrove has seized the initiative in negotiating with the militia. The head of the international forces extending an olive branch to the militia via the Indonesian military.

[Narrator] But the operation was politically and militarily complex, with real fear something could go wrong in the confusion.

[Newsreader] In this disputed border region, an Australian Patrol has come under fire from pro-Indonesian forces. A flurry of weapons fire directed at the advancing platoon as it moved towards the hamlet of Mota'ain.

[Major General Cheryl Pearce AM CSC (Ret'd), Australian Army] To be a peacekeeper, you need courage. You need courage to – for the uncertainty, for the ambiguity. You need to be able to operate in, sometimes in quite a high-threat environment.

[Narrator] In February 2000, INTERFET forces withdrew.

[Major General Peter Cosgrove, Commanding Officer, International Force East Timor, 1999] I will be happy to sign this on behalf of the international courts of East Timor. And I will be handing over the role in this document that INTERFET now plays to UNTAET.

[Lieutenant General Jaime De Los Santos, Philippine Army, 1999] Today, we are celebrating a very significant occasion. And that is turn over from the INTERFET, because what we see now here in Dili is a stable environment for the entry of the peacekeeping force of the UNTAET. A force that will maintain peace and security for all the people in East Timor.

[Narrator] East Timor gained independence in 2002 and was renamed Timor-Leste. Despite the nation's independence, its search for peace was far from over. Three more peacekeeping missions followed UNTAET. Operations continued to evolve to match the region's needs until 2012, when the UN withdrew completely.

[Solomon Islands] [Narrator] Australia continued to play a major role in regional security and led the multinational peacekeeping operation in the Solomon Islands, following the breakdown of law and order in 2003. 1000s of locals gathered at Honiara Henderson International Airport to welcome more than 2,000 soldiers, police and civilians from the Pacific region.

[Newsreader] They started arriving at dawn, and they kept on coming. Some by air, with a flight every hour. Others came by sea. HMAS Manoora, the base for an amphibious landing. The massive logistical effort marked the beginning of Operation Helpem Fren, the joint regional effort to restore law and order to the Solomon Islands.

[Lieutenant Colonel Leigh Crawford, Australian Army, Operations Officer, Combined Task Force 635, Solomon Islands, 2006] The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, or Operation Helpem Fren, was a partnership between 15 Pacific nations to establish machinery of government to provide stability, security and effective prosperity moving forward.

[Major Robert Browne, Republic of Fiji Military Force, ADF Peace Operations Training Centre] No one country can solve issues globally. No one country can solve issues within their particular region. And I think that's the, one of the beauties of our region, is that we all tend to work very closely together. And the benefits of such collaboration can be easily seen.

[Narrator] While the countries were working together, the military police and civilian agencies on the ground followed suit.

[Leigh Crawford] One of the main things that I learnt from this deployment was perhaps how culturally different police and military can be. And I think it was an excellent opportunity for us to both learn how each other work, and to come up with a way of us coexisting and complementing each other in a complex mission environment.

[Martin Hess] Well, the primary differences between the way the police operate and the way the military operates is that they do different things. Their roles are different. Their mandates are different.

[Narrator] Every peacekeeping mission came with its own challenges, but there was a lot to learn from each one.

[Major Lyndsay Freeman, Australian Army, United Nations Military Observer, Middle East, 2021–2022] I have recently returned from Israel, where I was serving on Operation Paladin, which is Australia's involvement with the UN Truce Supervision Organization. My greatest challenge while working as a peacekeeper was being away from my 5- and 3-year-old kids. But in those times when my heart felt heavy, and I just wanted to jump on a plane and go back to them, I reminded myself that my, that my perspective and my experiences as a woman, as a mother, and as a military officer were really valuable, and I am exactly where I need to be in that moment.

[Narrator] The UN is finally acknowledging how important the role of women is in peacekeeping.

[Lyndsay Freeman] It is an operational imperative that women make up part of peacekeeping operations. They allow for better engagement with women and to people of other genders in the local community. They act as role models for the young women and girls out there that see UN peacekeepers on the ground. They allow for a better-nuanced response to sexual and gender-based violence and how the UN can address that in their operations.

[Cheryl Pearce] I found it was actually a benefit to be a female, if I was honest. What the difference that that made was the diversity of thought. And for myself, I was able to be involved in civil society and women's groups and then for, to assist them in having a voice in the political discourse that was occurring.

[Narrator] Ultimately, the peacekeeping journey is about the people we help along the way.

[Robert Browne] From my peacekeeping deployments, one thing I have been able to take out is the difficulties that a lot of people throughout the world have to go through and the resilience of the, you know, the human spirit.

[Tracy Smart] I've had the privilege of being a peacekeeper twice. Although it's flawed, it does represent the best of humanity, I guess. The other thing that's important about it is, it shows Australia cares. And it shows Australia is willing to be a good global citizen. And, you know, put aside our very comfortable living circumstances to go over and help others who are not as as, as privileged, if you like, as we are.

[Robert Browne] There's a lot of people that look to peacekeepers as a beacon of hope. You're there to provide assistance, you need to come in with an empathetic spirit.

[Narrator] Australian Defence, police and civilian peacekeepers have made a significant impact over the last 75 years of peacekeeping. They've established our reputation as a willing and experienced and generous contributor to regional and global security.

[David Hurley] We can reflect, I think, on a very proud tradition of peacekeeping.

[Photographer] Get 'em all home safe.

[David Hurley] Will do, son. Being on a peacekeeping operation is a significant commitment, a significant endeavour, both at an individual level and a national level. They are veterans like everyone else who has served overseas in uniform; they're veterans.

[Narrator] I think I can sum up peacekeeping in the Australian sense in 2 words that illustrate 2 great national characteristics: courage and compassion.

[Theogene Ngamije] Hopefully, I myself serve as a peacekeeper, and hopefully, I can, you know, change someone else's life or help preserve peace where there is no peace.

[Viewer advice] If this program has raised any concerns, you may wish to contact one of these services. Open Arms 1800 011 046 Soldier On 1300 620 380 Lifeline 13 11 14.

Was this page helpful?
We can't respond to comments or queries via this form. Please contact us with your query instead.