Semut Book Prize!

We have 5 signed copies of the remarkable new book Semut to give to our supporters!

Semut is the untold story of a secret Allied operation in WWII Borneo and the crucial role played by the Indigenous communities of the Bario Highlands, Baram and Rejang river basins. Semut is written by celebrated anthropologist Christine Helliwell, who tells the tale with a deep understanding of the Indigenous cultures of Sarawak and reverence for the irreplaceable beauty of these forests. Semut is a war book told by a peace activist, yet amazingly it won the Society for Army Historical Research’s First Runner Up Templer Medal, the most prestigious military history award in the British Commonwealth.

How to enter

The first 5 donations over $500 that put ‘Semut’ in the notes section of their online donation or memo section of their check will receive a signed copy. Because of postage costs, this promotion is only open to those with US-based mailing addresses. However, the book can be bought via Penguin (Australia) or the Independent Publishers Group (USA). A percentage of royalties from all sales is allocated to support the SAVE Rivers Legal Fund, so purchasing this book directly from the publishers also helps to support our work.

About the book

From Penguin Publishing

March 1945. A handful of young Allied operatives are parachuted into the remote jungled heart of the Japanese-occupied island of Borneo, east of Singapore, there to recruit the island’s indigenous Dayak peoples to fight the Japanese. Yet most have barely encountered Asian or indigenous people before, speak next to no Borneo languages, and know little about Dayaks, other than that they have been – and may still be – headhunters. They fear that on arrival the Dayaks will kill them or hand them over to the Japanese. For their part, some Dayaks have never before seen a white face.

So begins the story of Operation Semut, an Australian secret operation launched by the organisation codenamed Services Reconnaissance Department – popularly known as Z Special Unit – in the final months of WWII. Anthropologist Christine Helliwell has called on her years of first-hand knowledge of Borneo, interviewed more than one hundred Dayak people and all the remaining Semut operatives, and consulted thousands of military and other documents to piece together this astonishing story. Focusing on the operation’s activities along two of Borneo’s great rivers – the Baram and Rejang – the book provides a detailed military history of Semut II’s and Semut III’s brutal guerrilla campaign against the Japanese, and reveals the decisive but long-overlooked Dayak role in the operation. 

But this is no ordinary history. Helliwell vividly captures the sounds, smells and tastes of the jungles into which the operatives are plunged, an environment so terrifying that many are unsure whether jungle or Japanese is the greater enemy. And she takes us into the lives and cavernous longhouses of the Dayaks on whom their survival depends. The result is a truly unique account of the encounter between two very different cultures amidst the savagery of the Pacific War.

Praise for Semut

“A wonderful memorial to wartime Borneo lives and loss, elegantly recounting a largely untold story in gripping, page-turning detail. It is a courageous book, as persistent and human as the protagonists it honours. A book that needed to be written, and needs to be read.”

— Russ Kerr

“Christine Helliwell records the dying months of the Pacific War, the terror of the Japanese, the world of the indigenous tribes, the intensity – down to the very smell and taste – of this jungle conflict with such menacing immediacy that this book will possess you long after you lay it down. A superb read, brilliantly researched, written in prose as sharp as a machete.”

— Paul Ham

“The adventure Helliwell writes about is not over; the struggle for survival of the characters of Semut is the struggle now being waged all over the world, and in all our hearts. As in Semut we must accept the help of those who know how to live in ways that might allow us creative insight for our future. From facts to meaning is a transition Christine encourages when she writes that she in interested in conveying her story in such a way that we might share the feelings of the participants. She wants us to share these feelings not for our entertainment—though that is not excluded—but as part of the thrust of the book in its anthropological sense. The book carries an important message, and Helliwell has written it so well the message has a chance of reaching a great many at this critical time.”

— Peter Knight

About the author

Christine Helliwell is a New Zealand-born anthropologist, author and academic, currently Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University. She has been carrying out research on Borneo’s indigenous Dayak peoples – including living with them in their communities for months at a time – for almost forty years, and has written widely on Dayak social and cultural life. 

Since 2014 Christine has been researching WWII in Borneo, with a particular interest in the special operations conducted there by the Australian secret organisation codenamed Services Reconnaissance Department, popularly known as Z Special Unit. As part of this research she has travelled extensively throughout Sarawak, in the north of the island, and spoken to hundreds of elderly people who still remember the war. She has also interviewed almost all the remaining veterans from these operations, forming friendships with several in the process. In 2016 she was instrumental in organising a ceremony to honour the men and women of SRD/ Z Special Unit, at the Australian War Memorial. In 2018 she co-curated an exhibition at the Memorial on SRD/Z Special Unit operations in Borneo.

Christine lives in Canberra. Her book Semut – on the most important of the Borneo ‘Z’ operations – took her almost four years to write, and is the recipient of the Society for Army Historical Research’s First Runner Up Templer Medal.