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East Timor's tent city: The month when Darwin found itself the epicentre of a humanitarian crisis

ABC News - February 22, 2016

Emilia Terzon – From Cyclone Tracy to the Bali bombings, the small tropical city of Darwin has on a few rare, yet memorable occasions become an epicentre of a major international event.

One of those moments was the humanitarian crisis that followed East Timor's independence vote in 1999. Former Northern Territory politician Kon Vatskalis "remembers very well" the phone call that preceded a mass arrival of East Timor evacuees to Darwin in September 1999.

"I was doing some shopping at Nightcliff and, as I was getting into my car, the phone rang," Mr Vatskalis told 105.7 ABC Darwin. "It said, 'come quickly to the Kalymnian Club. There's about 100 evacuees from East Timor'. Then it was 200. Then another phone call said it was 500. By the weekend, it was 2,000 arriving. That's how everything started for us."

Beginning with attacks by anti-independence militants on civilians after a majority of Timorese voters chose independence from Indonesia in August 1999, the violence in East Timor eventually expanded and saw 1,400 killed throughout the region.

Many across Australia will remember the peacekeeping mission, INTERFET, to help quell the violence. But in Darwin, many Australians also came together to help the traumatised people in another way – from opening up local schools for foreign children, to sitting around swimming pools with interpreters and sewing machines.

It was not the first time, however, that Darwin – the closest Australian city to East Timor's capital Dili – had offered help to its northern neighbours, Matthew Stephens, oral historian at the NT Archives, told 105.7 ABC Darwin. "There is a long relationship with Timor, such as in 1975 when the Indonesians invaded."

Evacuees arrive to a makeshift tent city

Arriving by a giant flotilla of Hercules aircraft in Darwin, the evacuees of 1999 were mostly United Nations workers and their families from a compound in Dili that had come under threat during the independence voting crisis.

For many, their home for the next month was a tent city set up by the military in the great expanse between the Kalymnian and Cyprus Club and the Timorese and Portuguese Hall in suburban Darwin.

Mr Vatskalis, who then was a manager at the Department of Environment and Health, helped organise the city at Marrara.

"I will never forget the look in the eyes of the people coming out of the bus. They were shocked. They were in disbelief. They only had the clothes they were wearing. They had nothing else," he said. "Some couldn't speak English or Portuguese. We had to bring in translators. It was a great effort for Darwin."

Mr Stephens said that despite the "initial surprise and shock" about such a large amount of people coming to Darwin and concerns about health issues at the tent city, many in the community rallied together to help out.

"Royal Darwin Hospital provided meals and laundry services. Police were playing soccer [at the tent city]. There was all kinds of activities for kids and families," he said. "It was about trying to make the experience a little less traumatic and to make them feel safe in Australia."

Territory artist and curator Joanna Barrkman, who had spent some time in East Timor before the independence crisis, was one of those who gave up their time to help out.

Her volunteer efforts through the Working Women's Centre of the NT involved spending time with a small group of people who did not stay at the tent city – the wives of United Nations diplomats, staff, interpreters, cleaners and drivers living at hotels and motels around Darwin.

"We found a lot of women were just sitting in their hostel rooms in trauma and shock and didn't know where they were," Ms Barrkman told 105.7 ABC Darwin.

Ms Barrkman and other volunteers headed to a hotel and set up sewing machines around a swimming pool for a group of the women, eventually coming up with a banner sewing project to celebrate East Timor's independence.

"We sat around the pool on a daily basis hand stitching and beading while their kids went off to school at Parap," she said. "It was all about the process of bringing those women together and having a community and something positive."

Evacuees move on and tent city packs up

After a month in Darwin, the tent city was packed up and many evacuees were moved on to live in other parts of Australia; some eventually resettled permanently.

The banners created by the wives beside the hotel swimming pool were eventually sent back to Dili, where they were hung in the Timorese parliament after the region was finally declared independent from Indonesia in May 2002.

Other items created by the women such as tea towels and cards were sold at fundraisers so the women could go home with sewing machines to help rebuild their country. "They squatted in a building when they got home and made mattresses for people," Ms Barrkman said.

Mr Vatskalis has also been back to East Timor since 1999 and was thanked by some who came to Darwin as an evacuee. "The interesting thing was when I went to Timor as a minister, I was in a meeting and a couple came up to me and said, 'we remember you'," he said. "I reckon Darwin rose to the occasion and it provided people with a safe haven."

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-22/looking-back-on-the-1999-east-timor-tent-city-in-darwin/7187966