Lasting legacy of Timor-Leste mission still haunts Navy lieutenant

ON DEPLOYMENT: Tamara Sloper-Harding served in the Royal Australian Navy in Timor-Leste in 1999-2000 and what she saw there still haunts her to this day. Picture: Supplied
ON DEPLOYMENT: Tamara Sloper-Harding served in the Royal Australian Navy in Timor-Leste in 1999-2000 and what she saw there still haunts her to this day. Picture: Supplied

TAMARA Sloper-Harding vividly remembers the day she was told she'd be deployed on active duty.

It was September 11, 1999, and the call came during the middle of her own wedding reception being held in Manly.

"We got the phone call just before we cut the cake and did the speeches," she said. "I didn't tell anyone about the phone call, except my husband."

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The Royal Australian Navy Lieutenant Commander was sent to Timor-Leste to work in intelligence in the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) peacekeeping force.

More than 20 years on, the horrors of what this Avalon Beach resident saw during her five-month deployment continue to haunt her.

HELPING HANDS: Tamara Sloper-Harding volunteered her time to help mothers and children during her deployment in Timor-Leste. Picture: Supplied

HELPING HANDS: Tamara Sloper-Harding volunteered her time to help mothers and children during her deployment in Timor-Leste. Picture: Supplied

The Australian War Memorial reports that in 1999, after centuries of colonisation, occupation, and invasion, the East Timorese people finally voted on their own future. After the majority voted for independence, pro-Indonesian militias burnt houses, looted, threatened and killed civilians.

"I was pretty worried," she said. "There was a lot of atrocities committed and human rights violations.

"It wasn't safe for people to stay in their homes and they'd all fled to the jungle. Mothers were being raped in front of their children, the young boys were all being taken away to be forced into the malicia.

ON DUTY: The "moral, ethical point of view" of having to shoot back at someone who shoots you was gravely concerning for Tamara Sloper-Harding during her deployment in Timor-Leste. Picture: Supplied

ON DUTY: The "moral, ethical point of view" of having to shoot back at someone who shoots you was gravely concerning for Tamara Sloper-Harding during her deployment in Timor-Leste. Picture: Supplied

"Mothers had to be there while their daughters were being raped and abused and tortured. It was just absolutely horrific.

"People were forced to jump off cliffs, they stuffed children's bodies down wells. They destroyed all the infrastructure."

Before Timor-Leste, Ms Sloper-Harding had only ever been deployed on war ships, she lived on the ship and always had a team around her. During this deployment she lived in the jungle with a tri-service team and carried a live weapon.

"The thought that when people would shoot at you, and you would shoot back, that you could kill someone, that's quite a terrible thing to have to think about from a moral, ethical point of view," she said.

STILL ACTIVE: Tamara Sloper-Harding is the vice president of Avalon RSL Sub Branch. Picture: Geoff Jones

STILL ACTIVE: Tamara Sloper-Harding is the vice president of Avalon RSL Sub Branch. Picture: Geoff Jones

She mainly worked nights and during the day would volunteer at villages and orphanages and "that's how I fell in love with the Timorese".

Ms Sloper-Harding the deployment changed her forever and she suffers from PTSD.

"I dream about it at night, I have pretty terrible nightmares about some of the things I saw over there," she said.

Ms Sloper-Harding has since launched a charity, Friends of Soibada, which helps a remote village in the mountains of Timor-Leste with education, infrastructure and health. She has returned to the country 26 times since her deployment to help.

This story Lasting legacy of Timor-Leste mission still haunts Navy lieutenant first appeared on Northern Beaches Review.