Houses burnt, residents displaced and without food in Wadeye as traditional owners call for change

Emergency food kits are being delivered to hundreds of displaced people in the remote Northern Territory community of Wadeye, where dozens of homes have been destroyed in recent weeks, amid widespread unrest.

Police said 37 homes have been extensively damaged in the past three weeks, with efforts underway to “support and relocate some of the vulnerable”. 

About 400 people, who were living in the overcrowded homes, are seeking refuge in the bush on the fringes of the community, according to Scott McIntyre, the chief executive of the local Thamarrurr Development Corporation.

He said the community’s only food shop had been forced to close several times over the past few weeks, and school attendance rates were plummeting, due to a lack of staff.  

“We’ve had people unable to work in certain areas of the community because they feel threatened and at risk,” he said. 

Five traditional owners of Wadeye stand together in a line in the community's store.
Wadeye traditional owners have been delivering food kits to people who have lost their homes. (Supplied)

‘Things are getting worse’

Wadeye is an isolated community about 420 kilometres south-west of Darwin, with a population of around 3000 people.

Tensions have been building in the community for the past month. 

An 18-year-old man was last week charged with manslaughter, following the death of another man, after he suffered severe head injuries during an alleged altercation. 

A photograph of a house or shop which has been trashed. Shelves are broken and rubbish is on the ground.
Houses in Wadeye have been destroyed amid ongoing unrest.(Supplied)

Traditional owner Anne Marie Nudjulu said her house has been left intact, but next door “everything has been destroyed”.

She said cars had gone up in flames and people were fleeing the community or staying indoors, in fear.

A local traditional owner who wanted to remain anonymous said a long history of policy failures, unemployment, overcrowding and ineffective rehabilitation services have contributed to decades of disputes between family groups.

“At Wadeye, things are getting worse, our young people fight,” the resident said.

“Mothers, grandmothers, children run into the bushes carrying their blankets to camp and sleep for the night, our young people have lost their way.”

Traditional owner, Margaret Perdjert said she was saddened by the fighting among Wadeye’s young people.

“In our heart we feel empty,” she said.

“Our strong elders have passed away and we don’t have enough activities for our young people in our community.”

An aerial view of the township of Wadeye (Port Keats).
The remote community of Wadeye is home to around 3000 people.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

‘People are frightened’

Acting Superintendent Bradley Fox said “historical tensions” between local families were behind the unrest.

“A key stakeholder meeting with community members was held last Friday and NT Police are urging traditional owners, elders and family groups to work together to bring an end to these disturbances,” he said. 

A close up of a man with a beard looking beyond the camera.
Scott McIntyre is the chief executive of Thamarrurr Development Corporation. (Supplied)

“The safety of the community will always be our first priority.”

Mr McIntyre has worked with the community for the past 20 years and said he had seen opportunities for development and positive change fall through the cracks.

“These things that go on are often complicated inter-family conflicts that can escalate out of proportion,” he said. 

Mr McIntyre labelled the situation a crisis and pointed to a 2004 socio-economic report that mapped out the costs of government not investing in the community.

It found more funding was going into criminal justice, than public policy such as education and employment creation.

“People are frightened to go to the shops,” Mr McIntyre said.

Federal Labor today committed to investing $100 million into homelands in the Northern Territory, including Wadeye.

“For hundreds and hundreds of Territorians across the Northern Territory, they have been completely neglected in terms of homelands”, senator Malarndirri McCarthy, who is vying for re-election in Labor’s Senate position, said. 

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