.Posted: April 24, 2000

Aborigines Genocide

The landmark test case brought by two Aborigines against Australia's federal government for wrenching them away from their families and subjecting them to an alien white culture will unleash harrowing testimonies of abuse.

The historic legal battle brought by Lorna Cubillo and Peter Gunner is the latest twist in a murky episode of Australian history which began at the turn of the century and lasted until the 1970s.

Some 30,000 children became victims of a government policy which Australian authorities since have been quick to condemn, but reluctant to compensate.

Their assimilation into white institutions such as church missions has been described as a "form of genocide".

The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families was established in May 1995 to collate the testimonies of those who said they had been abused.

Forced assimilation has led to family break up and violence.

The inquiry received 777 submissions and took evidence from 535 indigenous people in every capital city.

In 1997 the country's Human Rights Commission released a 689-page report accusing the government of genocide.

International law defines genocide as including the forcible removal of children to a different cultural group "with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the group".

The report called for official apologies and financial recompense as it found that thousands of Aborigines faced family breakdowns, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and mental anguish directly linked to the assimilation policy.

Lost identity

Julie Lavelle was three weeks old when authorities took her away from her Aboriginal mother and put her up for adoption.

She does not know who did it or how.

When Ms Lavelle finally tracked down her family, 32 years later, her mother was dead.

"I will never meet her; I will never know her. I will never speak my mother's tongue. I lived 32 years of my life not knowing who I was, where I came from and which racial group I belonged to," she told Newsweek magazine.

One female survivor called Carol said that she and her siblings were removed to Beagle Bay Mission dormitories as children where they spent the next 14 years. Their mother had died but their grandmother was still alive.

"Five generations of my family have been affected by removal of children. Four generations of my family have been removed from their mothers and institutionalised," she said.

"We were mistreated badly. I was abused by the missionaries from all angles - sexual, physical and mental."

The children at the dormitory were locked up every night and they were given very little food.

One of the most traumatic memories that haunts Carol is being pulled apart from her sisters and brothers.

"My sister's a year younger than I, yet I could not hold her, cry with her, or play with her, sleep with her or comfort her when someone hit her."

Ms Cubillo, who has brought the case against the government, told a preliminary hearing earlier this year that she was flogged with a leather strap for speaking her traditional language and locked up at night.

"I am very sad that I have lost my culture," she said.

She is suing for emotional and mental distress and isolation from the cultural, social and spiritual lives of their families.

In his opening address at Darwin's Federal Court, lawyer Jack Rush said: "These people were subjected to a cruelty unsurpassed in recent Australian history."

Bringing them home: The 'Stolen Children' report

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