'Rabbit-Proof Fence' woman dies aged 87

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The Independent Online

She was a young girl determined to return home, even if it meant trekking 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) across the desert with little food or water, sometimes carrying her little sister or her cousin as she walked.

Incredibly, Molly Kelly, then 13, succeeded, and became a symbol of resilience against the mistreatment of Aborigines by Australia's European settlers.

On Tuesday, more than six decades after her astonishing journey, Ms Kelly died while taking an afternoon nap. She was thought to be 87. Her nine-week trek in 1931 with her sister, Daisy Burungu, and her cousin, Gracie Fields, was the inspiration for the 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence, a movie that reignited passionate debate in Australia about the "stolen generations" of Aboriginal children separated, sometimes forcibly, from their parents.

The film was based on a book written by Molly's daughter, Doris Pilkington Garimara. She learnt of the story and wrote it when she was reunited with her mother more than 20 years after authorities separated them.

Ms Garimara and Philip Noyce, the film's director, plan a return to the remote western Australian settlement where Ms Kelly died, a place called Jigalong on the edge of the Gibson desert, to pay their final respects.

"She was so very strong, so determined, a no-nonsense kind of person," Ms Garimara told the Sydney Morning Herald. "Everybody in the community respected her for that. Mum's legacy is the calming influence and quiet dignity of the desert women, and the stolen generations story. She looked you straight in the eye."

In 1931, Ms Kelly, whose father was an English fence inspector, was taken from her mother with her sister and cousin, who also were of mixed ethnic background. They were sent to a government institution to be trained as domestic servants.

Thousands of such forced separations created what is now known as the stolen generations. And while many families were reunited, some will never know their real relatives. The Australian government has refused to formally apologise for the policy, fearing lawsuits.

The policy aimed at assimilating Aborigines into mainstream society began in 1905 and continued until 1971.

The day after the three girls were taken to the institution, they fled. Ms Kelly decided that since Jigalong was on a rabbit-proof fence, intended to stop the spread of the imported animals, that ran through Western Australia, if they headed toward the fence and followed it north, they could not miss their home. They crossed a flooded river, sand dunes, a desert and a salt lake. They slept in dugout rabbit burrows and existed on sweet potato and wild banana.

"She was a person who was utterly wilful, who decided she would not be dictated to, who took on the whole state apparatus, and won," said Christine Olsen, the film's screenwriter.