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Australia accused of `cultural genocide'

Snatched from their mothers, half-caste Aborigines want justice, writes Robert Milliken in Darwin
"We lost our rights and our land, as well as our mothers," said Alec Kruger, one of six Aborigines, who have launched a landmark legal battle over Australia's past policy of removing black children from their mothers. "For 68 years, I have suffered trauma, loneliness and bitterness. I can't shake it off. It's like a disease."

Mr Kruger was three when white authorities took him from his mother's arms near Katherine, in the Northern Territory, and sent him to Khalin Compound, a home for mixed-race or half-caste children in Darwin. His mother was an Aborigine and his father a white man of German descent. That was in about 1927. Mr Kruger is not sure of his exact age because, in setting out to obliterate the "coloured" children's pasts, the authorities gave them arbitrarybirthdays as well. "They were usually Good Friday or Christmas Day," Mr Kruger recalled. "I got Christmas Day."

Up until the Sixties, an estimated 100,000 young Aborigines were dislocated by such policies - in the name of "assimilation".The discredited policy had its origins in the 19th-century Social Darwinist belief that half- caste Aborigines could be more easily assimilatedinto whitesociety thanAborigines of full descent. By fostering this, the theory went, the race would eventually die out.

A century later, multicultural Australia is about to confront this, one of the most chilling episodes in its history, under a new label: alleged cultural genocide. On Tuesday Mr Kruger, Hilda Muir, and four other Northern Territory Aborigines lodged a writ withthe High Court in Melbourne, claiming that the law which allowed them to be taken from their families was constitutionally invalid and in breach of Australia's international human rights obligations.

The test case, to unfold over the next year, will allege that Australian governments breached their fiduciary duty to Aboriginal children, and rendered thousands ineligible for benefits under historic 1993 native title legislation because they can no longer identify ties to traditional lands. It will highlight the UN Convention on Genocide, adopted by Australia in 1949, which includes as a definition "forcibly transferring children" from one ethnic, racial or religious group to another. If successful, the case could open a flood of litigation.

Back in Darwin, Mr Kruger remembered his time as a small boy at the government- run Khalin Compound. "It was like a concentration camp, surrounded by a wire fence. My mother tracked me down, but the women were kept outside. It was harrowing, with kids crying on one side of the fence and mothers on the other. We had no sheets or pillows, just blankets to sleep on the floor.

"There was never enough to eat. We had to sneak out and steal from Chinese market gardens, or scrounge stale bread and cabbages from rubbish bins to survive. If we were caught, we were flogged. My sister, a few years older, was there. She tried to look after me like a mother."

When he was six, Mr Kruger lost contact with his sister. He was removed to Pine Creek Boys Home and, finally, to the Bungalow, a home for half- castes in Alice Springs. At 11, he was sent to work as a drover on a Northern Territory cattle station. Years later, when he wentlooking for his mother, she was dead.

Mrs Muir, now 75, the daughter of an Aboriginal mother and a white father, wound up in Khalin Compound when she was eight, and can remember Alec Kruger and his sister there. She lived a traditional way of life in the remote bush near Borroloola before she was snatched away."We lived around the rivers and billabongs, and our food was from the land: berries, fruit, wallabies, fish and turtles. We had no white man's food. We never saw whites."

One day,a police "protector" took Hilda on horseback to a Darwin home - without her mother's consent. "I now realise that my mother kept me out bush because she feared such a thing would happen. I was a `brown skin'. I never saw her again."

Mr Kruger and Mrs Muir have 79 descendants - children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren - between them. They want them to learn the history and cultures of their respective antecedents, the Jawoyn and Yanyuwa peoples, that they themselves were told by whites to forget. "I'm very proud to be a plaintiff in this case," Mrs Muir said. "As well as compensation, I'm looking for social justice, respect and a recognition that a great wrong was done to me and many, many Aborigines around Australia."