SYDNEY (Reuters) - Aborigine Lola Edwards wept on Wednesday when she heard Australia’s prime minister say sorry for the country’s past assimilation policies, under which black children were forcibly taken from their parents.
Edwards, 61, still remembers the taste of blackberries in her mouth the day she was “stolen” at the age of four from her mother’s arms by a welfare officer.
“To this day, I have this, this feeling about the taste of blackberries. I was holding on to mum’s dress, she took me blackberry picking, and the welfare officer said that we were going to a circus,” Edwards told Reuters.
Tens of thousands of aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their parents under a government policy of assimilation from the 1880s to the 1960s. Those children are called the “Stolen Generations” or “People of the Bleaching”.
Edwards only discovered she was aboriginal decades later, when she received a telephone call from the sister she never knew she had, and was finally reunited with her mother in 1980.
“All I think about is my dear old mum and dad who had us taken out of their arms. I have every reason to be bitter and twisted, but I am not. This is the history of Australia, this is the real history of Australia and this is what happened to me as one of the Stolen Generations,” said Edwards.
“For all the Stolen Generations here today and those who never made it, today is a very special day,” she said.
New Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the national apology to Aborigines would “remove a great stain from the nation’s soul”.
“We apologize for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians,” he told parliament.
His speech moved many Aborigines to tears and prompted cheers from huge crowds gathered in cities across the nation.
But it took an Australian government 11 years make a formal apology after an Australian Human Rights Commission report in 1997 said the country’s assimilation policy “was attempted genocide”.
The report called for a formal apology by all Australian parliaments, national and state, as well as churches, police and welfare groups, and for compensation.
“It was believed that the aboriginal people would die out,” said the author, the late Sir Ronald Wilson, in his report.
The report titled “Bringing them Home” chronicled a litany of physical and sexual abuse of aboriginal children, many of whom were raised on outback government and church missions.
Interviews with elderly Aborigines tell of babies being snatched from their mother’s breast by police on horseback and others being driven off, thinking they are going to a circus.
Black-and-white archival film released with the report shows rows of aboriginal children with empty faces, dressed in striped uniforms reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps, and others bent over sweeping the dirt with their bare hands.
Some aboriginal girls were put in white dresses and lined up to be inspected like virtual slaves by white foster parents looking for a healthy, strong child for domestic work.
Aboriginal boys were sent to outback cattle farms to work as free labor. Some boys were stripped naked and tied to a post in a yard and flogged for misdemeanors, said the report.
Aboriginal children were told to drink milk by some foster parents, so that they would eventually have whiter skin.
Edwards, who spent 11 years in a girls’ training home in a small country town, said the Stolen Generations children were forced to forget their aboriginal past.
She recalls an aboriginal girl, whom she thought was mad, hiding under her blanket each night, desperately trying to remember her aboriginal language.
“She said: ‘I was trying to remember my language under the blankets, and I just went all cold because I was being raised to think white and act white and keep myself clean, scrub my skin. Take the black of your skin’,” said Edwards.
Today, thousands of adult Aborigines face a life of family breakdowns, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and mental anguish directly linked to the assimilation policy, said the report.
Additional reporting by Baris Atayman; Editing by David Fogarty