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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 February 2008, 17:40 GMT
Anguish of the Stolen Generations
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Alice Springs

Frank Byrne
Frank Byrne says his removal broke his mother's heart
With torment still in his voice, Frank Byrne recalls the day six decades ago when he was taken from his mother and their community in Christmas Creek, Western Australia.

He was just five at the time, and his mother, Maudie Yooringun, had long feared the day that the government would come to seize him - and he would be "stolen".

"The government came to Christmas Creek where we had a mud house and told me I was been taken away," he said.

"My mum was completely ignored. She was not a human. That's what they thought in those days. The government fella said: 'I am your total guardian'."

"You could see the sorrow in my mother's eye. I could see the tears rolling down as she was driven away. I was held there by a couple of blokes as the truck went away."

A week later Frank saw his mother again. But that was to be the last time he ever saw her alive.

Traumatised by having her son essentially kidnapped by the government, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental asylum in Perth. She died when he was 12.

"They broke my mother's heart and her spirit," he said. "She lost her mind. They put here in a madhouse in Perth. But she wasn't mad. She was pining for me."

'Shameful act'

Now 70 years old, Frank Byrne is a member of the Stolen Generations, a victim of a policy stretching from the late-19th Century to the end of 1960s, under which Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and placed in institutions, orphanages, missions or white foster families.

An Aboriginal child plays at a camp in Alice Springs (file image)
Under the policy, young children were taken from their families

Most commonly, it was children of mixed race - "half-castes'" in the parlance of the day - that the government agencies chose to snatch.

They would descend on Aboriginal communities, separate the light-skinned children from those with a darker complexion, and then take them away.

Histories of the period recall how wire cages were sometimes used with spring doors. Children would be tempted in by a trail of sweets.

Under the twisted logic of the time, the idea was to "civilise" these young Aboriginal children, to inculcate them with European values. Another early aim, which stemmed from the doctrine of eugenics, was to "breed out their colour".

Sorry is a word, it's just a hollow word
Frank Byrne

No wonder the policy has been labelled by the historian Robert Manne as "the most shameful act of 20th Century Australia".

Up until the late 1990s, when the findings of the landmark Bringing Them Home inquiry were published, the full scale of the policy was not apparent, and many white Australians were oblivious to it.

In the late 1960s, as the discredited policy was finally jettisoned, one anthropologist described it as "the Great Australian silence".

But according to the Bringing Them Home report, at least 100,000 children were removed from their parents.

'Hurt very deeply'

Formal apologies soon followed from the state parliaments in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland, along with the territory parliament in the Northern Territory.

Meanwhile, the federal government, under the leadership of Prime Minister John Howard, decided to pass a motion of "deep and sincere regret", but refused repeatedly to apologise.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (file image)
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised he would apologise to Aborigines

Mr Howard argued that a formal apology would reinforce a sense of victimhood in Aboriginal communities, and that modern-day Australians were not the authors of the policy, so therefore had nothing for which to apologise.

His successor, Kevin Rudd, is now making good his campaign promise to deliver an apology, making it the first order of business in the first post-election session of parliament.

But what meaning will this apology carry for Frank Byrne?

"I've been hurt. I've been hurt very deeply. Since they took me away from my mother I have lived only in sorry and anger," he said.

"Sorry is a word. It's just a hollow word."

The Rudd government has decided on a cut-price apology - it is unaccompanied by any form of compensation.

"Compensation wouldn't change it for me," said Frank. "It's not going to bring back my mother. I've been hurt, my mother has been hurt."

Two Aboriginal men sit by a fire (file image)
Aborigines have a far shorter life expectancy than other Australians

Other members of the Stolen Generations feel differently. Many consider a formal apology much-needed and long overdue - a symbolic gesture of immense importance.

Still, there has been widespread anger and resentment that they will get no reparations from the federal government.

This is country founded on the principles of equity and a fair go for all - but for too long those ideals were never extended to indigenous Australians, the first occupants of this vast land.

The statistics make for disheartening reading.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians born between 1996 and 2001 have a life expectancy of 59 for males and 65 for females.

That is about 17 years lower than the average life expectancies for all male and female Australians born between 1998 and 2000.

Between 1999 and 2003, what is called the age-standardised death rate for the indigenous population was 2.8 times greater than that of the non-indigenous population.

The unemployment rate for Aborigines is three times higher. Their chances of being incarcerated are 13 times higher.

Once the symbolism of the apology is out of the way, the Rudd government needs to find a raft of practical measures to grant indigenous Australians a more abundant and equitable life.

Frank Byrne's story as Australia says 'sorry'

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