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Aborigines seeking to make Olympics worldwide hearing


SYDNEY, Australia - Isabell Coe's beef isn't with the Olympics - it's with Australia's leaders.

That's why the Aboriginal activist is camping with 200 others in a lush park within sight of Sydney's shimmering high-rise towers, waiting for the world to descend upon the 2000 Summer Olympics while yearning to air age-old grievances on a global stage.

"This country is at war with its indigenous people," Coe says. "That's why we say, 'Let the world come, let them see the real Games of Shame, the Genocidal Games against the indigenous people.'"

More than two centuries after the first European settlers came to this continent, sweeping aside indigenous people who for thousands of years populated this vast place, the push continues for Aboriginal rights and claims.

Fanning the flames of a "ceremonial fire" and remaining firmly planted in a public park since July, the activists issue leaflets, court the media and make plans for symbolic demonstrations timed to coincide with next week's opening of the Games. They're not here to disrupt, they say, but to educate and draw attention to their cause.

Yesterday, Olympic president Juan Antonio Samaranch met with Aboriginal leaders, but no statements were made because the meeting was termed "private."

"Aboriginal people are still being treated like aliens in our own country," Coe says.

Modern-day activists are bidding for reparations, recognition and an apology from Australia's government. Meanwhile, the country's leaders hew to a steady course toward reconciliation and seek to raise living standards among the Aborigines, who number fewer than 400,000 in a country of 19 million people.

During the final buildup to the Games, people here are resigned to a public airing of Australia's painful past, from the bloodshed of bullets fired by European settlers to the heartbreak of a "stolen generation" of Aboriginal children taken from their parents and raised by the state.

"Embarrassment will be the main reaction," says Henry Reynolds, a historian at the University of Tasmania.

Complexities and contradictions abound when trying to understand Australia's relationship to its indigenous population.

In official ceremonies, at an arts and crafts center, even on the flag poles, organizers of the 2000 Games are seeking to highlight the art, customs and contributions of an Aboriginal culture that stretches back 50,000 years.'The Sydney Games have made a point of wanting to showcase Aboriginal culture and personalities for the betterment of Australia," says Graham Cassidy, a spokesman for New South Wales, the state where the Games will be held.

When the Olympic flame came to Australia from Greece, the initial Olympic torchbearer on the long relay across Australia was field hockey player Nova Peris-Kneebone, who in 1996 became the country's first Aboriginal Olympic Games gold medalist.

All of Australia awaits the women's 400-meter track final, as the country's great Aboriginal star, Cathy Freeman, seeks a gold medal that to many could serve as a bridge between races and a reminder of the successes of other Aboriginal people in all walks of life.

"Cathy has done good for the whole world," says Pam Ingram, who is among the activists in the tent city, dubbed the "Aboriginal Embassy."

Yet there is another side to the tale, as Aborigines struggle with problems of health, housing, education and employment. They have a lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality rate and higher unemployment rate than the rest of Australia. Their ability to sway public policy doesn't stretch back far. They were granted the vote in 1962 and counted in the census in 1967.

In "The Block," nickname for a ramshackle area that is home to a chunk of Sydney's Aboriginal population, an open-air drug market flourishes near a playground. Two-story homes are decaying, with flecked paint on the outside, mattresses, sofas and auto engines on porches; inside, plywood floors rot.

Behind an abandoned home littered with garbage, its walls soaked with urine and with a stuffed toucan doll sitting on a window sill, a man injects heroin into his elbow. He then drops the needle onto the grass, where dozens of other needles lie.

A few houses away from the drug "shooting gallery" lives Valerie Murphy, a 53-year-old who has survived much in her life. She is part of the "stolen generation," taken from her family in 1954 and forced to live in the Cootamundra Training Home for Girls.

"I can't tell you much," she says, recalling that she lived in state homes for 11 years. "I don't like talking about it."

With some prodding, though, she tells of being beaten by police and put in a room that was as confining as a box. And then she shows a picture of herself when she was a child at the home.

"I reckon I look sad there," she says, looking at the photo.

Aboriginal issues "are very similar with Native Americans, particularly in the Western states," says Reynolds, the historian. "Native Americans have always had some form of sovereignty on their reservations. That was never conceded in Australia."

From the outset, the Aboriginal population was no match for the first European settlers, who arrived in January 1788.'There was quite a bit of conflict," Reynolds says. "My estimate is 20,000 to 25,000 were directly killed in violence. A great many more died of European diseases they had no resistance to. They died in very large numbers. In those communities, fewer and fewer children were born. They suffered severe deprivation and malnutrition. The population declined from 1788 until the 1940s."

From the end of the 19th century to the 1960s, Aboriginal people went "through a period of being placed on reservations, of having very restrictive government controls on what they could do," Reynolds says. "That breaks down in the 1960s and you have a fairly rapid period of reform, at much the same time that you have the civil rights movement in America."

The most wrenching of the latter-day problems was that of the "stolen generation," which refers to the "mixed race" children, perhaps as many as 100,000, who over the decades were taken from their parents to be raised in state institutions or by white families.

Reynolds says it was a "consciously eugenicist" policy built on the assumption that if the mixed-race were taken away "the full-blooded would die out."

After World War II, "it became a welfare thing, that supposedly they were being taken away for their own benefit to be educated and trained and fit into society," Reynolds says.

The plight of the "stolen generation" - and the overall Aboriginal issue of reconciliation - remains deeply emotive and political.

An Australian government minister for Aboriginal affairs, John Herron, provoked controversy last year when he said "at most, it might be inferred that up to 10 percent of children were separated for a variety of reasons," and concluded "the phrase 'stolen generation' is rhetorical."

Australia's Parliament issued a declaration of "deep and sincere regret" for past injustices to Aborigines, falling short of the full apology demanded by some indigenous leaders. Many still yearn for a full apology from Prime Minister John Howard.

In effect, the government acknowledges the injustices but cannot accept culpability for the actions of people in the past. The government's policy of "practical reconciliation" is targeted at raising living and health standards among Aboriginal people.

Until the Games begin, the issue of Australia's treatment of its indigenous population will likely percolate as the international media - and the world's sporting fans - focus on Sydney.

Yet long after the world turns its gaze from Australia, the issue will resonate in a country trying to come to terms with its past.

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