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The Age

The dispossessed

Author: Sandra McKay
Date: 20/12/1997
Words: 2376
          Publication: The Age
Section: News Extra
Page: 4
OAK VALLEY, the heartland of the Maralinga people, sits between two red sand dunes but there is something missing in its middle.

You could call it a generation. When the British Army decided to test atomic bombs at Maralinga in the 1950s and '60s on what was thought to be uninhabited land, they blew apart the Western Desert people and spread plutonium across their chain of sacred waterholes.

Some of the dreaming sites will remain off-limits for the next 250,000 years, so lethal was the fallout. The poisoned social legacy is also immense.

The A-bomb did not wipe out the Maralinga-Tjarutja people, but it scattered them far and wide. The survivors, who mistook the "black mist" for the Great Snake digging holes in the sky, count themselves lucky that soldiers rounded them up like rabbits, issued them with rations and told them to go south, east or west - anywhere but their homeland north of the Trans-Australian railway.

After 30 years' in exile and armed with the findings of a 1985 royal commisson, three Pitjantjatjara bushmen took poisoned soil to London in 1991 and 1992 to publicise the plight of their people and to increase the pressure on the British Government to contribute to a compensation package.

Their efforts eventually secured a land title and $13.5 million in cash for the loss of the "use and enjoyment" of their land.

It is now 13 years since the Elders resettled at Oak Valley, having put the $13.5 million in a trust account in Adelaide, 900 kilometres away. The compensation was meant to help their dream of returning to a semi-traditional way of life.

To white man's eyes, the dream appears to have gone horribly awry. The Maralinga people remain arguably the most materially deprived in Australia.

Their young are still fed by the Save the Children fund in a portable preschool. Diabetes is rampant. Life expectancy is about 20 years lower than non-indigenous Australians and babies are three times more likely to die at birth. In short, Oak Valley is fighting for its survival.

Elderly people like Eddie Milpuddie, who was found unwittingly camped on the edge of a bomb crater in the 1950s, are still sleeping in a circle of dirt. Her black bandanna underscores a worn-out face and missing teeth. She looks tired from the struggle of hanging on to a dispossessed culture in one of the most remote and radioactive places on earth.

The ragged desert oaks the Maralinga people camp under in canvas wiltjas offer little relief from the desert winds, relentless sun, and more recently flash flooding, but they cling to the red dirt like the bluebush scrub.

In winter, old women sleep under blankets of dogs to keep warm in the cold desert nights. One woman sleeps with her chooks. They wash out of metal buckets and cook bush turkeys or Tom Piper casseroles on a few spindly mulga branches.

There is a general store opened for limited hours Monday to Friday, which receives supplies by truck once a week from Ceduna. The price of tinned spaghetti would spark a rebellion anywhere else.

Men and women can earn up to $350 a fortnight on a work-for-the-dole scheme, or "sit down" money of $88 a fortnight if they refuse to do white-man-style work, such as collecting garbage or helping the white teacher.

For the few "bosses" who have the luxury of a car, petrol is $1 a litre and a tank does not get you far in this country. With an average rainfall of two inches a year, water is an extravagance that costs $1 a litre to truck in.

Sitting in the sand in the same set of clothes and bare feet, the elders look much older than they are. They have the illnesses of 80-year-olds, but are only middle-aged.

Coke cans, flyaway wrappers and other refuse of Western culture piles up around them. Mangy dogs outnumber them. Alcohol and diabetes is killing them. The rhetoric of self-determination eludes them.

Oak Valley is struggling to stay together. Ironically, it is the Australian Army - that once removed them from their homelands - that has been sent in to improve their Third World conditions.

EVEN THOUGH the Maralinga-Tjarutja lands are 76,420 square kilometres in size, Oak Valley was not on the soldiers' military maps. The only reference points were the skeletons of 67 car bodies, which puncture the limestone planes and mulga on the dirt track in.

The convoy of green Mack trucks carrying army graders, bulldozers and a front-end loader had been on the road from Adelaide for two days when the young drivers reached the alien sign, which suggested they were getting close.

In lurid green paint, "Lift em Foot" had been daubed across the rusty upright bonnet once belonging to a white Holden, now serving as an outback road symbol. The penny dropped and the drivers slowed down. It was a portent for what lay ahead: not just a few twists in the unmarked red road but a cultural pothole to negotiate.

About 160 kilometres north of Watson, an unused railway siding on the Trans-Australian line, Oak Valley lies between the most cut-off points on the continent: Coober Pedy, the Nullarbor Plain, the Maralinga nuclear test site and the southern edge of the Great Victoria Desert.

For Lance Corporal Frank Hasanevic, a reservist who thought he had seen enough of hard life from his work for social security in Adelaide, Oak Valley was "a real eye-opener".

Until 18 months ago, the community had no houses or fridges and no running water. The only caravans were for the white teaching staff and resident manager. Now the ageing community is clamoring for a more comfortable existence. Half-a-dozen houses have been built and tension is high on who will get the next three when the army returns next winter to complete its task of constructing water tanks, tips, repairing roads and an airstrip.

In a "lift em up by the bootstraps" approach, the Howard Government has committed $10 million to a pilot project to build essential services in six remote communities.

But there are more than 60 remote Aboriginal communities classified by the Government as in urgent need of water, housing and sewerage. Oak Valley is arguably the worst served community in Australia.

When the army's leading party arrived in mid-August to gauge the size of the task ahead, the sappers were shocked to see the debris amid which the community was living, under corrugated iron and tarpaulin shelters. They were surprised to find the dirt airstrip in such disrepair that the Flying Doctor refused to land there.

Consequently, the community had not seen a doctor for two years, despite the chronic health problems of some of its people.

The soldiers could not imagine what it would be like there now, when the temperature climbs into the 50s and wind gusts snatch up the rubbish and flies into a potent mix, which turns into an annual gastro epidemic.

"When we arrived in town for the first time, I remember thinking 'Where are we?' We had been told what to expect, but I just couldn't visualise that people were living in these humpies, under a bit of canvas, and that this was Australia," says Hasanevic.

THE POWERBROKER of Oak Valley, Hughie Windless, is so tired of talking to whitefellas about his people's troubles that he's started charging $40 an hour "instead of wasting my breath". Money has become important to Windless, who was one of the three elders who went to London to fight for land rights and compensation.

"The past has not been easy for us. We had to fight hard to sit on the country we were born on. Now we've got the money in the bank, it is up to us to look at what we want to do with it," he says.

Mervin Day, another community elder, speaks of the bomb's impact in one powerful sentence. "It was the day our future was broken."

The $13.5 million cash - part of a package of compensation which includes the return of the land and a clean-up of the Maralinga bomb sites to be completed by 2000 - took nearly 40 years to settle but has come too late for a generation. It has also brought a new set of problems.

Archie Barton, as the long-time administrator of the Maralinga-Tjarutja lands, is worried about his people's future. When the community had no running water, houses or general store, he says it was one of the most stable and strongest outstations in the Western Desert.

The compensation was supposed to put the worst of the hardship behind them, but has created more division.

Since the elders returned from London with the land and money, "everyone has come out of the woodwork", Barton says.

"And I say to them, where were you in 1983 when we were fighting for the land? . . . My concern is we've got these vultures out there. They will fit in on family ties and traditional structure ties, but they will only be feathering their own nest."

To share in the compensation, families must return to the land and wait their turn. For some, such as Lorna Grantham, a cousin of Barton's who grew up on the Ooldea mission, which was closed when the British set up camp nearby, the wait is arduous.

Sitting outside her whirlie tent on a half-broken orange plastic school chair to protect her pups from a pack of bigger dogs, her grey hair is whipped into a furious knot as she speaks angrily about how the compensation money has been spent. "Too many Toyotas," she says.

Desperate for the comfort of a house, the luxury of an oven, shower and "drop" toilet (the flushless pit kind), the sight of the soldiers gave her hope that her family's turn was near.

She is concerned about the health of her teenage granddaughter, Audrey, who lives in the next whirlie with her parents. Their humpy is made out of scrap pieces of corrugated iron and several tarpaulins stretched over feeble branches.

"It's too hot to stomp around here," Lorna says, while eyeing off one of the few Colorbond kit homes with its air-conditioning unit. "We need a house, we need a fridge."

Mervin Day, one of the elders who led the campaign for land rights and compensation, lives with his two wives in the house Lorna Grantham envies. He says more housing and other services that the army is promising to bring are the key to his people staying on the land and near the dreaming sites.

"If there are more houses, more people will come back. You get tired of movin' around, walkin' around. You just want to stop, have a shower . . . It's a long way to a swimming pool."

But Jack May, who belongs to one of the first families to resettle at Oak Valley, looks distinctly uncomfortable with his new three-bedroom kit home. Flicking back his Bob Marley-length dreadlocks, his dark pools for eyes brim with concern. Two days after he had taken "ownership" of his new aluminium house, he was still sleeping on the veranda in a swag.

It is the rub of Oak Valley. While houses provide shelter from the extreme weather, a kitchen sink and even a TV, it is out of step with the community's traditional nomadic ways, when cultural business can take them thousands of miles for months on end.

Even Mervin Day has some reservations about the steel structured, aluminium-clad homes, which look out of place and proportion amid the dominant humpies. "It's hard to move around with this on your back."

ARCHIE BARTON says the compensation money has changed his people. "The more facilities that go up, the more happiness goes down." When everyone lived on the ground, the community was more at one.

"We could sit down and talk for an hour, then go off to the next fire, everyone joking and laughing. We don't get that now. Everybody's watchin' one another to see who's getting a bit more at the shop. They're fighting over Toyotas and houses. I think we're just creating more problems."

The $13.5 million is locked up in a trust, but the interest ($800,000 in the first year) affords an annual shopping spree, including three $30,000 cars each year for elders, used for traditional business. This year it has also bought the children a "rage cage" to play basketball, tennis and other sports, and furniture for the five community houses built so far.

Barton says the money has not stopped the loss of a generation. "There is a group of people that we've lost, and that is the youth of today. They're on drugs, they're on everything."

Yet money remains important to the Maralinga people. "You took people away from being independent, and made them dependent on Government rations. Forty years down the track, it is going to cost dollars to make them independent again," says Barton.

After some initial reservations, the community has welcomed the help of the army.

"For the people of Oak Valley, who have been waiting 13 years for basic services, this is a way of getting things done fast," says Allan Whitehorse, ATSIC's regional director in Ceduna.

But no experiment as radical as this one - the conservative army meets Aboriginal Oak Valley - will ever have a perfect outcome. There remain doubters on both sides of the cultural fence, sceptical if the scheme is anything more than Government window-dressing.

As the convoy pulled out of Oak Valley at first light, it was no clearer to Frank Hasanevic whether all grading and construction work was the long-term answer.

He still has doubts about the bigger question of the community's long-term survival.

"As I see it, this is the white man trying to solve the black man's problem. You can pump heaps of dollars in, you can build houses and fix the airstrip, but I don't know whether it's the solution. Hopefully it's part of the solution."

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