Volume 18 Number 6
Return to Cootamundra
01 December 2005

Healing? For me that's impossible, Val Linow told John Bond.

IT WAS May 2000. The national Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation had invited all Australians to show their support for reconciliation by joining a walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. And Val Linow was furious.

Val is one of the 'stolen generations', the Aboriginal people who were removed from their families as children and put into institutions in a tragically misguided attempt to assimilate them into Western culture.

She was furious at an article in an Aboriginal newspaper, inviting the stolen generations to join the Bridge Walk behind a banner proclaiming 'Journey of Healing'.

Journey of Healing? Val phoned the number in the article. It was my phone number, and I received her views full-blast. 'After all I have been through, there is no possibility of healing for me,' she said. 'I will only walk with you if you get rid of that banner.'

She told me her story. She had been removed from her family at the age of two, along with her eight siblings, and put into a children's home with two of her sisters. Within months one sister had died of pleurisy. Her brothers were sent to another institution, where one died after his stomach pains were ignored until his appendix burst.

At the time, her father was serving in the Australian Army. On his return home, he tried to see his children but was escorted away by the police. Removed children were not allowed contact with their Aboriginal families.

At nine Val was sent to a home for Aboriginal girls in a town called Cootamundra. Again her father tried to visit her, and again was removed by the police. She was not allowed to meet him until he was on his deathbed.

At the age of 16 she was sent as a domestic servant to a family near Cootamundra, where the father thrashed her with wire, and raped her several times. After six months she fled. The police opened an inquiry, but soon closed it. She was left feeling that no-one in authority cared . Then her favourite sister was admitted to a mental hospital, where she died aged 20.

When I heard all this, I understood Val's anger. There was little I could say. But she decided to walk the bridge on her own, carrying a placard 'Stolen generations-I am not a myth'.

A quarter of a million people took part in the walk: Aboriginal and white Australians expressing their longing to heal the tragic results of the encounter between our two cultures. Some of the walkers paid for a plane to write the word 'Sorry' overhead.

That night Val phoned me. 'When I saw the thousands of people walking with us, a warm feeling came over me,' she said. 'I knew at last that I'm not alone. Then I looked up at the word 'Sorry'. Suddenly, tears began to pour down my cheeks. I even thought heaven opened its heart.'

She told me how, a few months previously, she had gone back to Cootamundra, on the invitation of a reconciliation group, which included people who had gone to school with the Aboriginal girls from the home. They had decided to try to make amends for their lack of understanding of what had happened to the stolen generations by inviting their former classmates back to Cootamundra.

The response was lukewarm, and Val herself was not interested. Cootamundra had too many painful memories for her. But she was intrigued by what she heard about the welcome received by those who had gone. Eventually she was persuaded to follow.

'I was trembling as the train approached the station,' she remembers. But she too was touched by the reception. Perhaps some white Australians do care, she began to think.

The Bridge Walk convinced her to go back to Cootamundra on a second visit. Her memories were of the suspicious stares which used to greet her when,as a little black girl, she walked into town. But, by this time, the media had carried news of what the reconciliation group was doing, and many residents
had responded appreciatively. 'It meant everything to me to walk down those streets and be greeted warmly,' Val says. She and her friends are now working with Cootamundra residents to create a memorial to the people who went through the home.

Val also decided to seek legal redress for the abuse she had suffered. Some years earlier she had applied to see her personal file from her years as a ward of state. It included letters from the police and welfare authorities about her rape. A group of lawyers took the case to the Victims of Crime Tribunal, and in 2002 Val was awarded $35,000 in compensation. At last a person in authority had recognized that these things had happened.

Today she often reads her poetry in schools. 'By sharing my experience with young people I can help make sure these things do not happen again,' she says.

'I do it not just for the Aboriginal children but the white children too, because we need to find peace in both cultures.'

John Bond is Secretary of the National Sorry Day Committee

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