July 6, 2007 / 10:35 AM / 13 years ago

Australian aborigines dream of "grog"-free days

ALICE SPRINGS, Australia (Reuters) - Aborigine Daryl Allen, 60, sits cross-legged in the dirt dreaming of the good times when his outback people lived hunting kangaroo and working as cattlemen, instead of drinking themselves to death.

A group of Aboriginal men and women drink beer while sitting in the Todd River's dry bed in the central Australian town of Alice Springs, July 6, 2007. A recent report found a "river of grog" or alcohol was destroying aboriginal communities in the outback Northern Territory and fuelling violence against women and children. To match feature AUSTRALIA-ABORIGINES/ALCOHOL REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (AUSTRALIA)

“They were happy days — no drinking,” said Allen as he awaits the return of the camp’s drunks who will binge drink late into the night and most likely fight.

“They will come back drunk tonight. They drink and fight and cut one another with knives. Children and women crying, mother and father drinking, poor little ones hungry for food,” said Allen in broken English.

The “Hidden Valley” aboriginal camp on the outskirts of Alice Springs is a garbage-strewn place, where mangy dogs wander through thousands of empty beer cans.

A recent report found a “river of grog” or alcohol was destroying aboriginal communities in the outback Northern Territory and fuelling violence against women and children.

Prime Minister John Howard declared a national emergency and has sent police and troops to end the binge drinking, violence and sexual abuse.

Reuters visited the aboriginal camps around Alice Springs 16 years ago, and despite hundreds of millions of dollars being spent trying to improve the lives of Australia’s Aborigines, people here still live in third world conditions. A short drive away are five-star hotels and air conditioned homes.

Aborigine William Tilmouth, head of the Tangentyere Council which manages Alice Spring’s 18 aboriginal camps, says the reason his people are still struggling to improve their lives is because they feel powerless and continue to encounter racism.

Australia’s 460,000 Aborigines make up 2 percent of the 20 million population and have a life expectancy 17 years less than white Australians. They have far higher rates of unemployment, imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.

In the Northern Territory, with its reputation for heavy drinking, alcohol causes an Aborigine’s death every 38 hours.

“If you have nothing in your life people just sit down and drink,” said Tilmouth. “When people come into town they binge drink. You get murders, domestic violence and sexual abuse.”

SHANTY CAMPS

The camps around Alice are not marked on the map, but are home to around 3,000 people, the product of an old law which banned Aborigines from entering town.

“Hidden Valley” camp, a dusty stretch of ground wedged between barren hills, is one of the most violent. Broken doors and barred windows are constant reminders of the violence that lives here.

Recently two drunken aboriginal women stopped brawling only when one was stabbed and the other bashed with an iron bar.

“There is more violence here than in other areas,” said Cait Ryan, at the camp’s community centre, citing over-crowded housing and a lack of basic necessities like reliable plumbing and electricity as major factors behind the violence.

Hidden Valley’s 21 dilapidated houses and six humpies, or tin sheds, are home to up to 300 people. “Often the toilets and drains get blocked. When 20 people in one house try and have a shower and the plumbing is blocked, it’s a disaster,” said Ryan.

Those living in tin sheds must use a communal toilet block, but it is filthy with faeces smeared over the toilet, the door smashed and the shower broken. The cobwebs are evidence that no one has used the amenity for a long time.

On the day Reuters visited, “Hidden Valley” was like a ghost-town, with many residents in town, drinking.

A cool wind whipped biting dirt into Belinda’s eyes as she lay on a filthy mattress in the dirt outside her humpy. She was sick and coughing, but with no one to care for her except her seven-year-old daughter Treshina, who lay beside her.

Treshina knows the emptiness of camp life, as well as the violence, and knows where she would rather be. “Shooting kangaroo in the bush,” she says with a wide smile.

ANIMAL BAR

“If you don’t stop the drinking the violence will never go away,” said Aborigine Roseanne Morris, who used to hide behind a shed when her drunken father and mother started fighting.

Almost 1,152 cans of beer were poured into the dirt by police in May under a public drinking crackdown. In August, Alice Springs will become a dry town with a ban on alcohol drinking in all public places, but many Aborigines fear the ban will simply mean more drinking in the camps outside town.

To curb alcohol abuse, hotels serve only low alcohol beer until noon, full strength beer until 2.00 pm when the take away outlets open, and fortified wines from 6.00 pm to 9.00 pm.

But the new trading hours have made little difference with drunken Aborigines simply moving from hotels to the street from 2.00pm, drinking in the nearby dry Todd River or in camps.

“The hotels don’t care as long as they get the money,” said Aborigine Eileen Hoosan, who runs an alcohol rehab centre.

One hotel nicknamed “the Animal Bar” concerns Hoosan the most. “If they raised the dress standard so aboriginal people did not have easy access it would be better. If we could do anything about grog, I’d shut that one down,” she said.

But it is not just Alice Springs where the “grog” runs free and aboriginal communities are wracked with violence.

Before the two hotels near the Borroloola community lost their licence in 2006, Aborigines were drinking eight pallets of beer or 8,640 litres of beer a day.

Although the majority of aboriginal land in the territory is dry, “grog runners” target remote communities, selling beer at double the price. Every year police confiscate about 100 cars suspected of smuggling alcohol into remote communities.

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