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Australia: Coniston Massacre Remembered - 2003-09-24

It is 75 years since the last recorded massacre of aboriginal people in Australia. A reconciliation ceremony has been held near the central desert town of Alice Springs to remember least 31 Aborigines, killed by a policeman and a group of white settlers. An official inquiry into the killings found the men had acted in self-defense, which enraged the indigenous community.

The Coniston massacre is one of Australia's darkest memories. At least 31 Aborigines were murdered by vigilantes led by a police officer. The men were seeking revenge for the death of a white hunter, killed by a member of a local indigenous tribe in an argument over a woman.

The victims were shot at water hole, 350 kilometers northwest of Alice Springs, in the center of the continent. In 1928, it was frontier country as Europeans, who first arrived in the country in 1788, pushed into Australia's arid center.

It was a time of great hardship. A long drought raised tensions between the area's traditional aboriginal owners and white farmers over scarce water. The massacre at Coniston was the last recorded mass murder of black Australians in a country where race relations continue to be uneasy.

Justin O'Brien, a historian from the Northern Territory University, says an official investigation into the killings was seriously flawed. "None of the victims of the police violence were present. A lot of the findings of the inquiry were not based on any evidence," he says. "So it was, for all intents and purposes, a whitewash."

Seventy-five years later, it is still not known how many people died. The official figure is disputed by indigenous leaders, who believe there were as many as two hundred victims.

An anniversary ceremony took place Wednesday, northwest of Alice Springs, in an attempt to heal the wounds of the past. Relatives of those who died and the men who were responsible for those deaths stood side-by-side. One woman, whose great-uncle was killed, said the ceremony had nothing to do with apportioning blame. It was about reconciliation, she said, and making sure the events of 1928 were not forgotten.