• According to Torres Strait Islander beliefs, the children are now in "another place behind the sunset". (Wayne Quilliam)Source: Wayne Quilliam
Thousands gather at Cairns cemetery to pay tribute to eight children - known as Keriba Omasker - who were killed only days before Christmas in 2014.
Ella Archibald-Binge

1 Dec 2018 - 5:35 PM  UPDATED 1 Dec 2018 - 6:11 PM

The eight children who lost their lives in the Keriba Omasker tragedy were commemorated in Cairns on Saturday with a traditional Torres Strait Islander ceremony known as a Tombstone Opening, or 'unveiling'. 

Usually held years after a funeral, a Tombstone Opening brings family and community together to remember those who have passed – and to celebrate the joining of their spirits with their ancestors.

The practice has nothing to do with exhumation, but refers to the traditional practice that involves the decorated headstone being unveiled for the first time. 

Torres Shire Council Mayor Vonda Malone said the ceremony celebrated the "beauty" of the children's lives and hoped the service would unite the community.

"[It's about] looking at how we can work better together as communities, as Torres Strait Islanders – particularly here on the mainland around support services ..., because a lot of our family members are now living here in Cairns," Ms Malone told NITV News.

The highly emotional ceremony used song and dance to celebrate the lives of the children, who were aged between two and 14 when they passed. The names and images of the children have now been released to NITV by their family.

They include Malili Warria, Vita Angelina Thaiday, Shantae Warria, La’Torrence Warria, Azariah Willie, Daniel Willie, Rodney Willie and Patrenella Willie.

Together they are referred to as Keriba Omasker meaning ‘Our Children’ in the Erub Island dialect of the Torres Strait – their common heritage.

Their graves lie together in the shape of a sunrise, reflecting an image captured on Darnley Island in the Torres Strait on the morning following the tragedy. 

Speaking at the memorial service, Torres Strait Islander leader Joseph Elu said the children were now in "another place behind the sunset", according to traditional beliefs. 

"We should grow as one from this to heal ourselves and to heal this nation of ours," Mr Elu told the crowd.

The children's deaths, just days before Christmas in 2014, sent shockwaves across the country.

The woman responsible – mother to seven and aunty to one of the children – will never face trial after the Brisbane Mental Health Court last year found her to be of unsound mind. 

Beginning to heal 

One of the hardest hit communities following the Keriba Omsasker tragedy was the Cairns suburb of Manoora where the events took place.

Onokura Kata, who sits on a Manoora advisory committee within the community, said the community struggled to heal in the wake of the tragedy, despite a heavy influx of support services after the incident.

"Our people are like oysters after a tragedy - they all close up. They tried their best, but people were just closed ears," Mr Kata told NITV News.

"I said, you’ve got to come back two or three times.

"Once they got to know them, the oyster’s open - they know who you are and what you’re about, you can ask them anything you want and they’ll tell you."

One healing initiative was the reopening of the community centre on Murray Street.

"It was about getting to know your neighbours," said Mr Kata, who also volunteers at the centre. 

At first, he had to lure people in with the promise of free air conditioning. Four years on, the centre is a thriving social hub with a homework program, mums-and-bubs group, and a yarning circle. Importantly, it continues to connect vulnerable families with support services.

 It's one of several projects in the neighbourhood that are fostering healing and restoring community pride in Manoora.

"Now, I think the oyster's opening up," Mr Kata said. 

'When you have that unveiling it puts them in a new house up above.'

On any given day, locals are now able to wander through a community garden, where chillies, bananas and pineapples grow. On weekdays, a walking bus escorts students to school, boosting attendance rates. 

Dozens of kids flock to the local park to join outdoor activities run by an Indigenous youth organisation called, Deadly Inspiring Youth Doing Good.

Other young people have teamed up to form 3M Pride - a group using hip hop to restore pride to the often-stigmatised Cairns suburbs of Manoora, Manunda and Mooroobool.

Red Cross volunteer, Angela Jose, said a lot of positives for the community had emerged out of the Keriba Omasker tragedy. "There has been more help come towards the families that do need it," she said.

Ms Jose said while it may never be possible to fully heal from the Keriba Omasker tragedy, in 2018 the community is strong and the Tombstone Opening was an important step for the community to continue to move forward.

"As a culture too, when you have that unveiling it puts them in a new house up above, which is very important to the Torres Strait Islander people," she said. 

"So, once they have that established, and everything is settled on Saturday, hopefully to their islander culture, they’re settled in their new home above."

Readers seeking mental health support and information can contact: Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or find an Aboriginal Medical Service here. There are resources for young people at  Headspace Yarn Safe.