“The day of the implementation of the intervention is something I'll never forget, it was an experience of invasion, it's something that was unnecessary,” Mutitjulu resident Dorothea Randall recalls.
“I've never seen my family and the community members so nervous and scared. There were some family members, especially a lot of our mothers who’d experienced the Stolen Generation. They ran up to the sand dunes to hide their kids, so you can just imagine they were reliving something they'd experienced.”
On June 21, 2007, former Prime Minister John Howard announced he was suspending the Racial Discrimination Act so his government could seize control of Aboriginal lands in the Northern Territory. He said it was what was needed to address allegations of ‘rampant child sex abuse in Aboriginal communities’.
Ten years on, and a lengthy police investigation later, no one has been prosecuted for said abuse. But the 73 communities the intervention applied to have continued to be punished nonetheless.
The small Central Australian community of Mutitjulu remembers the beginning of the Intervention like it was yesterday.
Police and the army rolled into Aboriginal lands uninvited to mark the beginning of the policy, and informed Aboriginal people the government was in complete control.
“We heard they was coming, and some people were hiding in their houses, thinking, ‘oh, they're gonna come and start shooting people and taking over our community’. A lot of people were scared, we were all scared. We all stood together wondering what to expect, to see what they was gonna do,” Mutitjulu resident Gary Cole remembers.
“On that day, every man got accused of being a paedophile, and to be an Aboriginal man in Mutitjulu, it painted a picture that everyone thought that everyone was a paedophile in the community, every man. So we felt no good, and we still feel no good today that we got accused of something we never ever done. And we'll never ever do.”
The reports of ‘rampant child sex abuse’ had largely come from the media, in particular, the ABC’s Lateline program.
Mutitjulu was the face of many of the stories that circulated at the time, but there was one particular story that residents are still recovering from today. It was the ABC’s 2006 interview with an anonymous man they said was a ‘youth worker’ from Mutitjulu.
“Up came this person they called a youth worker, and I thought 'who could this youth worker be?' You couldn't see anything of their face, it was blacked out, it made me think of a mamu, a bad spirit,” Anangu man Sammy Wilson remembers.
This anonymous man claimed men in Mutitjulu were trading petrol for sex with young girls, and that children were being held against their will and traded between communities as "sex slaves".
“I couldn't sit still to watch it I had to stand up. I was watching it and I was thinking 'where have all these stories come from that nobody has talked openly about? All of these stories, these secret things that we don't know about that are suddenly being aired?',” Sammy Wilson explains.
The anonymous man in the story was Gregory Andrews. He was in fact not a youth worker and did not live in the community. His comments were later found to be false, but the damage had already been done.
“I was high on a tower in Darwin, thinking should I jump, or what? They are cruel people, they crucified us, like what they done to Jesus 2000 years ago, and what they done to Mandela, they done everything and they coming back to us now, Anangu,” Sammy Wilson says.
“I'm still carrying that thing today, that was 2006 in June. Today I'm still carrying it, I'll be carrying that thing forever, I got it here,” he says as he points to his heart.
The ABC’s story led to the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report, which then led to the Northern Territory Intervention.
The Intervention saw the Commonwealth Government withhold 50% of welfare payments from Indigenous recipients, banned alcohol and pornography in Aboriginal communities, increased police presence in communities, made health checks for all Aboriginal children compulsory, gave the government the power to take possession of Aboriginal land and property, and suspended the Racial Discrimination Act.
“Police were pulling up anyone from Mutitjulu, pulling the cars up, and at night the police were driving around in the community all night with the two spotlights pointing into people's yards and windows, and driving around all night with the spotlights on,” Gary Cole says.
“I kept telling them, 'people are trying to sleep here, we got kids here asleep, people gotta work tomorrow'. But yeah, they was just walking into our yards and putting their spotlights on and pulling over any community car they seen, and it was like we had no power and they was doing what they want and we felt intimidated by that.”
Residents say they couldn’t even leave the community to get groceries without being pulled over by police and searched.
“And if you went to Alice Springs or other places and someone asked you where you're from and you say Mutitjulu, you got this look like 'oh you're from Mutitjulu, where all the paedophiles are'. We'd get an uncertain reaction from people,” Mutitjulu man Craig Woods says.
Gary Cole states that if anything like that were to happen in the community, it would be dealt with immediately.
“If something like that happened, we have our own lore to deal with it, our Aboriginal lore, and in our lore, we look after our kids. In our lore we would have done tribal punishment, we would have took someone to the oval if we thought someone was doing that and there was enough evidence, we would have done tribal punishment on the oval,” he explains.
“And if we would have seen that we also would have reported it, but it never happened, we are good fathers, we look after our kids and our community.”
10 years on, the Intervention is still in place under a different name, Stronger Futures. But what has the $587 million policy achieved?
“Now that it is coming up to ten years you reflect and question 'what have they done?' Done nothing, just damage. 10 years and just a big wider gap, to what closing the gap? Oh come on,” Dorothea Randall scoffs.
“They just wanted to close this place down, that was their aim, close the community down. They wanted to move us somewhere, that's what they were aiming because they want to make money because they want to clear this and put an Uluru sunrise place here because there is good sunrises here we are living on. It was about money,” Sammy Wilson adds.
In the last six months, the army returned to the community of Mutitjulu.
“The army came in earlier this year and they said sorry to us,” Gary Cole reveals.
“It was the Australian Army that came and said sorry. That's nearly nine years later. They came and said sorry…They said, ‘the Australian Army is not about coming into communities to try and take over’, they were good and we were happy they said sorry,” he says.
“But the Federal Police, and the NT Police, they've never said sorry to us, or the government for what they've done to the community and accusing all the men and painting a very bad picture of the community.”
Despite the bad picture that was painted, Mutitjulu residents have always held their heads high. They continue to work with the government on a daily basis, and constantly talk of ‘moving forward’.
“One thing I've learnt in Mutitjulu is we're very forgiving people. We always embrace, even if it's the same people. People make mistakes. One thing I can say is Anangu families and people, we speak the truth, we can only tell the truth,” Dorothea Randall says.
“Every day, I see family members always embracing strange people. Every day of their life, so they give so much, but what do they get in return? Of course, we have our Tjukurpa behind us, and that's what keeps us going.”
Each day in Mutitjulu the men and women get up and get busy. The community is currently drawing up plans for $10 million worth of housing upgrades and new builds, and designing a new cultural centre and adult education centre.
“The community is moving along good now and we still all here today and we still working with the government, the NT Government, and Anangu Aboriginal people are looking after this place. We want run it the way we see our communities. We want to empower our communities through Anangu, our way,” Gary Cole says.
While it’s clear the racism of the last ten years will never be forgotten in the community of Mutitjulu, its residents certainly don’t let it define them. Their message is clear: “Hey, the intervention was here ten years ago, but we're still here and we're going strong,” Dorothea says with a smile.
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