Australia's Aboriginals demand Anzac Day equality

By Rob Taylor

Australians marked their most sacred national holiday in memory of fallen soldiers on Wednesday as Aboriginal veterans broke with tradition to hold a rival service and demand equality for "coloured" warriors.

Thousands of Australians and New Zealanders rose before dawn for candle-lit Anzac Day services in memory of their war dead 92 years after troops, or "diggers", from both countries landed at Gallipoli in Turkey in April 1915, suffering catastrophic losses.

But as medal-wearing veterans turned out for parades in cities and the smallest hamlets, around 300 Aboriginal veterans staged a separate "Coloured Diggers March" in Sydney.

"Over there in the heat of the battle we were one, we were brothers," organiser Pastor Ray Minniecon said.

"When a lot of our men came back from the war, they came back under the white Australia policy and they did not get the benefits of land grants or war pensions. It's those kinds of issues that are stored in our hearts."

Around 500 Aboriginals fought in World War One and as many as 5,000 fought on World War Two battlefields in Europe and in Asia, according to official records.

But they received little recognition when they returned home under policies favouring white Australians, and were not even counted as citizens until 1968. Pastor Bill Simon, who was to lead a church service following the march, said for too long there was a military tradition to "send the little black fella out to do all the hard work".

Australia's peak veterans association, the 240,000-strong Returned and Services League (RSL), said Aborigines had been a treasured part of Australia's military since Gallipoli.

"It's sad that it's deemed to be necessary by the indigenous community to have a separate march," RSL president Bill Crews told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

The controversy did not mar regular Anzac Day services, with crowds of 30,000 turning up for dawn ceremonies in Sydney, Melbourne and the capital Canberra.

The eight-month British-led campaign involving Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) forces in Turkey was a disaster. Anzac Day was seared into the consciousness of both countries as a day on which war sacrifices would never be forgotten.

Services came a day after three Australian soldiers in Iraq were wounded by an insurgent roadside bomb.

Prime Minister John Howard said Australia's soldiers showed "mateship or larrikinism ... or sterling discipline when that was appropriate, and the willingness to risk all".

Howard urged Australians to visit the battlefields where their forebears died, with thousands expected at Gallipoli despite official warnings of a possible terrorist attack.

In New Zealand around 15,000 people gathered at Auckland's Cenotaph, while in Papua New Guinea, where Australians repelled Japanese invaders in a bloody 1942 battle, thousands held a service above rows of white tombstones.

In Afghanistan, Australian troops were given rare beers as their officers took up sentry duty as an Anzac Day treat.

Australia, a close US ally, has around 1500 soldiers deployed in Iraq, more than a thousand in East Timor and nearly 500 in Afghanistan helping battle Taleban insurgents.

- REUTERS

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