MOUNT DRUITT, Australia (AP) – As a girl, Mari Melito Russell felt out of place. She was darker than the other kids at school, she felt more comfortable in the forest than her suburban home and she had vivid dreams of an Aboriginal woman beckoning her.

At age 24, she learned a shocking truth that helped explain her unease and set her on an agonizing search for an identity snatched away from her the day she was born.

Russell is among thousands of Australian Aborigines who were forcibly removed from their families under policies that lasted for decades until 1970, leaving deep scars on countless lives and the nation’s psyche.

Australia’s government said yesterday it would formally apologize to the so-called “stolen generations” as the first item of business of the new Parliament, on Feb 13.

The issue has divided Australians for decades, and an apology would be a crucial step toward righting injustices many blame for the marginalized existence of Australia’s original inhabitants – its poorest and most deprived citizens.

“It’s not going to bring back my life,” Russell, 72, told The Associated Press yesterday at her home on Sydney’s outskirts. “It’s not going to bring back my mum. It’s not going to take away the abuse that I had to endure when I was growing up.”

“But at least it’s a start.”

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, elected last November and whose pledge to apologize overturns a decade of refusals by his predecessor, has ruled out paying compensation. But he says he is determined to help all Aborigines achieve better health, education and living standards.

“This is about getting the symbolic covenant, if you like, between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia right and then moving on,” Rudd said this week.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said yesterday the apology would “be made on behalf of the Australian government and does not attribute guilt to the current generation of Australian people.”

Her statement reflects the lingering concerns of many Australians that they should not be made responsible for mistakes by their forebears.

Aborigines – 450,000 among Australia’s population of 21 million – are the the country’s poorest ethnic group and are most likely to be jailed, unemployed and illiterate. Their life expectancy is 17 years shorter than other Australians.

From 1910 until 1970, some 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children were taken from their parents under state and federal laws that argued the race was doomed and that integrating the children was a humane alternative.

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