The Queensland government has said it will take new steps to tackle sly grogging – smuggling alcohol into “dry” Aboriginal communities – in the wake of violence that erupted in the troubled Cape York community of Aurukun after the stabbing death of a 37-year-old man on New Year’s Day.
More than 100 people fled the violence, in which at least six buildings burned to the ground and two more were “rendered uninhabitable” in a “vengeance-seeking exercise”, according to a police superintendent, Geoff Sheldon.
A 17-year-old boy and an 18-year-old man have been charged with murder and 23 others with 79 offences in relation to the violence. Twelve people have been charged with arson.
Police allege that the man was stabbed in the stomach, and died a short time later at the Aurukun medical clinic.
A large group of people took to the streets with makeshift weapons when the news spread. More than 150 men, women and children fled into the bush and to neighbouring communities including Coen, 130km away on the eastern side of the Cape, to escape the clashes. Many have not yet returned.
In the days after the violence, army veterans from Kapani Warrior, which runs personal development programs for young people in Aurukun, set up a bush camp for displaced families and ferried people to other communities. The camp was closed at the weekend.
“Those who have fled are still in a high state of agitation and are fearful for their safety,” said Kapani’s managing director, Ant Blumer.
“A more strategic view is needed of the issues at Aurukun, which are symptomatic of a larger problem which needs attention. It’s a tragedy, really, in a highly divided and traumatised community.
“We’ve been there for two years trying to help the community get more positive outcomes. They are fantastic, wonderful people.
“If people have meaning, respect, jobs – that sparks enthusiasm for life. Our objective is to help people find respect, walk the path of regeneration, and meet halfway for meaningful life activity and employment. That makes a positive contribution. What we have now is a community in distress.”
Aurukun shire council said on Tuesday that all services were operating as normal, from the airport to aged care and sanitation, and people should feel safe to return. The mayor, Dereck Walpo, has said he wants people to come home.
“After community calm has been restored in the short-term, the focus will shift to maintaining community calm in the longer term,” a Queensland government spokesperson said.
The state government said it was working with the council and community leaders to support locally led solutions, “including a renewed approach to alcohol management through a community safety plan that incorporate actions to address sly grog and home brew”.
It has appointed a mediator, the former Aurukun shire council chief executive Gary Kleinen, to manage community tensions while Bruce Martin, a Wik Mungkan man and former member of the prime minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, will work with elders and coordinate government agencies.
The state government spokesperson said: “Aurukun is an extremely remote community that faces complex issues including the legacy of historical impacts of alcohol, ongoing impacts of historic government policies and practices on culture and community functioning, including the forced removal of families into the former mission at Archer River, inter-clan conflicts and fighting, and high crime and incarceration rates.
“The individual needs of those who have been displaced continue to be assessed, with priority being given to those urgently requiring accommodation.”
The spokesperson said a number of Aurukun families who “self-evacuated” to Coen and other Cape communities had signalled they were ready to return.
“Work has already started to rectify damaged homes in Aurukun with community and government agencies working to identify longer-term housing options for those whose homes require more significant work.”
Additional police would remain in the small community “to improve safety and security in the town”.