Aboriginal tribal punishment turns Alice Springs into the world's stabbing capital

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 March, 2008, 12:00am

It was immortalised in Nevil Shute's novel A Town Like Alice, but a surge in traditional tribal punishment among Aborigines has made Alice Springs the stabbing capital of the world.

The desert town, the gateway to world-famous Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock), is suffering from an epidemic of 'payback' attacks in which Aborigines alleged to have wronged other tribe members are stabbed in the leg with knives.

Ancient codes of tribal justice, which served Aborigines well for thousands of years, have been subverted by overcrowding in squalid settlements, rampant alcoholism, drug abuse and welfare dependency.

Surgeons at Alice Springs Hospital say the town is in crisis as a result of an increase in the number of stabbings in the past decade, from 110 a year to about 250.

The town, which has a population of just 27,000, now has the highest per capita rate of stabbings in the world. The true number of stabbings could be twice that number, doctors said, because only patients admitted to hospital were counted in the statistics.

Almost 40 per cent of the stabbings are thigh injuries meted out by Aboriginal elders as traditional punishment.

Most of the assaults take place in the ramshackle 'town camps' scattered around the fringes of 'the Alice', rather than in areas frequented by tourists.

'It's getting worse and worse,' Ollapallil Jacob, head of the hospital's surgery department, said yesterday.

'The underlying causes are alcohol and family breakdown. A third of the victims were under the influence of alcohol.

'More than 50 per cent of the victims are females, which points to the high incidence of domestic violence in Alice Springs. Usually they use a kitchen knife. Spears aren't used any more.'

The Aboriginal squatter camps have been described as a 'sea of despair', with conditions similar to South Africa's townships.

Nearly half a million international tourists pass through Alice Springs on their way to Uluru, but the violence is confined to Aborigines and not aimed at outsiders.

'It's very rarely directed against non-Aborigines,' said Dr Jacob.

'This is still a very safe place for tourists.'

The ritualised stabbings were often performed by Aboriginal elders who were skilled at avoiding the femoral artery, said Dr Jacob, who came to Alice Springs eight years ago from Kerala, India.

Between 1998 and 2005, there were 1,550 admissions for stab injuries to Alice Springs Hospital. Of those, 16 bled to death.

With high birth rates among Aboriginal women, the population of the town camps is expected to double in the next five years. Increasing social tension is likely to result in more revenge stabbings, social workers fear.

Conditions in the camps were as bad as the worst South African townships, a government minister said in 2006.

'I could not differentiate between Crossways [outside Cape Town] in 1990 and what I saw in Alice Springs in the 21st century. It is devastating stuff,' said Joe Hockey, a minister in the previous government of prime minister John Howard.