CANBERRA (AFP) — A single word -- "sorry" -- sparked an outpouring of emotion among thousands of Australians, black and white, gathered across the country for Wednesday's apology to Aboriginal people.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke for half-an-hour in an historic address to parliament, outlining the injustices and indignities heaped on Aborigines since white settlers first sailed into Sydney Cove 220 years ago.
But for all Rudd's eloquence, it was the word "sorry" the 3,000-strong crowd on the lawns of parliament had come to hear and they cheered, whistled and waved flags every time he uttered it, six times in all.
Similar scenes were repeated around giant screens showing live broadcasts of the proceedings in major cities from Perth on the west coast to Sydney in the east and Melbourne in the south.
Many Aborigines had travelled thousands of kilometres (miles) to Canberra for the occasion, while schools held special assemblies so pupils could watch the broadcast.
In Canberra, Aboriginal dancers covered in ochre body paint stood beside suited white businessmen in a crowd that included schoolchildren, dreadlocked students and tribal elders.
As a pall of smoke from ceremonial fires hung over the crowd, some stood with heads bowed and wept while the giant screens showed Rudd apologising.
Others raised their fists in the black power salute or held pictures of loved ones who were unable to make it to the ceremony.
"This is the most significant moment for our people that's happened in my lifetime," Aboriginal man Darryl Towney told AFP.
"For us, this is like the Berlin Wall coming down."
Towney said he respected Rudd for making the gesture of reconciliation his first official act in parliament after his election last November.
"It's about 200 years too late but at least Rudd's done it, it means a lot to Aboriginal people," he said.
Aboriginal student Andi Kirwin said she felt a weight had been lifted when Rudd said sorry, a word that took on a huge symbolic meaning when his conservative predecessor John Howard refused to say it while he was in office.
"I just felt really empowered, it was an emotional moment for me when he was talking," she said, wiping tears from her eyes shortly after Rudd's speech ended.
"It acknowledged what happened to us, it ended all those years of denial."
But there was anger too, when opposition leader Brendan Nelson supported Rudd's motion but said some government policies had been well intentioned, citing high rates of child sex abuse in some Aboriginal communities.
The crowd turned their back to the screen as Nelson spoke, a grave Aboriginal insult, some yelling "shame, Brendan, shame."
"Why couldn't he just say sorry and leave it at that," Kirwin said of Nelson, who became leader of Howard's Liberal Party after it was dumped from office by Rudd's centre-left Labor Party.
In Perth, organisers pulled the plug on Nelson's speech, leaving the screen blank.
While the crowd outside parliament in Canberra included hundreds of Aborigines, it was mostly made up of white Australians who wanted to show their support for reconciliation.
"For me as a white Australian, this day means we can begin to move on and start to build bridges between white and Aboriginal communities," said Annie Kentwell, a Canberra-based public servant.
Kentwell said there was overwhelming support among white Australians for the apology.
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