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It could be the most brutal of separations: the door kicked in, the children snatched away, forever.

And under Australia's Northern Territorial law, in effect from 1918 to 1953, it was all legal.Police used the law against Australia's aborigines, creating a "stolen generation" in a supposed effort to save a dying race by integrating its young into the white majority.

Light-skinned aboriginal children were seized and then handed out to white families. Dark-skinned children were put in bleak orphanages.

"I wasn't bitter at anything," says Hilda Muir. Now 76, she was taken from her mother's side at age 8.

"But I still always regret that I never went back to see my people or see my mother especially. That was the saddest part, that we didn't go back."

On Tuesday, she and five other aborigines sued the government for forcibly removing them from their homes.

They walked into the High Court in Melbourne, filing papers that charge that the territorial law was unconstitutional and violated the U.N. Convention on Genocide.

"It was a very powerful moment. There was a lot of emotion as they went through the door to lodge the writ," said Wes Miller, director of the Katherine Aboriginal Legal Aid Service.

Thousands of aborigine children were removed from their homes from the 1920s to the 1960s. Authorities believed that aboriginal people would eventually die out. They thought they were doing the children a favor.

Muir said she spent six years at Kahlin, an Outback camp for mixed-race aboriginal children. She often slept on the floor and was beaten. She had to sneak off at times, risking more abuse, to scavenge for food scraps.

Another aborigine, Alec Kruger, described Kahlin as "a concentration camp" where the children were never allowed to associate with their families or full-blooded aborigines.

In Xavier Herbert's novel "Capricornia," Kahlin was described as "a miniature city of whitewashed hovels crowded on a barren hill."

If the challenge is successful, the aborigines will then seek damages for cultural, family and spiritual loss and suffering.

Hundreds of other cases would then be set to follow in a class action. Aborigines could be awarded millions of dollars in compensation from the federal government.

There are only about 125,000 aborigines left in Australia, just 1 percent of the continent's population. Of these, about 45,000 are pure-blooded, and the others are of mixed aboriginal and European origin.

There was no government comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.

However, Prime Minister Paul Keating's government, in power since 1991, has ushered in a new spirit of activism on behalf of the aboriginal community.

The High Court ruled several years ago that aborigines who could prove they still had a connection to their traditional land should retain their land rights. Keating's government responded by passing a land rights bill.

His Labor Party government is also devising what it calls the "social justice" package for aborigines, to provide housing, job training, education and improved medical services for aborigines.