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Solomon Islands: Tears dry in house of crying

By John Roberts, Mission and Ecumenical

In about a week the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck the western Solomon Islands on April 2nd were no longer of interest to our news media. Yet this disaster caused 52 deaths and huge damage to property with a number of villages completely destroyed.

Four months after the event I made a solidarity visit to the United Church in the Solomon Islands and saw what life is like in some of the most severely affected areas.

At Gizo township on Gizo Island the hospital was hit by the tsunami. This government-run hospital wasn’t too badly affected but many houses were swept away forcing hospital staff to go back to their home villages. Without a full staff the hospital has only been able to offer very basic services.

Near Gizo is (or was) the village of Titiana. It was a scene of almost total devastation. Buildings lay in their wrecked state. There only a few families were living in makeshift dwellings and tents. Up on the hill was where the real camp was.

Here people of the Titiana still live under tarpaulins that are slowly deteriorating. It was wet and muddy and access to safe water and sanitation are major concerns. These people are still too traumatised to come down to the village site.

Afraid to return to Titiana village, some people still live under tarpaulins in the hills.
The United Church has been providing trauma counselling, but as aid agencies such as Red Cross withdraw life will get even harder for these people.

My second stop was Sasamugga in Choiseul province. It too was badly hit with loss of life and extensive property damage. Fortunately the church-run hospital was not too badly affected. I was able to visit the wards, which are under the care of two nurses. There has been no doctor here for some years.

Some Sasamugga people were still living up on the hills. They built simple leaf huts that will last for two or three years. Most people were living back on the village site.

It was here I came across a small leaf hut with a sign that read “2/4/07 Ko Qela Lodge.” Ko Qela in the local Bambatana language means ‘to cry’. But crying was giving way to other sounds.

The crew of the United States naval ship ‘Peleliu’ was at work with saws and hammers putting up a new building at the hospital. The ship’s band was playing in the village. Children were laughing and playing, and not to be outdone by the ship’s band a group of them were making distinctively Solomons sounds with their polythene pipe band.

Houses were being repaired and gardens tended. These people were moving on in a way not yet possible in Titiana. The church has contributed significantly to this.

My third stop was Banga Island and Goldie College, which was badly damaged by the earthquake. All block constructed buildings were either collapsed or badly cracked. Equipment was destroyed. Staff were without housing. The school had to be closed.

Assistance from Christian World Service and Mission and Ecumenical provided funding for the building of temporary staff houses which will last about five years. This together with the relocation of the girl’s dormitory to the dining hall, meant the school could reopen with 260 pupils. Staff are providing additional lessons each day in an effort to make up for lost time.

With Gizo and Sasamugga offering only basic services Helena Goldie Hospital at Munda has been under pressure to deal with all serious medical cases in the western Solomons. Helena Goldie Hospital suffered some flooding from the tsunami which meant temporary relocation. The long term plan is to relocate the hospital to higher ground further inland.

Amidst the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami there were signs of hope, even at Titiana. Up in the hill camp children receive makeshift schooling and can still come up with a smile. Down in the village two boys had made airplanes from polystyrene and were happily twirling them about.

Thanks to all who have contributed to help the people of the western Solomons recover from these disasters.