An uncertain future for the islanders who survived the Tongan eruption

WELLINGTON – The first two eruptions of the volcano were quite terrible, but the third eruption was huge, sending everyone from the village to flee their homes in a reaction that would have saved the lives of all but one.

Even now, more than five weeks later, children from Manga Island still often run or bend when they hear thunder or loud noise.

A small island in Tonga was one of the closest places to a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific on January 15, an event so large-scale that it caused a sound shock that could be heard in Alaska, and a mushroom plume of ash that was seen in stunning images. from space. On Manga Island every house was destroyed by a tsunami.

All 62 survivors were rescued by boat and transported to the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa, where they have since lived together in the church hall. Most of this time they were behind closed doors after Tonga survived the first coronavirus outbreak.

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Two of the survivors spoke about their experiences and uncertain futures in an interview with , translated by a Tonga Red Cross official.

Zion Vailea, 52, said Manga Island is the most beautiful place he knows and nothing compares to it in all of Tonga. According to him, only 14 families lived on the island, all of them in the same village.

Each family had a small boat with an open board, and every morning the weather was favorable, they went to the ocean to catch reef fish, perch, octopuses and lobsters.

What they could not eat themselves, they drove to the capital to sell, getting enough money to buy food and other necessities. For those lucky enough to have a decent-sized engine on their boats, it was a six-hour return to the capital, but it could have taken twice as long for those riding 15 horsepower.

Manga Island is just over 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the underwater volcano Hung Tong Hung Haapai, which came to life in late 2014, creating a small new island and briefly disrupting air travel as a result of a series of eruptions.

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But it was nothing compared to the scale of the eruption that occurred that Saturday night in January. When the islanders heard the third loud rumble, they began to flee from their low village to a nearby hill, the highest point on Manga Island.

“There was no sign of a tsunami, but we felt the need to climb to the top because we weren’t sure what was going on,” Veileya said.

As the island’s city officer, Veileya checked to see if everyone was gathered. He noticed that one family was missing.

Another survivor, 72-year-old Sulaki Kafoika, whose name is Khalapaini – or eloquent leader – the title bestowed on him by the King of Tonga, said that when he climbed to the top of the hill, he looked back. He saw the waves crashing on the houses of their homes. He had never felt anything like it in his life.

Veileya came back down the hill and saw the wife, two daughters and son of a 65-year-old man rising. The man died, he was taken away by the waves.

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“He was the first victim of the tsunami,” Vailea said. “Because he died just as they were trying to climb to the top of the island.”

Two more people in other parts of Tonga also died from the tsunami, including a British citizen, and a fourth died from what authorities called a related injury. The tsunami crossed the Pacific Ocean in Peru, where it caused an oil spill, and two more people drowned.

On the island of Manga, the darkness of the night quickly followed the tsunami, and the villagers remained huddled on top of the hill. During the night the men held blankets over the women and children to protect them from the ashes and small volcanic stones that were falling. The tsunami cut off all telephone and internet connections and they were left alone and isolated.

When dawn broke, they descended the mountain and found the body of a drowning man. Among the wreckage they found a small shovel and an ax. They dug a grave, a process that took most of the day after they crashed into a stone 1 meter (3 feet) down.

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All their boats were wrecked and they had almost no food. After searching the village, they found two small bags of rice that had been cooked for the children, Veileya said. The adults did not eat anything that day or the next while waiting.

Finally on Tuesday morning a boat arrived from a nearby island to check on them. Their neighbors brought with them cassava, root vegetables and a bunch of plantains similar to bananas.

“They cooked it and it was the best food,” Veileya said. “You can’t call it good food on a normal day. But that Tuesday was very special. “

The next day they were all transported to the nearby island of Nomuka, and then a few days later to the capital Nuku’alofa, where they have lived ever since. None of them returned to Manga Island. Until Sunday, they were behind closed doors after an outbreak of the virus, which was probably brought in by foreign military crews delivering vital aid.

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Survivors say they have had a hard time over the past few weeks as they struggled with trauma and limitations, but it helped a lot that they all lived together and were able to comfort each other. They benefited from clothes, food and money donated by people from all over the world.

What will happen next remains uncertain. As a city officer, Wailea met regularly with Tongan officials, but said the final decision on whether they could return and relocate Manga Island remains with the Tongan government and monarch, King Tupou VI. Survivors hope to get a solution in the coming weeks.

Veileya said the people of Manga Island are divided and some want to return, while others are happy to start life anew in Nuku’alof or elsewhere. He said it was his duty to support whatever his people wanted.

Halapaini said he had mixed feelings. All the good he liked in life was on Manga Island, but he is also worried that the volcano could erupt again.

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Vail is more resolute. He wants to return to Manga Island, where life can be hard, but where you own your time and share everything with your neighbors. Where you wake up in the morning and jump on a boat to fish.

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