IFRC


Blog - The village that’s “Stronger than Winston”.

Published: 18 August 2016 10:23 CET

By Itu Josaia, Fiji Red Cross Society

I recently led a Fiji Red Cross team to Koro Island which was severely affected when Cyclone Winston came through Fiji six months ago. I was with four volunteers from the Suva branch and three trucks loaded with emergency relief items, clothes, shoes and school supplies. On the 10-hour ferry trip on the way over we were like tourists. But by the time we returned a week later, we felt like locals, and our outlook on life had been permanently changed.

As soon as I got off the boat evidence of Winston’s destruction was clear to see. Compared to Rakiraki in the west of Fiji where I had been  based for two months after Winston made landfall, walking into the villages on Koro was like day one of the disaster.    

In my six years of Red Cross work I’ve experienced nothing like it. Every house on the island was damaged, and doing the assessments myself – going into the villages and talking to the people - really brought home what they had all been through. Six months later, some of them still can’t talk about the cyclone and accompanying storm surge. Eighty per cent of them are still living in tents or makeshift homes.

Despite all this, their spirits are very high. We were treated like kings; the hospitality, the smiling faces, were all still there. We used a damaged house as a warehouse and slept there amongst our supplies. The local families wanted to share what they had with us and took turns to feed us even though we came in with our own food rations for the week, dividing the village into three groups to provide us with three meals a day. There are limited options for nutritious meals following the cyclone and villagers are living on food from the forest and the sea that is not usually part of their diet such as wild pumpkin, immature dalo, wild yams and cassava leaves.

The Fiji Red Cross team concentrated on seven villages and eight schools. We targeted the areas that had experienced the double blow of damage from the cyclone and also storm surge from the sea. We managed to reach more than 2,000 people with emergency aid such as tarpaulins, mosquito nets and coils, jerry cans, dignity kits, soap, toothpaste, and shelter toolkits. To the schools we also took books, tables and chairs.

They were just so grateful, all they could say was, “thank you for thinking of Koro”. 

In the worst-hit village of Nasau four people died during Winston. When the villagers saw the tidal wave coming they crawled like crabs up an almost vertical cliff face to get away. I talked to one woman with an amputated leg and she told me she could have sworn she still had both legs, she climbed that cliff so fast.

It was in Nasau village that I saw the true meaning of resilience. For the last two months the men of the village, the oldest 71 years old, have been cutting timber from the mighty Kauvula tree, with the aim of rebuilding 100 houses in their village. Using nothing but their bare hands (and in some cases bare feet) they have been milling these huge trees with a portable saw mill, an incredibly heavy machine that they carry hundreds of metres between logging spots.

I jumped in to help them carry the saw mill and then to pull huge logs to the machine, using just ropes and our bare hands. These men do this all day, every day, but after just four hours my back was aching and my muscles screaming. It was like working in the early days of logging.

Sitting down to have a break, I almost broke down thinking of all I had witnessed in that four hours, and the extreme efforts the villagers went to in order to be able to rebuild their village. They have already almost filled their community hall with timber.

When the men got back from the forest at the end of the day they came to bid farewell to the Red Cross team. I took time to shake the hand of every one of them, and thank them for the hospitality and effort they had shown throughout the day. The hard work didn’t even show on their faces; it was as if they had just come back from a normal farming day.

I felt so touched, as we were leaving Nasau, when the villagers lined both sides of the road to say goodbye, waving and shouting out, “Vinaka na vei qaravi” (thank you for thinking of us and assisting). It was hard to hold the tears back. If you talk about “Stronger than Winston” this village is one example of it and I was so glad and honoured to walk the walk and talk the talk with them and  physically have a taste of what it felt like to be in their position.

God bless the people of Nasau village. I pray that the rest of their building materials will arrive soon so they can rebuild and live normal lives again.




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