Samoa: Little girls lost

Published: 14 June 2010 0:00 CET

Karina Coates, communications delegate, Samoa

With rebuilding underway and tropical regrowth masking a landscape scarred by last September’s tsunami, internal wounds are still raw in Samoa eight months on.

“Every moment of every day, I see their faces,” Afioga Falanaipupu says. “When I sleep at night I dream that my granddaughters are still standing right in front of me. That is what is happening to me right now.”

Although Afioga’s village, Lepa, was extensively damaged by the tsunami that engulfed parts of Samoa’s coastline on 29 September last year, her own home was spared. But her granddaughters, ten-year-old Losivale and two-year-old Lutia, lost their lives when the car they were travelling in with their parents, baby sister and uncle was swept away by the destructive wave.

Although an earthquake had just shaken Samoa, it did not occur to the family that there could be further danger. Anxious to attend an early morning hospital appointment, the family set off in the car. Minutes later a wave, which the children’s uncle described to Afioga as being as high as the coconut palms, was on top of them.  The children’s uncle said: “We’re going to die. Look at that wave.” In the few moments before the wave swallowed the car, the family talked about how no one would be left to help Afioga. Then the wave engulfed them.

Terrible loss

As the wave carried the car inland, it forced open one of the back doors. Losivale and Lutia fell out and disappeared into the water. The girls’ father, Faapoi, sitting in the passenger seat, managed to keep hold of eight-month-old Lima, who was on his lap. As he was secured by his seatbelt, he was unable to rescue his beloved daughters.

“He can’t get over it,” says Afioga. “He can’t sleep at night, so he sits on the girls’ tomb. Then he will lie down on it, and I will ask, ‘Are you going to sleep there?’,” she says. “That’s the way he has been acting since he lost his two little girls.”

Afioga’s memories of her clever, funny granddaughters are those she shared at their funeral. Losivale excelled in all her classes and loved being centre stage in school dance performances. “She was so self-confident. She was never shy or self-conscious,” Afioga says of the schoolgirl who embraced every experience.

Comprehensive support

Samoa Red Cross Society’s Secretary General, Namulauulu Tautala Mauala, says that for people recovering from a major event like the tsunami, every dimension of life has been disrupted. “Everything has changed. It takes a long time, and much energy, to re-establish routines and to come to terms with what has happened,” Namulauulu says.

“While Samoans are resilient people, and have established coping mechanisms that include relying on their family and church networks, this disaster was unexpected and has had enormous impacts,” she says.

Samoa Red Cross Society is committed to ensuring that psychosocial support – care, comfort and referral to specialist services – is integrated into all of the organization’s work, including local and Pacific-wide disaster response and recovery programmes. “We are coordinating with national and international organizations and adapting psychosocial messages and tools used in other contexts to the Samoan culture,” Namulauulu says.

Future resilience

Over the coming months, Samoa Red Cross Society will work closely with all Samoan communities to identify risks, reduce hazards and be better prepared for disasters.

“People have learned a great deal through living through the experience of the tsunami. We have already seen that communities are more receptive to managing and reducing risk, as well as learning about practical tools and processes to help them in the future,” Namulauulu says. “While disaster planning was previously simply theoretical, it is now very meaningful to Samoan communities. They are more ready to take action to incorporate this understanding into their new lives.”

Namulauulu says it is important to remember that many people are continuing to struggle. “Some may never take for granted their previous sense of security or confidence, but each will find their own new normality in a changed, though possibly more dangerous, world,” she says. “What we do know for certain is that every journey takes time and needs our continued support and acknowledgement.”

In its role as an auxiliary to government, Samoa Red Cross Society is working alongside and in coordination with the government of the Samoa to ensure people’s needs are met.

An International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) appeal raised 2.5 million Swiss francs (2.4 million US dollars, 1.63 million euros) to support 5,000 people through tsunami relief and recovery work over 18 months.

Australian Red Cross and New Zealand Red Cross sent disaster relief and recovery personnel and relief items, as well as supported the provision of latrines, community and household water tanks and a gravity-fed water system. The organizations are also continuing to provide support and training to strengthen Samoa Red Cross Society's capacity to prepare for and respond to disasters, as well as supporting it to help people to recover from the shock of this disaster and build resilience to cope with future disasters.