Solomon islanders count their blessings and search for answers

Published: 10 April 2007 0:00 CET

Rosemarie North of the International Federation in Western Province, Solomon Islands

Epakera Neubery was kicking a football around with some friends on the morning the earthquake struck. The boys were playing on a field, high above the ocean. When the ball rolled towards the edge of the field, 12-year-old Epakera followed it.

At that moment, the powerful tremor rocked his home island of Ranongga, along with many other parts of the Solomon Islands. Red soil slid off the hilltops, taking trees and shrubs with it.

The quake jolted Epakera’s village of Mondo, breaking chunks of land off the edge of the football field, which crashed into the ocean, more than 20 metres below. The boy disappeared from view.

Buried alive, Epakera cried for a while. Then, thinking he was already dead, he lost consciousness.

Meanwhile, his mother, Lovelyn Neubery, had gathered up her three other sons and raced up through the steep village to a large, flat field at the top. When the danger seemed to have passed, she searched for Epakera.

"He was buried, so I had no hope," she says. After three hours of searching, a villager spotted five toes poking out of a pile of mud at the base of the cliff.

Neighbours dragged the boy out. Miraculously, he had only minor scratches and bruises to show for his ordeal.

"I am so grateful," says his relieved mother. "But now, because of the disaster, I want to move to a safer place."

Troubling signs

All over the Solomon Islands, people are seeing strange events.

As travellers approach Lengana village, on Simbo Island, children on the shore appear to be walking on water. They are clearly no longer on land, but they do not sink into the sea.

It’s no magic trick. The earthquake, which struck on 2 April, triggered not only a tsunami but also a landslide near Lengana village. The concrete jetty now rests about 50 centimetres below the water at high tide. When the children walk along it, they give the illusion of walking on the liquid surface.

Lengana is also home to a volcano whose sulphuric vents spat foul-smelling steam at the time of the quake.

In Buri village on neighbouring Ranongga Island, Henrick Joseph, a father of three, says the morning of 2 April began oddly.

"Normally the children go out early to swim but that day they didn't. Things were strange,” he explains. “That was a blessing.”

Young men out fishing in a dugout canoe decided to turn back when they noticed something troubling about the ocean currents.

Changed forever

That Monday morning, the geography of their island changed profoundly. Large stretches of the green western coastline of Ranongga Island are now slashed with red, where landslides left deep scars on the hills.

Further north, the earthquake lifted hundreds of metres of coral reef by up to three metres, killing the delicate organism.

Buri village used to be built around a bay containing a rich and colourful coral reef that attracted fish.

Today, after several tsunamis, including the one triggered by last week’s violent earthquake, the reef lies drying and dead in the sun, a crunching graveyard of bleached bone-like forms that harbour rotting crabs, fish and seaweed.

Long cracks have appeared in the hillside, where Buri's houses perch.

"We're still watching the sea," says teacher Rickson Dick. "We are wondering what will happen next… Things could get even worse."

Sleeping under canvas

Buri’s residents, who are still living high in the bush, an hour's walk from their village, wonder what the strange events mean. Solomon islanders are mainly Christian and many people believe the disasters are part of a biblical prophecy before the end of the world.

"Why did this happen?" asks Dick. “Why did God give us an earthquake and a tsunami?”

In the midst of these strange and tragic events, people are keen to get on with their lives. Buri Headmaster, Redross Piokera, says villagers are asking for tarpaulins so they can build temporary shelters nearer to their former homes.

As a result of the quake and dozens of aftershocks, no one from the 700-strong village has been brave enough to return home except to fetch essentials.

Even if their homes are undamaged, they would rather sleep under canvas outside, and they would rather be near their old homes so they can fetch what they need, tend their vegetable gardens and keep up normal community life.

One week after the disaster, the Solomon Islands Red Cross and a team from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies visited Buri to assess people's needs and deliver water containers, rice, biscuits and noodles.

During an earlier visit, they provided residents with tarpaulins. The Red Cross and International Federation will be supplying tools and materials to cover people's immediate shelter needs, and help them rebuild their homes and lives.