Christchurch earthquake: Solidarity of those left behind

By David Fisher

Rita Rothel, 83, refuses to leave her Redcliffs home. Photo / David Fisher
Rita Rothel, 83, refuses to leave her Redcliffs home. Photo / David Fisher

As public attention focused on central Christchurch, the road from Sumner to Mt Pleasant became a desolate trail of fleeing refugees. Now, David Fisher awaits their return home.

Houses don't make communities, people do. For a week since the quake occurred, I have visited and sometimes slept among people in some of the worst-affected areas, and have seen change come.

First they were refugees. Then many left. Those who remained waited for help - and when it didn't come, they reached out to their neighbours and helped themselves. And they became resilient.

There is a rhythm to these awful tragedies and the suburbs from Mt Pleasant to Sumner have found their own.

When this ordeal began, families in Mt Pleasant put up tents at the primary school.

From all around they drifted in, collected terrified children and went home. But finding their houses ruined, they returned to the school and made it their home.

Rosie Dalkie, 10, is among those staying at the school. She explains the camp rule: children are not given newspapers.

Rosie said there was an adult who didn't understand the rule and gave children a newspaper.

"It's important you understand," she said. There are things that children do not want to know.

From here to Sumner, power was out and there was no water. When night fell the communities tried to sleep but were woken through the night by aftershocks.

Cooking was done on gas stoves and news was passed by word of mouth. Few people had transistor radios.

In Sumner, there was tension over limited water supplies. One man tipped precious water over a volunteer's head - he was angry at queuing and upset at people dipping their hands into the barrel when they filled bottles.

Along the road, someone tried selling bottled water at extortionate prices.

By Friday these refugees had moved on. Only three families remained at the school.

PEOPLE LEAVE the destruction of Mt Pleasant, the ruined hills above Redcliffs and Sumner. They load their cars, hook up their trailers and head out. By Sunday, many have gone.

Some can be seen slipping under police cordon tapes to enter houses clinging to the cliff top. "It's my jewellery," says one woman, her suitcase bursting open. They all know their houses may go at any moment, and what nature doesn't take could be taken easily by looters.

A burglar in a security guard's uniform is cruising the hillside, taking note of empty houses.

Pastor Danel Rea - who preaches healing miracles in his sermons - was packing up his home on Sunday.

The earthquake, he says "is God showing himself so people come to know him". It's obvious, he says - it happened in "Christ Church".

The lost are among those who remain. An elderly woman stands motionless in the middle of the road on a deserted street and says: "My husband is dead." Then she focuses with a gaunt look: "He died last year. I don't know what to do."

BY SUNDAY in Redcliffs, Skeptics Society chairwoman Vicki Hyde has focused her power to question the relief effort.

"Where is Civil Defence?" she asks. "Where are the officials?"

Husband Peter Hyde has created descriptions for the three cities he says exist in Christchurch: Shower City, where the water and power is on; Rescue City, where firefighters scrabble in the rubble, and Refugee City, the suburbs which are affected worst.

"Aren't you glad you don't live here?" says Rita Rothel, 83, who refuses to leave the home her late husband, Michael, built almost 40 years ago. "He told me never to leave. So I won't."

By Monday the refugees are sick of being victims. The Redcliffs citizens' centre is collecting information and publishing it in a newsletter. A similar centre springs up in Sumner.

There, Stephane Dujakovic, 36, and Kate Proudlock, 30, have opened the old school hall and are organising information and supplies. Most importantly, they have created a base for children.

On Tuesday, after the two minutes' silence to remember those who died, the field is filled with children playing games.

"We're just desperate to give the kids some routine," says Debby Schefer. Teachers have stepped forward and parents have signed up children for unofficial classes in English, maths and other subjects. Classes are held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday in tents on the school field donated by a refugee agency.

There is no criticism of the official effort. It is accepted that the need is too huge to meet perfectly and that communities need to help themselves.

One of the organisers, Marnie Kent, says: "Those who left, they left for their own reasons. When they return, we want to say 'we're here for you'. We're here for everyone. We're here for ourselves."

- Herald on Sunday

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