Samoa's survivors pick up their shattered lives

By Jared Savage

Tui Loli and his wife Faiilagi, with six of their children, who now live on Tsunami St, high above Lalomanu beach. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Tui Loli and his wife Faiilagi, with six of their children, who now live on Tsunami St, high above Lalomanu beach. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Tauasili Iulai is a stoic but lost soul. He is one of a handful to stay in Saleapaga, once a vibrant seaside village until 30 people were swept away when the tsunami smashed into Samoa.

Two of those taken were Tauasili's daughter Ana, 7, and niece Rachel, 5. The pair were cousins and best friends. "They were always together. They would call each other sister, that's how close they were." says Tauasili.

He was in Auckland when the tsunami hit at 7am, September 29 and blames himself for their deaths.

"If I was here, I would have recognised the warning signs of the earthquake. I would have known what to do. To run."

He returned to Saleapaga two days after the disaster to find his birthplace destroyed. Ana had been discovered in the debris, but searchers had given up looking for Rachel.

Unable to rest until she was found, Tauasili eventually spotted his niece lodged high in a tree. The best friends were buried together, beside their paternal grandfather, in a grave in front of the family fale.

The funeral of the two young girls was one of many heart-wrenching stories covered by the Herald shortly after the tsunami. Nearly one year later, we returned to track down survivors and find out how Samoa has coped. A sad smile crosses Tauasili's face when he sees the front page photo of Ana and Rachel. "We miss them," he says.

Saleapaga is now a ghost town. Most of the survivors fled into the high ground, too scared to return to the beach - 30 lives were lost there.

Concrete slabs are all that remain of many fale destroyed by the sea. Other buildings somehow left untouched lie empty.

Instead, the village exodus created a new Saleapaga in the bush about five kilometres away, right where the villagers pitched their tents in the days after the tsunami. Tauasili is one of the few to stay by the shore.

"I don't want to leave where we were born. My father is buried here, right beside the girls. I don't want to leave them."

Life is lonely away from the hustle and bustle of the new village. Tauasili has busied himself by planting coconut trees to strengthen the shore and built new fales on the beach to hire to tourists. So far, business has been slow but he hopes more tourists will return in time.

A new fale has been built for his extended family - one of 89 constructed by Habitat for Humanity - with two metal plaques adorning one of the poles.

The plaques dedicate the home to Petria and Rebecca Martin, sisters from Matamata who also lost their lives in the tsunami.

The generosity of the close-knit Waikato community helped Habitat to build the fale and next week the girls' parents, Kerry and Lynne Martin, hope to visit Tauasili in Saleapaga.

Two families who each lost two daughters, linked by a single tragedy. It is the first time the Martins have returned to Samoa since bringing their girls home.

Next Thursday marks the first anniversary of the tsunami, 12 months that the Martins have "taken one day at a time".

"We try to make every day a good day, but they don't always turn out like that," says Kerry Martin.

"We've kept busy to not dwell on it too much. This month has been a lot harder than we thought. We've really struggled this last couple of weeks with the anniversary and being busy here on the farm. We need a bit of a break."

The couple will visit to Lalomanu, where Petria and Rebecca were staying in beach fales owned by the Taufua family - who lost 14 close relatives in the natural disaster.

The Taufua clan have kept in touch and invited them to a special memorial service which will double as the official re-opening of the tourist destination.

While the anniversary of the tsunami will be an emotional time, the Martins have found peace about their daughters' deaths.

"We're lucky in a way. There is no one to blame. They weren't in a car accident, or anything like that, we haven't had to deal with a court case which can drag on," says Kerry.

"We haven't had those really horrible feelings and emotions to deal with. We've been able to concentrate on their memories and what good kids they were."

Last time the Martins were in Lalomanu, the beach was a paradise lost.

The once pristine shore was littered with evidence of the destructive power of nature. Nearly half the 160 people who died in the tsunami were in Lalomanu.

But the golden sand and turquoise waters have returned - along with much needed tourists. The finishing touches are being made to the resurrected Litia Sini Resort, while Taufua Beach Fales and Wena Beach Fales are up and running.

The transformation is remarkable.

But though holidaymakers are returning, just a handful of Lalomanu families live by the sea. The rest fled into the hills when the tsunami struck and stayed, too scared to return. One of those was father of eight Tui Loli.

Photographer Brett Phibbs captured Tui Loli 24 hours after the tsunami, with a bandage over his eye, sifting through the wreckage of his home. A year on, we found Tui Loli in his new home on a clifftop above the beach.

He lives on "Tsunami St" - marked by a upside-down sign nailed to a tree - a new metal road carved through the undergrowth with a dozen homes dotted along it. With million-dollar views of the Pacific Ocean, this is where Tui Loli has rebuilt a home for his family.

His wife Faiilagi was preparing the children for school when they felt the earthquake rumble the ground. Her sister rang to sound the tsunami alert.

"We weren't safe so we ran as fast as we could up the hill, we climbed through the bush... when we came back there was no house left," said Faiilagi. "Everything was gone, including my mum."

With seven hungry children to feed, the family lived for a week in a tent while Tui Loli collected timber and corrugated iron to build a fale on Tsunami St.

Like many traditional homes on the island, the fale is of rudimentary design. A wooden floor is raised off the ground, while poles - not walls - hold the corrugated iron roof up.

To protect the occupants from the elements, tarpaulins are strung up between the poles to create makeshift walls.

At the Loli household, a healthy taro plantation grows in the garden protected by a wall of stacked rocks. Despite the heartbreak and backbreaking work of starting over they are happy in their new home - and will never return to the beach.

"It took us a long time to feel safe. We try our best to build a new home. We want the best for our children," says Faiilagi Loli.

It is a similar story at neighbouring villages along the coast.

Located at the end of a gravel road about five kilometres long, the new Saleapaga grew from what was essentially a makeshift medical centre in the bush.

Red Cross volunteers and Defence Force staff were forced to find tsunami survivors to administer medical treatment, as they refused to come down to the beach.

Those who fled to the hills stayed on and began rebuilding immediately. Remarkably, electricity was powering homes within a fortnight of the tsunami, although locals are still waiting for a connection to the main water supply and rely on water tanks.

New homes are painted in bright colours, often a combination of pink, blue, green and yellow, surrounded by tidy gardens.

Villagers tend fresh plantations of banana, taro, coconut, yams and vegetable gardens, the produce of which is sold at the Apia markets. Life will never be the same, but there is a growing sense of hope in Saleapaga - tinged with grief.

Shopkeeper Ulalia Fouina says the current generation will never return to their birthplace by the sea.

"We are still mourning what we have lost, still sad. But we are happy here and it is safe.

"We will not go back. Maybe our children will, or our grandchildren. But not us."

Miracle child Lima Falanaipupu was just four months old when she floated out to sea after the tsunami struck.

Her family were driving along the coastal road towards Lalomanu when the first wave rolled in.

The ute was slammed against a rock then pinned under a fallen tree.

Sitting on the truck deck were Lima's older sisters Losivale, 10, and Lutia Fiona, 2, who were swept into the surge. Trapped inside the cab were Lima and her parents Faapoi and Mekala.

Drowning as the water poured in, Faapoi smashed the driver's door window and pushed Lima out into the water - and she floated away on the swirling seas.

The couple smashed the windscreen to escape and, as Mekala managed to grasp hold of a fallen tree, Faapoi desperately swam towards his tiny daughter.

Somehow she floated, rather than being sucked under the waves.

Tucking her under one arm he managed to cling on to a piece of driftwood, the pair bobbing in the open water for 30 minutes before they reached land. On the shore, the shaken family found the bodies of their two other daughters who were taken back and buried outside their home in Lepa.

Twelve months on the Falanaipupu family have shifted to a new home high above sea-level.

Mekala is surprised when two palagi from the Herald arrive unexpected, but is genuinely pleased once she recognises us.

Faapoi smiles broadly and shakes our hand. He has been busy growing taro to sell at the markets and is pleased with the crop.

Their two older children, Faamanuia and Avavili, have settled back into school and Lima is now 16 months old, a happy, smiling child.

Over sweet tea and taro, the family bring out framed photos of their two daughters.

Without an interpreter this time, communication is difficult. But some things are not hard to translate. Like so many others the family lost nearly everything. But in the spirit of Samoa, they have picked up the pieces to rebuild their lives.

"We are still sad about our loss," says Mekala. "But we feel safe here now."

- NZ Herald

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