/ 10 December 2005

Relief reaches Vanuatu island hit by eruption

The first shipload of aid for thousands of Vanuatu villagers forced from their homes by an erupting volcano arrived on Saturday at this remote South Pacific island.

The shipment, funded by former islanders now living and working in the Vanuatu capital, Port Vila, included sacks of rice, tinned fish, sugar, noodles and fuel for vehicles, generators and lamps.

It arrived as some refugees began complaining of ill health at the largest evacuation centre.

Anxious mothers talked of children suffering coughs and fever at the Torgil camp in the Longana area of Ambae Island, where half the 10 000 population are in evacuation centres.

Erupting volcano Mount Manaro has been pumping out steam, ash and sulfur gases since November 27 after waking from a 10-year slumber.

With more than 700 people crammed into the sprawling Torgil camp, living conditions are cramped in the concrete block huts where scores of people sleep — many on woven mats on concrete floors.

”This place is not good,” Rebecca Woi said as she cradled a coughing two-year-old and sweat streamed down her face.

”The kids are sick, they have fever and coughs because it’s so hot down here at the bottom of the mountain,” she said.

”We’re not getting the aid we need with coughs and fevers and the medicines are not free. Many families can’t afford to pay for them,” Woi added.

Local medical authorities were not immediately available for comment.

Earlier, a small motorised dinghy buzzed back and forth across Ambae’s palm-fringed Lolowai harbour ferrying the supplies from the freighter MV Ula to the beach where a human chain of 20 men passed the sacks and cartons to pick-up trucks.

A large water tank, sent by the Vanuatu Red Cross, also landed on the beach, headed for one of five evacuation centres on the island.

The latest seismological readings show Manaro remains in a ”stable, constant” state of activity, with the mountain trembling as explosions occur inside its crater.

Already the Vanuatu government has two ships standing ready to evacuate the island if the volcano’s activity increases, though vulcanologists have said the chance of that happening appears low.

Former island resident Hannington Alatoa said on Saturday that members of the Port Vila Ambae Society ”are very concerned indeed” about the welfare of islanders.

”We have arriving today the first supply of goods to support” Ambae villagers displaced from their homes by the crisis, he said.

On Friday, many villagers returned to their own gardens to collect food, complaining that the government in Port Vila was not sending them any supplies.

Alatoa said Ambae people are able to provide their own food for the first two weeks of the emergency, and the relief supplies will ensure nobody was hungry.

He added government assistance, including logistical aid, vulcanologists, evacuation vessels and emergency systems, ”will run into millions of Vat [local monetary unit] already”.

But relief activity should remain under local control unless the eruption alert rises above its current level-two status on the five-point danger scale, he added.

At the emergency evacuation centres — most of which are empty school and village buildings with thatch or tin roofs and glassless windows — life for the refugees is an endless wait.

Woven mats on concrete and earth floors provide places to sleep but no protection from mosquitoes, many carrying malaria.

The outside walls of the shelters are lined with pots, pans, basins and buckets, while taps from tanks provide rainwater.

The displaced villagers wait for news of the volcano, and whether its activity level is worsening.

Otherwise they chat in small groups, men and women talking separately — reflecting the traditional structure of village life.

Ambae island — said to be the inspiration for the idyllic Bali Hai in James Michener’s book Tales of the South Pacific — is in northern Vanuatu, a volcano-studded archipelago of 80 islands 2 250km north-east of Sydney, Australia. — Sapa-AP