Frightened Solomon Islanders Celebrate Easter Amid U.N.-Led Recovery Effort

Sunday, April 8th 2007, 2:31 pm
By: News On 6

GIZO, Solomon Islands (AP) _ Scores of villagers descended from hilltop camps to attend Easter celebrations in the Solomon Islands on Sunday, praying for the victims of last week's magnitude-8.1 earthquake and killer waves.

About 100 barefoot worshippers _ many wearing brightly colored floral shirts and dresses _ gathered at St. Luke's Anglican Church, a simple concrete building on Gizo island, which bore the full force of the April 2 disaster.

They said prayers for the dead and injured, and sang traditional hymns in a church hall decorated with palm fronds and tropical flowers. The pastor, the Rev. John Pihavaka, urged his flock to remain calm and share their remaining food and provisions with those in greater need.

``We pray, especially for those people,'' said one worshipper, Furner Smith Arebonato, 33. ``We are very scared. We've never experienced this before.''

Arebonato had been trying to get her 3-year-old twin girls ready for school when the earthquake struck, knocking her off her feet. Tsunami waves appeared almost immediately, she said, and she grabbed her children and ran to the hills.

She said many villagers do not understand what caused the earthquake and tsunami.

``Maybe it's a punishment from God,'' she said. ``Before, there were few people in church. Now, after the earthquake, the church is filled with people.''

Solomon Islanders are predominantly Christian, and at least five churches of various denominations dot the hillsides around Gizo. The force of the quake toppled the Roman Catholic Church, but devotees gathered in the garden for their Easter prayers.

Meanwhile, helicopters rattled overhead and trucks laden with rice, noodles, water and other provisions rumbled through the dusty streets of Gizo. More than 2,500 tarps and 1.2 tons of rice have already been distributed to the camps around Gizo and some of the surrounding islands, but a lack of transportation has delayed deliveries to more remote islands.

Medical teams took boats to the remote islands on Sunday, and U.N. spokesman Antoni Massella said a barge that arrived in Gizo late Saturday will be restocked Monday and sent to them.

Volunteers with the International Red Cross and aid agency, World Vision, dug latrines and set up water purifiers to curb the spread of disease.

Officials estimate that up to 7,000 people have fled to squalid camps in the hills above their ruined villages. Many were left homeless, and others are simply too afraid to return to low land.

Official counts of the dead, missing and injured still vary. Peter Muller, a U.N. disaster coordinator, said 33 bodies had been recovered, while two people remained missing. World Vision set the count at 39.

All agree the number of deaths is unlikely to jump significantly. But some villagers have been burying the dead as they find them, and the true number may never be known.