Solomon Islands Villagers Bury Their Dead

Thursday, April 5th 2007, 8:01 am
By: News On 6

TITIANA, Solomon Islands (AP) _ An old green trunk served as the coffin for one boy. The other was buried Thursday in a casket hastily hammered together from scrap materials found in the rubble of this tsunami-shattered village.

Three days after the ground shook and the sea surged at them with terrifying force, residents of Titiana began burying their dead, fearing the rotting flesh would invite disease.

The United Nations said the death toll from Monday's disaster in this South Pacific island-nation was at least 34 _ higher than the Solomons' official tally of 28. But authorities say the total could be much higher because of the many remote communities that have no radio contact or where locals are simply not reporting the dead.

Once a bustling seaside village with two churches and dozens of wooden shacks, Titiana faced directly into the Solomon sea and bore the full brunt of the 8.1-magnitude earthquake and tsunami.

The town was flattened in minutes, smashing dozens of wooden houses to splinters and reducing several concrete-block buildings to rubble.

The tattered remains of peoples' belongings lay strewn among the wreckage _ sodden clothing, books, old luggage and a photo album bearing pictures of happier days.

Amid the debris, about a dozen villagers dug two shallow graves for the two boys they found nearby earlier Thursday.

They placed the body of a 4-year-old boy they called Tekapu into an old green trunk and laid it down between two badly damaged houses. The second boy, who villagers said they could not identify because his head had been partly crushed, was buried in a casket fashioned from debris.

Pita Pikisa, one of those digging graves, said no one knew where Tekapu or the other boy's parents were, but that villagers would try to find them and tell them of their sons' fate.

Residents say they have buried several people from the village, guided by the smell. In all, 26 people from Titiana are missing or dead, Pikisa said.

Rev. Tikeri Birlata, who oversaw Thursday's burial, said officials in nearby Gizo, the largest town in the hard-hit Western Province, have yet to travel the 6 miles to Titiana to count the dead and missing.

Birlata said he was angry at the lack of help, and said decisions being taken in the capital, Honiara, were not filtering down to the areas in need.

``They say top-down approach, but there's no top-down here,'' he said. ``When a disaster comes like this, we expect something to come down ... The people are really suffering.''

The U.N. estimates 50,000 people were affected by the disaster and 5,600 are homeless. There has been no official tally of the missing.

Government officials conceded the aid effort was going more slowly than they wanted, but blamed the remoteness of the affected region and a shortage of supplies in Honiara that could be shipped to the disaster zone.

Dozens of Titiana residents are sheltering under tarpaulins in the forested hills about 650 feet above their devastated village. With aftershocks still jolting the region, many are too terrified to come down.

Teera Pita, 32, sat nursing her 8-day-old newborn son, Tauni, as her three other small children played in the dirt. A pack of dogs started a snarling fight nearby.

When she first felt her wooden home begin to rattle, she grabbed her newborn from his bed and ran outside. They waited for the shaking to stop, as they had with many other earthquakes.

Soon Pita's ears filled with a great rushing sound, unlike anything she had heard before.

``Suddenly there was a big loud noise, the noise of the sea ... I just ran with my family because I know the big wave comes after,'' she said.

Survivors terrified by the more than 50 jolts that have struck the region since Monday's quake _ including several registering magnitude 6 or stronger _ say they are too afraid of another tsunami to come down from the hills.

Pita said she is too frightened to return to the seaside village, and expects the family will stay at their mountain camp for ``a year, maybe more.''

``There's a lot of rubbish down there, dead bodies still missing,'' she said.