Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Samoans grieve and bury their loved ones - Anzac military and medical personnel help the human side of the clean-up after the tsunami...

LEONE, American Samoa – Mourning islanders of American Samoa were set to hold a national prayer service Sunday for victims of the tsunami that obliterated villages on the shores of the South Pacific and left at least 176 dead.

Territorial Gov. Togiola Tulafono said Saturday the service will bring the community together in the aftermath of the disaster. It will be held at the headquarters of the Congregational Christian Church of America Samoa, the largest religious denomination in the U.S. territory.

Families are still coming to terms with the sudden losses inflicted by Tuesday's tsunami waves that roared ashore after an underwater earthquake with a magnitude of up to 8.3. The disaster claimed at least 176 lives, in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga.

In Samoa, scores of grieving people made a heartbreaking decision to sign over victims of the tsunami to the state for burial rather than take them back to ravaged villages for traditional funerals — a radical departure from Samoan tradition.

Government minister Fiana Naomi said Saturday she expected about half of Samoa's 135 victims would be buried in mass graves of up to 20 in a new cemetery in the capital Apia on Thursday following a memorial service in a nearby sports stadium. The state would carry the costs.

"The government sees the devastated areas, there are no buildings there, some villages might be relocated, people have lost everything and they can't hold ceremonies in the usual ways," Naomi said, tears welling in her eyes. "Usually they're very large communal ceremonies, but this is memorializing this event to serve as a constant reminder to us that we need to be prepared for natural disasters."

Government ministers put the proposal to about 100 village and family leaders gathered in a traditional wall-less Samoan meeting house. The government will still consider financial assistance to grieving relatives who elect to take their loved ones home.

Some leaders were concerned about the bodies remaining for so long in the city's overcrowded morgue.

Ben Taufua, who buried nine members of his family in the hills above Lalomanu on Wednesday and Thursday, said he was unhappy that some of them were inadequately chilled in a commercial cooler.

"Eight members of my family were found on the first day. When we went to pick up the bodies, they were worse than the bodies that were just found 48 hours later," he told AP with tears in his eyes. "It was very, very sad."

Faisimalo John Muaitau, a resident of Apia, said his family had agreed to bury their three victims in the new cemetery.

"It wasn't an easy decision," Muaitau said. "But we feel that what the government is doing is making a memorial for them and that is a good thing."

The village of Leone, the center of Christianity on American Samoa, was a bleak landscape of rubble. The beach meeting houses that had been the center of cultural rituals and family meetings were destroyed. An overturned van was jammed into the roof of one beach house.

Leone residents estimate the tsunami destroyed about one-third of the village, which has a population of 3,000. The victims were mostly elderly or toddlers. Four villagers were killed while making crafts on the shore.

Among the mourners is Taitasi Suapaia Fitiao, who is preparing for every parent's nightmare — burying her young child.

Her 6-year-old daughter, Vaijoresa, was ripped from her arms by the tsunami. As she floated away, out of reach, Vaijoresa pleaded, "Mom, please."

"I just can't believe that she's gone. At such a young age, you know? No parent should have to bury their child. It's supposed to be the other way around," Taitasi Fitiao said Saturday while sitting on her front porch next to a shrine to her daughter.

She said she just hopes her daughter — the youngest of her seven children — didn't suffer too much pain.

Vaijoresa's cousin, a girl, was also found dead. A boy cousin, also 6, is still missing.

The family will hold a joint service for the girls on Friday. Another memorial for the boy will be held at the bridge near where he was swept away.

And full support from Anzac military and medical personnel, and the governments of New Zealand and Australia.

Acknowledgements: McGuirk reported from Apia, Samoa. Also contributing were Associated Press writers Fili Sagapolutele in Pago Pago, Australia, and Jaymes Song and Greg Small in Honolulu and AP video journalist Haven Daley in Leone.

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