Published On: Wed, May 27th, 2015

Vanuatu: No ordinary homecoming – the Mataso community reunited

13 May 2015, Mataso island, Vanuatu: Mataso residents help their relatives disembark, after Tropical Cyclone Pam forced them to spend almost two months away from their island home. © OCHA/Yaëlle Link 2015Mataso island residents packed the beachfront, awaiting the return of family members after many weeks of separation. As the patrol boat carrying 53 of their relatives drew closer, two small boats sped out to greet the travellers, for whom this four-hour voyage across rough seas from Vanuatu’s capital marked the end of a much rougher two-month journey.

The island, a shard-like mountain jutting from the ocean with a small village at its base, was slammed by the full force of Tropical Cyclone Pam’s 350 km/h winds on the night of 13 March 2015. Mataso was one of 23 islands affected when the cyclone struck, killing 11 people and affecting 188,000 across Vanuatu’s six provinces.

On Mataso, houses and other buildings were obliterated, trees were shredded or snapped in half, and debris flew in all directions, smashing whatever remained in its path. The community of around 120 people hid children between rocks and in small caves on the hillside, and protected their hiding places with their own bodies.

Most vulnerable evacuated

The extent of the damage was such that two weeks after the cyclone Mataso’s community leaders, supported by the Government of Vanuatu and humanitarian partners, decided to evacuate the island’s more vulnerable community members to the country’s capital Port Vila.

“Barely a leaf or palm frond was left on the trees,” said Mr Shadrack Welegtabit, Director of the Government’s National Disaster Management Office (NDMO). “Materials to rebuild were non-existent, so adults and children alike were at the mercy of the elements. Contaminated water caused illness, vegetable gardens were wiped out, and the school was unusable.”

Coordinated support

As co-lead, with the NDMO, of the Government’s Internally Displaced Persons working group, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) ensured that those departing the island were medically checked, briefed, registered and vaccinated.

Throughout the weeks that followed, the two agencies monitored the well-being of community members in Port Vila and Mataso through regular visits. When those in Port Vila expressed their desire to return home, the agencies facilitated the process. This included coordinating a team to assess what the community would need to restore their livelihoods and homes, and working with the Community Disaster Committee and local councillor to ensure those items were transported with them.

“The support provided to Mataso’s residents and the collaboration involved in organizing the return of those evacuated exemplifies partnership at its best,” said Mr Sune Gudnitz, Head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Pacific. “It was inspiring to see other Pacific countries stepping up to help their neighbour in a time of need.”

Mourning losses, planning the future

Mr Alberto Preato, IOM’s Shelter and Settlement Program Manager, spent many weeks with the Mataso community members in Port Vila and accompanied them on their homeward journey.

“Many of the women told me that they found it hard to be apart from their husbands and older sons who had stayed behind to rebuild – but while there was an incredible sense of anticipation about the reunion, people also needed to grieve,” Mr Praeto said. “Two people died on the island as a result of the cyclone and others were badly injured. One elderly lady who was evacuated passed away in Port Vila. For her family, the homecoming was bittersweet.”

As the humanitarian response phase shifts to recovery, the government is finalizing activities as part of its national recovery plan. While Mataso is now habitable, there is still more to do to support the community to recover. Partners, including the United Nations Development Programme, are supporting families with agricultural tools and seeds and helping to develop fishery-related livelihood programs.

“The last two months have posed numerous challenges for Mataso’s residents,” said Mr Preato. “While their return home is a great achievement by all who supported the process, it is the spirit and strength of the people of Mataso that is truly inspiring.”

See ‘Return to Mataso – community reunited after Tropical Cyclone Pam” photo story.

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By Karina Coates

Karina Coates is from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

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