Caritas aids victims of the forgotten disaster
A volcanic eruption on Manam Island in Madang Province of Papua New Guinea forced the evacuation of close to 10,000 people. The emergency caused a humanitarian crisis, the long-term scale of which is rarely seen in the Pacific region.
The news did not make headlines in Australia. In fact few media outlets picked up the story at all.
While there were fortunately no deaths directly as a result of the displacement, the islanders were left without their homes, a food source, health and education facilities and ability to sustain their lives.
The first eruption only affected part of the island's population. However, while the world's eyes were focused on the Asian tsunami disaster, a second eruption caused the evacuation of the remainder of the population.
The devastation was so great that most of these people will never be able to return to their homes.
In the 12 months since then, life for the Manam Islanders has not been easy.
Although a small number of people have been able to return to their homes on the island, the majority are living in three camps along the Madang North Coast Road at Mangem, Asuramba and Potsdam, all in the Bogia District area
The Government of PNG has provided some assistance as have a small number of other donors, including Caritas Australia. The bulk of assistance has been delivered by the local Catholic Church.
The Archdiocese of Madang (AoM) has taken on the role of food distribution and, with assistance from Caritas Australia, has provided education and health facilities in the camps.
The relief effort was marred by tragedy in August when Br Cassius Hirtz SVD was killed in a car accident on his way home from delivering food to the camps.
Plans are now underway to enable the Manam people to return to the island for a short time to retrieve their fishing gear and anything else that can be salvaged so that they will be able to source their own food.
Archbishop William Kurtz of Madang, who has visited the Manam Islanders on many occasions, expressed concern about the living conditions of the islanders.
"The situation is still very precarious because they don't have land to settle on.
"Many people are still living in tents, which don't provide much privacy and are full of mosquitoes at night. This will be a real problem with the wet season coming on.
"Either a solution needs to be found so that the people will have adequate land to live on and start their gardens or they will need to be provided with food. This will be difficult to sustain", he said.
Although the physical needs of the displaced people are being taken care of at the moment, there has been little attention given to the trauma experienced by the people.
The AoM, whose people regularly visit the camps, have became concerned at the number of people whose trauma needs are not being addressed. In collaboration with Caritas Australia, it has initiated a trauma program for the camp residents.
This program will be continued in future.
Over a three week period, two experienced trauma counsellors from Bougainville worked with personnel from the AoM to develop and conduct a survey, analyse the results and needs and provide counselling in the camps.
The program showed a high level of trauma being experienced by people of all age groups. However, those who were finding the displacement most difficult were the older people in the community.
The grief of losing their land and heritage has contributed to the deaths of a number of elderly people.
The vulnerability, particularly of women and children, increased significantly due to the large number of people living in close confinement in tents.
This was of great concern to the AoM, particularly as it increased the chances of the spread of HIV.
The Diocesan HIV Coordinator, who is supported by Caritas Australia, has been busy visiting the camps providing HIV awareness and training.
In addition to this, plans are being discussed to enable staff from the Bethany HIV Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centre to offer free voluntary counselling and testing using rapid test kits. Caritas Australia is supporting this initiative.
The future of the Manam Islanders is uncertain.
Negotiations for suitable land are ongoing but it is unlikely that this complex issue will be resolved quickly.
In the meantime Caritas Australia will continue to work with the AoM to support the needs of those people on our own doorstep who have been left homeless by this emergency.
For more information please contact Margaret Rice on 0417 284 831