WESTERN PROVINCE, Solomon Islands, 20 June 2007 - Life in Gizo, the small administrative centre of Western Province in the Solomon Islands, is slowly returning to normal two and a half months after a massive undersea earthquake triggered a tsunami here.
The 2 April tsunami devastated parts of Western and Choiseul Provinces, and the fear of another, similar disaster is still very much on people's minds. In Gizo and surrounding areas, the 8.1-magnitude earthquake damaged homes and other buildings, and caused a local tsunami less than 5 minutes later; 52 people were killed.
Almost 37,000 people are estimated to have been affected in Gizo, Simbo, Ranongga, Shortlands, Munda, Noro, Vella la Vella, Kolombangara and parts of the southern coast of Choiseul. Half of that number are children.
At least 200 schools were destroyed in the disaster, and the two main hospitals in Gizo and Sasamunga on Choiseul, as well as nearby health clinics, sustained heavy damage.
'We lost almost everything'
After the earthquake and tsunami, people fled from the coastal areas to higher ground, where they set up makeshift camps for the first few days. In time, the camps became better equipped thanks to humanitarian assistance provided by donors, non-governmental organizations and UN agencies, including UNICEF.
There are now 132 camps for the internally displaced and earthquake-affected residents of Western Province.
Within about a week after the quake and tsunami hit, many people had to begin fending for themselves. In Gizo particularly, they started salvaging whatever they could find from the debris - from personal belongings to food, timber and aluminium. Survivors used what they found to feed, clothe and shelter themselves.
"Since this tsunami hit us, our village down there on the coast was entirely wiped out," says Metai Titau, leader of the Titiana Camp in Gizo. "It totally devastated and destroyed almost all our homes, all our valuables and all our means of livelihood. We lost almost everything. We were left with what we are wearing now."
Emergency response and recovery
As part of its initial emergency response, UNICEF deployed staff and resources to help assess health, nutrition, education, water and sanitation, child protection and HIV/AIDS among the affected population. A small office was also established in Gizo to monitor the situation on the ground and to begin the recovery phase.
UNICEF immediately mobilized and delivered pre-positioned emergency medical supplies for up to 10,000 people and School-in-a-Box education kits, with support from the Government of the Solomon Islands, NGOs and the military forces of Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
In the area of child protection and education, UNICEF, Save the Children and World Vision established 40 safe-play and recreation areas where children gather to play and learn. These areas can also serve as temporary learning spaces until the return of teachers and normal school routines.
Slow return to normalcy
At the moment, however, temporary camps made up of tarpaulins and tents are becoming more and more like permanent settlements in the hills above Gizo. Flower gardens and little shops are gradually appearing in front of these shelters, a sign that people are not ready to move back to their devastated villages.
Since there are almost daily tremors and aftershocks, many are reluctant or afraid to return to the coastal communities they once called home. Life has resumed a certain level of normalcy, but many challenges remain.
With the recovery phase over and the rehabilitation phase just beginning, UNICEF will likely remain in the camps for the rest of the year to meet the needs of thousands of children and families whose futures remain uncertain.