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Samoans survey tsunami aftermath

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Samoa

The agony caused by a series of immense waves that crashed into unsuspecting parts of the South Pacific has spread far beyond the aqua blue waters that surround the islands of Samoa and Tonga.

A makeshift family camp built away from the coast, Samoa
Amid fears of another tsunami, make-shift camps go up on higher ground

Scores of people died, prompting legions of expatriates to rush home to comfort the bereaved and to see for themselves the grisly outcome of nature's furious assault.

At Saleapaga - on Samoa's sandy south coast - the tsunami tore over a sea wall that was meant to protect the road and a bustling coastal village, which was just starting its day when the wild waters came.

The surges were so powerful they turned large boulders into torpedoes and crushed almost everything in their path. Not a single building has been left standing.

"This is my home. We have come here to find out what is left behind from the tsunami," explained Sierra, who grew up in Saleapaga before migrating - like many other Samoans - to New Zealand in the 1960s, and who then moved on to Australia and settled in Queensland.

She arrived in a small bus with relatives, their eyes reddened and faces flushed with disbelief.

"It is worse than I was expecting but what I see is unbelievable," Sierra said, drawing on sweet childhood memories to ease the pain.

I have been struck by the enormity of this disaster. My father did a lot of work... during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans... the photos he brought back remind me a lot of what I'm seeing now in Samoa
Aubry Koehler
American aid worker

"This is our place. This is where we grew up and we just love it," she added, as her group huddled together long after the sun had faded away, its rays replaced by the ghostly glow of the moon that illuminates endless piles of debris and obliterated homes.

The wreckage lies at the foot of a range of lush, tropical mountains that has become a haven for the displaced.

Hundreds of villagers fled to higher ground when the deep sea earthquake just 190km (118 miles) to the south rattled the earth beneath their feet.

'Too scared'

Home is now a collection of ramshackle camps, where smoke lingers in the humid air and children play happily in the dirt, while their exhausted parents try to make things as comfortable as possible under the tarpaulins and tents.

Already more robust structures are being hammered into place, a sign that these temporary sanctuaries will become more permanent shelters for the surviving families.

Many are too scared to return to the ocean's edge, fearful of what a local priest described as the "monster" that lives in the sea.

Aid is filtering through to the mountain camps. Church charities and relief agencies have provided the bare essentials but Uaea Isaraelu, a Christian minister, urged the international community to do more.

"At the moment we are relying mainly on help and support from local people but that will not be enough. We need outside help to repair our lives," he told the BBC.

A collection of hastely erected make-shift tents on a Samoan hillside
Aid deliveries are now filtering through to the camps in the mountain

Foreign volunteers have joined the emergency response.

Riding in a lorry delivering water, fruit, fish, soap and mosquito coils was Aubry Koehler, an American, who was in Samoa visiting her partner's family when this remote part of the world was turned upside down.

"I have been struck by the enormity of this disaster. My father did a lot of work... during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the photos he brought back from there remind me a lot of what I'm seeing now in Samoa," she said.

Some of the locals refer to this tragedy as the "big trouble". Despite their suffering, the Samoans have displayed truly extraordinary fortitude and courage.

Queries from rushed foreign reporters are invariably treated with patience, respect and a typical soft Polynesian handshake.

"Thank you for coming" were the parting words of one young teenager, whose flattened village we had visited.

Huge physical and psychological challenges lie ahead and many islanders wonder if life can ever be the same again.

Houses, roads and businesses will be rebuilt but reviving the confidence of a coast-loving people is likely to be a lot harder.

The ocean that has sustained them for so long is now considered in many quarters to be the enemy - one that is viewed with suspicion and fear.

Map of Pacific islands hit by tsunami



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