Monday, February 1, 2010
The Leone Tsunami Club
In the village of Leone in American Samoa, there is a black pool laced with twisted mangrove trees. The still waters drain lifelessly into the rocky sea. Clinging to its muddy banks is a helter skelter lean to. There is a table – scuffed and dented, salvaged from debris. An assortment of battered chairs. Here, at the back of a slowly rebuilding village, here is where the Tsunami Club meets.
A full moon hangs heavily in a placid night sky. The evening hums with mosquitoes. A cool wind blows in from the ocean. Light spills from half-finished homes where families prepare for sleep. Hopefully, a sleep unfilled with tsunami dreams.
But here in this swamp-side shack, eight men are gathered around the unsteady table. Playing cards. They tell me that for five dollars, anyone can join in. Cold beer costs a dollar. But they graciously offer me one for free.
“We started meeting here after the tsunami. Our houses were broken. Our days were busy with clean up and building new homes. We’re all victims here. All of us made it through the tsunami. So we started meeting here every night. Playing cards. Having a few beers….we’re the tsunami club!”
The mood is light. The laughter is low. The game is serious. The men are many things. They are shopkeepers. Insurance salesmen. Retired public servants. Customs officers who keep the airport safe with K9 dogs. All are fathers. For their village of Leone, all have history. All have love.
The men speak of many things. Like when will their paperwork be complete so work can start on their new house from FEMA? The beautiful cement parking for the new church hall that a few of them hand troweled smooth that day. The mythically perfect shot that one of them hit on the golf course that afternoon. The writer who has come from Apia looking for people to interview… “I told her to come back later and then I took off in my car and hid in town so she wouldn’t find me!” Loud laughter from all.
But there are things these men do not speak of. At least not during the companionship of a card game. Heavy and unspoken, is the memory of those they could not save.
I speak with the one they call ‘the General’. Retired from government service, he is a leader. A man of many talents. He paints, he builds, he repairs. People come to him when they need help. A large, broad man with a gleeful grin. Sweaty and shirtless. Paint spattered. He laughs and shakes his head resignedly at my arrival to the black pool. “Aue you found me!”He had tried skipping away in the shadows when we drove up but the others called him back. On tsunami day, the General was caught by the first wave. He found himself swept alongside two of the old women of his village. He grabbed the first and then the second as they cried feebly for his help. He is a strong man and had hoped he could save them both. But it was not to be. The women were not light. The wave was not merciful. Churned in the debris, he was unable to hold them. The wave broke three ribs and cut him maliciously before spitting him out. He was taken to the hospital but he discharged himself a few hours later. So he could return to Leone to help with the body search. “The village call me the General because Im the one they look to. Im the one that gets things done. I couldn’t stay in the hospital when I knew so many people needed help.” There is sadness as he remembers the two women he could not save.
There are others. The man who clung to a breadfruit tree not far from the card shack. He saw schoolchildren still on the road and after the first wave he yelled for them to run for where the road rises. But they were caught by the second wave and washed past him. He reached out with one hand and grabbed one young girl by her hair. That one at least, was saved. But it is the others he remembers. The ones he could not reach.
I speak with Iuliano. He of the warrior physique. Tall and athletic, he had woken early that day for his usual morning run. By seven he was driving two of his children to school with his wife when they looked back in time to see the first wave hit the village. Where his other two children were still at home. With his mother-in-law. Two nieces. An aunt. He ran back, strong and sure to fight his way to his house. Thankfully his aunt had already run with the children to the safety of the back hills. The others were huddled on the second floor of their solid brick home.
“I wasn’t scared for myself, all I worried about was my kids and my family.”
Iuliano took the others to the hill before the second wave rushed in. He could have stayed there. All his family were secure. But he went back. Through debris and hungry water. An old woman cried for help from the remains of the petrol station by the roadside. She was pinned against a pole by an upturned truck. Iuliano and his cousin Cameron tried to move it. Tried to free her. But the vehicle was too heavy and the force of the water too strong. The third wave was approaching.
“I looked in her eyes and I told her, I’ll come back for you. I’ll come back.”
Iuliano and Cameron were taken with the third wave, washed to the mangrove swamp. Again, he could have stayed there. But again, he went back. Through debris and hungry water. Back to the petrol station where an old woman was still pinned against a pole. Still. And silent.
“I cant get her out of my mind. I’ve known her all my life, I grew up here and she was like a grandmother to all us kids in the village…I keep seeing her face, you know? I looked in her eyes and I promised her that I was going to get her out, I told her I would save her…and I couldn’t.”
It is four months since the tsunami of September 29th. The waters have gone. The mud is long dried. New homes are built. But still there is other debris left behind. Unseen. Like guilt. And loss. And grief.
What do you say to Iuliano? To the General? You search for words but they all seem so inadequate.You tell them that there is nothing more that they could have done – what is the strength of one man against a wave that runs at five hundred miles an hour? And slams shipping containers into warehouses?
You tell them that there is honor in the trying. That I have interviewed many who did not go back. Who could not and did not try. You tell them that those women died knowing someone cared enough to try.
The interviews end. The game resumes. Another can is opened with a snap swish. They tell me I can come again to gather more stories. Or to play cards...Beside a black pool laced with twisted mangroves.
On the plane ride home, I think of many things. I think of dolphins at Fagasa. And the unbearably loud surf at Poloa. I think of 18 foot hammerhead sharks caught in Pago Harbour. But most of all, i think of Leone. And the Tsunami Club. I think of heroism - defined as exceptional courage in the face of danger. We usually think of heroes as being those who 'save someones life'. But there is still another kind of courage. Another kind of hero. Those who didn’t save the life – the elderly woman, the little girl. But in the face of insurmountable obstacles they still tried desperately to overcome. Returning again and again as the hungry sea fought against them.
Yes, there are heroes in Leone village. I pay tribute to them with my meager words and hope that with time – they will find peace.