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Letting go and burying those lost in American Samoa
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Author Topic: Letting go and burying those lost in American Samoa  (Read 1186 times)
Tavita Tusitala
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Posts: 289

« on: November 24, 2009, 01:39:10 PM »

Letting go and burying those lost in American Samoa

American Samoans bury their dead in elevated graves in front of their homes. It’s thought to enable the home fires to shine upon the souls of the departed.

These days, the pathways to homes in the Samoas are dotted with freshly laid graves. A tsunami claimed 32 lives in American Samoa. It killed 143 in Samoa.

It ripped houses off foundations, hurled trucks into trees, and damaged about a third of properties in the 3,000-population village of Leone.

On Nov. 5, I stood near a gutted house across from the Leone beach, aiming my camera at a flower-adorned grave. A woman came out of the house and I put the camera down, not wanting to invade her privacy.
But she beckoned to me.

Taitasi Fitiao stands near her daughter’s tombstone in American Samoa. Her daughter, Vaijoresa Fitiao, died in the recent tsunami there.
“I saw you looking,” she said. “It’s OK.”
“Was it a relative?” I asked.
“My daughter,” she said.

The child’s name was Vaijoresa Fitiao. She was 6 years old. On the day of the tsunami, she had bounded off as usual to Leone Midkiff Elementary School. Just before school was to start, an 8.0 earthquake rocked the island. School officials sent the children home.

Taitasi Fitiao began walking toward the school, meeting up with her daughter on a bridge some 300 feet from their house. She grabbed Vaijoresa’s hand just as the first of four waves up to 20 feet high breached the shoreline and engulfed them in muddy water. Fitiao was pinned between two cars, metal from one ripping into her finger. Instinctively she winced - and let go of her daughter’s hand.

“She got away from me,” she said, the scar on her finger still visible. “I was grabbing everywhere to see if I could get a hold of her. “She was calling, ‘Mom, please!’

“That’s the last thing I heard her say, ‘Mom, please!’ “
Another wave carried Fitiao over the cars. Her child’s body was found the next day in the back of a mangrove.
Vaijoresa’s bright, smiling face exudes a special radiance from a large plastic banner near the home, in between those of her two cousins. One’s body was recovered; the other is still missing.

Fitiao still speaks of her in present tense: “She likes to dance, she likes to draw. Everybody looks at her face and they feel happy.” They were unusually close, mother and daughter - so much that Fitiao wonders if God planned this “because I wa
s more attentive to her than the boys.” Her little girl loved to stay close to her. “Usually people that age, they like to run off and play with other kids.”

Fitiao has talked to psychologists, but the only modicum of comfort comes during her nightly 2 a.m. wakings. “That’s the time when she comes to visit me,” she says, half smiling through tear-filled eyes. “I feel that she’s right there with me.”

She struggles with the school’s decision to let the kids go home after the earthquake, some to beach fronts, rather than keep them on higher ground. She says they should have known the risk of tsunamis resulting from earthquakes. Several other children from that school died.
I have purposefully gone into the centers of disasters such as Ground Zero after Sept. 11 and Parkersburg after the tornado, but I did not go to American Samoa on a reporting assignment. I went to visit my son and his girlfriend, who are teaching there for a year. But it’s impossible to escape the vestiges of devastation.

Some children remain traumatized, scared of going to school. Funerals are still taking place. The shoreline of Leone is littered with clothes and other personal effects. There are bare foundations where houses once stood, while residents still occupy the skeletal remains of others - or white, circular tents supplied by FEMA.

Before I went, friends from Des Moines handed me nearly $1,500 to donate to tsunami victims. But by Nov. 5, my last morning in American Samoa, I still hadn’t figured out what to do with it.

People are proud. You can’t just wander around handing out bills. Local district chiefs know the suffering, but not all are equally reliable. Fitiao said all she got from her district chief were empty plastic bottles for water and some cans of tuna. Meanwhile, she, her husband and two sons sleep outside their home, as FEMA helps pay to rebuild it.

If money were her concern, she could have sued the school. But Fitiao says her parents and her Christian faith taught her to forgive. Her main interest now is keeping Vaijoresa’s memory alive. She wants to build a $2,000 memorial to her in front of the house.
I stood before this mother feeling inept, knowing no sum of money can wash away the anguish of a loss like this, or the inevitable survivor guilt or reproach.

But perhaps a monument would enable the home fires to shine a little brighter on this little girl’s soul - and her parents’. Before leaving, I told Fitiao some people in Iowa would like to help with that.
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