Sione shares his experience of the volcanic explosion and tsunami in Tonga

A narrow escape

Melina Scarfo
Sione, 18, in front of his damaged home. Few families in Tonga were left untouched by the destruction.
UNICEFPacific/2022/Wolfgramm
04 February 2022

When Sione first heard the volcanic explosion, he ran to look out at the sea. 

His family’s home faces the foreshore in Sopu, Tonga. As the explosions increased and he watched the waves build up, Sione knew something terrible was about to happen.

The family needed to get to safety – and fast. Sione’s mother and siblings piled into the car, but there was not enough space. Being the only boy, Sione decided to flee on foot.

“I was shocked and scared because I have never seen anything like this before in my life,” he says.

On Saturday 15 January, the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai underwater volcano in Tonga erupted violently. It sent a plume of ash 20 kilometres above the volcano, contaminating water and food supplies. 

The volcanic eruption, which is one of the biggest in Tonga in the last 30 years, triggered a 1.2-metre-high tsunami, that crashed ashore in coastal areas of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa.

As Sione ran for safety, he noticed that some families weren’t aware of the danger and returned to help them.

“I told them to leave their belongings and let’s run because the tsunami [is coming]. We ran down the street and that’s the reason they were safe.”

The eruption has damaged infrastructure, homes and schools. Almost 85 percent of the population has been affected by the disaster, including 36,500 children.

UNICEF is doing everything we can to make sure children are safe and protected. Life-saving supplies, including recreational kits and water, sanitation and hygiene kits, are already on the way to affected families like Sione’s.

Sione returned home to find the house littered with rocks, seaweed and mud. The front door was damaged, and the refrigerator had tipped over.

“It is saddening because we haven’t seen such damage like this before, from breaking boats to ripping out the sidewalks,” he says. “This feels new and life-changing. It has not happened before.”

UNICEF is there before, during and after an emergency. We are deeply concerned for the safety and wellbeing of children. In the aftermath of a disaster, outbreaks of waterborne diseases are common, and for children in particular, the impacts of trauma can last for years if they don't get the support they need. 

The initial batch of UNICEF 10 tons of emergency supplies arrived in Tonga on 27 January through the HMAS Adelaide of the Royal Australian Navy. These comprise of WASH and dignity kits, water containers, portable field test kit and recreational kits. Another larger batch of nearly 37 metric tons from UNICEF’s Fiji warehouse arrived on 31 January aboard a ship chartered by the Fiji Government. This batch includes midwifery kits, inter-agency emergency health kits (IEHK), ECD kits, recreational kits, tents, water purification tablets, personal protective equipment (PPE), and disinfectants.

These supplies will be distributed to families and children affected and will ensure communities have access to clean drinking water, children have access to learning materials, psycho-social support is provided to children through the supply of recreational kits, including the health and midwifery kits, which will ensure children have access to basic health care.

It’s just the beginning of a long recovery, but we won’t stop until every child is safe.