“When we came back, there was nothing left”
One year on, UNICEF continues to support recovery efforts in Tonga
Tongatapu, Tonga – “As we kept running to higher ground, we saw the tsunami waves coming in.”
14-year-old Vake Toetu'u recalls the moment she and her family ran to safety barely five minutes after the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano erupted after weeks of volcanic activity on January 15, 2022.
Located in the South Pacific, Tonga is home to around 100,000 people spread across the inhabited islands.
Of the country’s inhabited islands, the worst affected were Nomuka, Mango and Fonoifua, with Mango Island where Vake and her community were evacuated from, located only about 43 miles from the volcano.
Once Vake’s home, now Mango Island lays barren with nothing but sand.
Living through the night – scars still linger in their minds
One year on, as families recover and rebuild, the scars of the night are still in the minds of those affected, especially those who lost everything they had, like Vake and her family.
“As we ran, we kept looking back. The waves went over the rooftop of the houses, washing away everything,” says Vake.
With tears in her eyes, she shared her biggest fear as she ran to safety.
“I noticed my mother was not with us. Somehow, I could not stop thinking where she was, hoping she was safe.”
But once she reached the top of the only higher ground on the island, Vake was relieved to see her mother.
“My main concern was for my whole family to be together and safe,” says Vake’s mother, Maaimoa Toetu'u.
The 56-year-old mother of five recalls the painful memories of that first night and day before help arrived.
“The ash started falling by the time we reached higher ground,” she adds.
Throughout the night, the elderly and children took shelter under a large tarpaulin and women under a mat held by men.
“The men kept clearing the ashes from the mat to keep it from collapsing.”
With nothing but the clothes they were wearing, the families survived on the root crops they had planted and the livestock.
“We thought we would come back later to get our clothes. But when we went back, there was nothing left.”
UNICEF supports psychosocial interventions to help families recover
“It was so devastating to see where the families sought refuge, but it made me realise how important the work that we do is,” says Mafi Hoa, Child Protection and Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Following the tsunami, the Ministry, through support from UNICEF, initiated psychosocial support (PSS) interventions in Tongatapu and the outer islands.
“I gradually started to see recovery but with the first response it was obvious that families were very much affected,” she adds.
To date, just over 10,000 children and caregivers have been supported through PSS activities. Additionally, recreational kits prepositioned by UNICEF were distributed and set up as child-friendly spaces to support children like Vake with a safe space to play, learn and connect with their peers.
Maaimoa, who has seen firsthand the impact of the PSS interventions adds that the games brought relief to the children and allowed Vake and her friends to start regaining a sense of normalcy.
“Seeing children smile again has helped me heal too,” she added.
As for Vake, as much as she misses her home, she is happy to be with her family and happy to be safe.