Uncertainty remains for displaced Ambaeans

DISPLACED Ambaeans are still waiting to find out from the government whether they will be able to return to their Vanuatu island soon.

Penama provincial councillor James Bari has been living on Santo since the government ordered the evacuation of about 10,000 people from Ambae four months ago because of volcanic activity.

Mr Bari said the government had planned to lift the state of emergency on Ambae on Monday but Ambaeans had not been updated.

“Until today we haven’t heard anything yet from the government, and [do not know] whether the government will allow us to go back, or not yet. That’s a big question all of us are asking now.”

Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) told RNZ Pacific the state of emergency had ended on Monday but would not be drawn on whether that meant Ambaeans were able to return home.

Mr Bari said he was concerned that political uncertainty in Vanuatu, created by last week’s introduction of a no confidence motion in the prime minister, meant the government had put discussions about Ambae to one side.

“The government political situation is unstable now. Maybe they are concentrating on that and they haven’t gone to decide on the state of emergency yet. We don’t know.”

Many Ambaeans only wanted to return to their island for a short period to collect their belongings, then return to Santo to build homes, Mr Bari said.

“At the last evacuation, most people were not ready to evacuate and most of their belongings are still on the island.

“People would like to develop their second home [on Santo] – build housing, do gardening, prepare crops – to reach a standard where if they go back to Ambae and there’s more volcanic activity that makes them leave the island again, they have something in place on another island,” he said.

“If the government would just let them go back for a couple of months to get some of their belongings, then they’ll go back to the place they’re building their second home.”

Mr Bari said food aid for evacuees had run out and without enough space to grow their own crops, many people had to use their own money to buy imported, canned food from shops.

A red cross truck is filled with family packs for people on Ambae.
A red cross truck is filled with family packs for people on Ambae.

Much of that food is past its expiry date and causing children to break out in a scabies-like rash, he said.

“We are having to check the expiry dates. Most of our children, they have got like scratches on their bodies. We think it is from expired food they have given us from shops. We are depending on this imported food. When our children do not get this food for a few days then the rashes are gone.”

Most Ambaeans on Santo were not employed and did not have enough money to buy food, Mr Bari said.

“Another thing is water. It’s really hard to get water now. A few months ago there was rain and we caught the rain water. But it’s all gone now. Most of us are finding it very hard to find water now.

“Most of the time the aid is just handing money over to the government or an agency responsible to the government and most of the time it doesn’t reach the people. That’s what we want – any aid or help that will reach the people.”

An NDMO report last week said volcanic activity on Ambae remained at level two, meaning an eruption could occur at any time.

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