Volcano evacuation villagers return to find food

The eruption of a Vanuatu volcano eased slightly today, but the plight of thousands of villagers who fled to temporary evacuation centres did not, as they returned to their deserted gardens to forage for food.

The eruption of a Vanuatu volcano eased slightly today, but the plight of thousands of villagers who fled to temporary evacuation centres did not, as they returned to their deserted gardens to forage for food.

A vulcanologist, Morris Harrison, said that seismograph readings today “show that the activity is dropping a bit” on the South Pacific island nation’s Mount Manaro, but that it was still “trembling constantly”.

Authorities have ordered half of 10,000 people of Vanuatu’s Ambae island out of their homes, fearing the eruption that began on November 27 could intensify.

However, scientists have said they consider that unlikely after studying the volcano for four days.

A 10,000-foot plume of smoke, gas and ash billowing out of a vent in the volcano’s crater lake was obscured today by thick clouds.

Some residents of Lolovoli village returned briefly to their homes, saying the did not have enough food at their makeshift evacuation camp.

“The government didn’t give us anything yet so we didn’t rely on the government – we rely on ourselves,” said the village’s tribal chief Ambrose Wai, 44.

It was not immediately clear how many villagers around the island had gone hunting for food, or how widespread the shortages were.

Job Esau, director of the National Disaster Management Office in the capital, Port Vila, said villagers running short of food had been advised to get vegetables from their own gardens.

He said the government was checking the displaced villagers’ needs.

“Health officers, Red Cross, and police officers, they are already on the ground to make assessments, and making sure if they need any humanitarian assistance they can always (ask) our office so we can co-ordinate that,” Esau said by telephone.

Lolovoli residents said they also wanted to make sure no one was looting their homes or stealing their livestock or pets.

Wai has the village’s only concrete block house – and the only one with a lock on the door. The others are made mostly of palm fronds.

While some searched for food, about 40 Lolovoli villagers also returned briefly to hold a traditional mourning ceremony for a dead woman.

Ambae island custom demands that the dead be mourned at a grieving ceremony and feast every five days for 100 days – a ceremony known as “borni” – and then the person can be “forgotten”.

On Friday, 15 women and some girls prepared a meal called “laplap,” large parcels of shredded banana, taro, yam and vegetables, all wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an oven of fire-heated stones.

Ambae island – said to be the inspiration for the idyllic Bali Hai in James Michener’s book Tales of the South Pacific – is in northern Vanuatu, a volcano-studded archipelago of 80 islands 1,400 miles north-east of Sydney, Australia.

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