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Koro Devastation Worse Than War Zone: Aust Commander

The devastation on a small Fijian island that accounted for nearly a quarter of the death toll from Cyclone Winston is worse than any war zone, the commanding officer of
05 Mar 2016 11:04
Koro Devastation Worse Than War Zone: Aust Commander
Australian soldiers from 2CR working in the devastated village of Nasau on Koro Island. Photo: Lyndon Mechielsen

The devastation on a small Fijian island that accounted for nearly a quarter of the death toll from Cyclone Winston is worse than any war zone, the commanding officer of Australian soldiers in one village has declared.

In what’s seen as a major sign in the normalisation between Fiji and Canberra, hundreds of troops have landed in places hit by ¬the cyclone on February 20, and the navy’s largest purpose-built ship, HMAS Canberra, arrived off Koro Island on its first operation on Wednesday.

The huge Australian presence — the Canberra is holding 850 personnel — is the first of its type since Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama seized power nearly a decade ago.

Landing craft were making dozens of trips to transport heavy equipment off the ship and onto Koro, which recorded 10 of the 43 cyclone-related deaths, with ¬ villages and crops wiped out.

About 150 Australian troops arrived in Nasau, a village on the east coast of the island, this week. Village elders, sitting under a temporary shelter next to a school said five people were killed when three tidal surges wiped out all of the low-lying homes while winds knocked down all but a few structures higher up.

Lieutenant-Colonel James Dugdell, the commanding officer for two platoons deployed to clean up and help build temporary housing in the village, said the devastation exceeded anything he had seen in his 21 years in the army.

“In terms of damage and devastation on a community, this is probably the worst I’ve seen,” ¬Colonel Dugdell said.

“More so than what I’ve seen in Iraq or ¬Afghanistan, because … they still had their livelihood, they could get food, they weren’t totally reliant on the outside world.

“I’ve seen some pretty bad ¬places, but this is … it’s just taken all the leaves off the trees, destroyed all the crops, the place is strewn with corrugated iron and rubbish as it (the cyclone) has blown the buildings apart.”

Village elder Amena Kaitani, 70, said he had never seen anything like it. Any new crops could not be harvested until December at the soonest, forcing the village to rely on food shipped in.

Mr Kaitani said the elders had decided that the entire village would be rebuilt on higher ground and behind a hill, to stop such a tragedy re-occurring.

“They won’t have to buy; just give the pieces of land (to the villagers),” he said.

Several sailors and soldiers on board the Canberra have close family ties to Fiji.

Tevita Vula, a 27-year-old who mans the ship’s combat systems, said he had yet to learn the fate of an aunt who lived on one of the easternmost islands where the cyclone first hit.

“I’ve got a lot (of relatives) … just north of Koro, and they got pretty badly affected,” he said.

“All the houses that were at sea level, I heard they just got totally washed away,” he said.

 

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