NOA'IA E MAURI se te' ne 'aus kainag gagaj tutu atakoa. May I take this opportunity to wish the global Rotuman community and our friends a very Peaceful and prosperous 1999.
In my last Hanuju Update I had informed our readers that The Secretary General had approved my request to return home for a short leave break after having spent about 15 months in trying to preserve and maintain peace along the war-torn Lebanon/Israel border. Despite the unpredictability and volatility of the security situation within the entire region at that time, I was able to return to Fiji with the last rotation draft of the Fijian Battalion and here is a brief account of my short visit to Suva and our home island of Rotuma.
I departed Beirut for Fiji on the 7th December 1998 and as usual it was always a good feeling to be leaving behind the tragedy and misery of never-ending conflict and return home for some peace and tranquillity, even if it was just for a short while. The 26 hours return flight by a UN chartered Egypt Air Boeing 777 aircraft with a one and a half hour re-fueling stopover in Singapore was on the whole uneventful, except for an additional two hours detour through central Australia to avoid flying through a lot of turbulence because of a tropical cyclone which was located right in our flight path in the north East Timor sea.
It was so good to set foot again on home turf on our arrival in Nadi at about midnight on the 8th December. The three hours drive to Suva was more tiring, and the heat and humidity equally overbearing compared to the cold wintry conditions of Lebanon. Anyway it was still great to be home in spite of the heavy downpour when I finally arrived in Namadi in the early hours of Wednesday, the 9th December.
I spent the first morning in Suva attending the funeral service of 'ohonta Harieta Faktaufon (who was married to my late uncle Fatiaki Faktaufon of Mofmanu, Itu'ti'u ). It was a sad occasion, but it gave me an opportunity to meet some members of our Rotuman community in Suva after the service which was held at the Churchward Chapel.
On the 10th December I gladly took up an offer by the Australian High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr Greg Urwin (who is an old friend) to visit Rotuma with our MP, the Honourable Colonel Paul Manueli. The High Commissioner was visiting Rotuma with the head of the Australian Aid Programme in Suva to finalise arrangements with the Council and the Rotuma High School Committee for AUSAID to fund the construction of a Vocational Training Center for the school. Keeping awake during the two hours Air Fiji Banterrante flight to Rotuma was difficult as I was still suffering from a bad case of jet-lag, but the first sighting of the island was enough to keep me fully awake until touchdown.
We approached Rotuma from a southwesterly direction and the sight of the white sandy beaches of Mofmanu, Fapufa, Losa, Lulu and Vaioa was so breathtakingly beautiful that I had to pinch myself just to re-assure me that I was not dreaming, and that it was true--I was in fact coming home, back to Paradise. As we had fuel to spare, the pilot took us on a sightseeing flight to the outlying islands of Hafliua (split island), Hatana and Uea. The changing colours of the sea and surrounding reefs were most spectacular from about 500 feet above sea level. Seeing the islands again reminded me of my childhood days when I used to accompany my father and the tautei from Itu'muta and Losa on regular fishing trips to the surrounding fishing grounds. John Bennett (who knows these fishing grounds so well) and I last fished around the sao ti'u and the surrounding reefs in 1991 and I am looking forward to the day when we can return to the same reefs around mur sao Hatana and the Hafhaveiaglolo to try and catch 'the big one that got away' the last time.
The young Indian pilot made a perfect three point landing at the Malhaha airstrip and the sight of the swaying coconut trees, the sound of the surf pounding the reef and the smiling familiar faces of the tar furau finally convinced me that I had arrived home. As we alighted from the aircraft I was very tempted to do a Pope John Paul II act by kissing the ground, but offered a short prayer instead to thank the Good Lord for bringing me home safely. I was back on my home island amongst my own people...and what a lovely feeling as 48 hours prior to this homecoming I was in the middle of a conflict in one of the most volatile regions half way around the other side of the planet. The world is indeed getting smaller and Rotuma is no longer that isolated from the rest of the global community.
I excused myself from the official party which was met at the airport by the District officer and taken to the government station at Ahau for the traditional mamasa ceremony. On my way to our family home at Fanmutia, I stopped by at Farema to meet the chiefs and most of the kainaga in Malhaha who had gathered there for the district's annual mane'a tela'a. What a happy occasion, particularly during the av mane'a. As to be expected everyone wanted to know the latest situation in the Middle East conflict, in particular my work and what it entails. I jokingly told the elders that as Force Commander UNIFIL, I very often felt like a blindfolded referee who was thrown into a ring to try and control a boxing match between two punch-drunk heavyweight boxers who do not wish to fight by the rules; that almost brought the rihapa down with laughter. One of my contemporaries who is now a gagaj tog asa (sub-chief) remarked that he was happy to note that despite all the years which I had spent away from home and being subjected to all the 'excitement' as a soldier and peacekeeper, I had not lost my sense of humour. I told him that having a good sense of humour is certainly a pre-requisite with my work. At the end of the ceremony I was most humble and grateful for being given the honour to present the prizes to those hardworking young men who had won the competition in the various categories for producing the heaviest/longest a'ana, 'uhi, pari, merene, ponapa and other root crops. The overall winner of the competition was Roy and Turapu's grandson from Vai in Pephaua.
I spent the remaining time in Rotuma visiting as many of the kainaga around the island as I could. In fact, I made a special effort to visit my grandfather, Gagaj Ti'vao Pau'u in Hapmafau who is 95 years old and I think the oldest person on the island now, and Gagaj Tarupea in Paolo, Lopta who has been blind for sometime. Regrettably I could not get to Losa as Tifanue Pau'u, who was kindly driving me around, had to return to Oinafa to pick up passengers who had arrived by the MV "Bulou Ni Ceva" on the same day. On my way back to Malhaha via Hapmafau I was so happy to meet 'ohonta Isapeti Inia in her home village of Savlei.
The vessel had brought back to the island the biggest group of Rotumans and friends who were returning home on the 'annual pilgrimage' for the festive season. Most of the passengers were made up of a group from Itu'muta in Suva and Lautoka who were returning home to assist those relatives at home with a number of community projects, including the re-painting of the Hospital in Ahau. I believe that some of the group were on their first visit, trying to find their fuag ri and roots as well. They also provided a substantial financial contribution to assist the Fag'uta, Hapmafau, Motusa, Losa and Hapmak Methodist church circuits. A most worthy and fruitful trip to the island and Sukamanu and Marie Pene, together with the rest of our kainaga, should be commended for their efforts.
Whilst in Rotuma I also contacted Reverends Iveni Fatiaki and Raki Tigarea and requested that they thank their respective congregations for their collective and individual prayers for the safety and well being of our peacekeepers. I also managed to spend an enjoyable hour with Visanti and Susana Makrava in their lovely home in Oinafa, catching up with the latest news in our small island community. I was so happy to learn that despite the difficult economic times that our small national economy is going through, the average Rotuman is still prospering with the upturn in the price of copra and kava.
All too soon my whirlwind visit was over as I had to return to Suva the following day Friday 11th December with the High Commissioner and party. Bidding farewell to my sister Makereta, 'ohonta Ata, and the rest of the kainaga was sad. It was equally sad as I watched Rotuma slowly disappear as the aircraft banked steeply and the island faded away to the rear. I realised then that my short visit to Paradise was over and that I was on my first leg of the long return journey to the Middle East, once more. During the return flight I thanked His Excellency for facilitating the visit. He expressed fascination at the island's beauty and unspoilt nature, and enquired if I had enjoyed the visit? I told him that in order to savour every single minute of my short stay in Rotuma I had deliberately walked around bare feet just to enjoy that long lost feeling of 'sand in between my toes' again. Being married to a Samoan and having spent so much time in the Pacific I am sure that he understood what I meant.
I spent the rest of my short stay in Suva meeting a lot of our kainaga, mostly at church, and thanking them for their prayers. Reverend Atalifo Faktaufon asked me to share some of my thoughts and experience with the Churchward Chapel congregation on Christmas day, so it was such a pleasure to tell them about Bethlehem. A week later I was asked to talk to the Youth Fellowship about the Holy Land and it was equally interesting and most rewarding talking to our young people and answering their many questions about the latest developments in the Promised Land.
Christmas and New Year would not have been that 'complete' without the traditional fara, so I was so thankful that my family was visited by the Nadera/Nadawa Youth Fellowship group on Boxing day, and by Dr John Fatiaki and his Savlei/Tuakoi group on New Year's eve. It was so good to be able to practice my panana again after all these years, much to the delight and amusement of the elders: o'o haina Matasie, Sa'a Erasito, and Laura Morris to name a few.
During the festive season our Rotuman community in Suva was also busy with two lovely wedding ceremonies. On the weekend preceding Christmas, Teriki (son of Frank and Mualagrani Smith of Sydney) married Marseu (daughter of Emeli and Mamao of Pepjei ) after a long engagement. It was wedding bells again on New Year's day when Swinglee ( son of 'ohon ta Sarote of Savaea, Itu'muta, now resident of Sydney) married Margie (daughter of Aisea and Susau Antonio of Suva). Both couples were married at the Churchward Chapel, and as usual the feasting and dancing afterwards were typically Rotuman.
Sadly we also had a number of deaths in our small Rotuman community and may the Good Lord bless the souls of our departed kainaga whom He had called to rest. May their souls rest in peace.
On the 11th January, it was time for me to say good-bye to Sarote and the rest of the family once more. I had to change my travel plans and return to Lebanon via Adelaide as I had to help our eldest son Emmanuel settle into the University of South Australia to commence a four years degree course. He wants to be a pilot so we have enrolled him to do a Bachelor in Applied Science (Civil Aviation) degree at the university where he will also undergo flight training. Hopefully at the end of the programme he will graduate with a commercial pilot's licence as well. Whilst in Adelaide, I was also happy to see my brother Antonio and his wife Erica after all these years. Antonio told me that there were not many Rotumans in the South Australian capital and he was so happy to have Emmanuel so he can improve his faeag Rotuam ta as he had been away from home for almost twenty years.
I departed Adelaide and flew back into Sydney on 14th January. I spent my short overnight stay in Sydney updating my brother Aisake, his wife Akanisi, and 'ohonta Martoa Dickinson on some of the latest rogrogo from home. It was so nice to see them again. My nieces Muarina, Fasina, and Chantel have grown into beautiful young girls since I last saw them. Before departing the following day I managed to call Reverend Sydney Taito and thanked him and his Wesley Mission congregation for remembering us in their prayers.
The return flight to Lebanon by a British Airways 747-400 Jumbo via Kuala Lumpur and London was most tiring. I finally arrived in Beirut in the early hours of 17th January after a nine hour stopover in Heathrow; once again I had traversed the planet from east to west within 24 hours. The weather in Beirut was cold and wet, as to be expected. There was a slight delay at the airport as my Italian naval helicopter crew awaited final clearance from the Lebanese coastal anti-aircraft batteries before we could take off and proceed south along the coast to UNIFIL headquarters, which is located in Naqoura just north of the Israeli/Lebanese border. As we cleared Sidon, we were challenged by the Israeli air traffic controllers to identify ourselves; what a pleasant way to be welcomed back as a slight error in our IFF (identification friend or foe) frequency transponder could be fatal. The incessant 'pipping' noise in my headset and the flashing red light from the transponder kept me fully awake throughout because I knew that we were being 'locked on' by a number of anti-aircraft radars.
As the pilot warned me 'to standby for landing' and the helicopter descended rapidly, I suddenly recognised the familiar sights of the fortified bunkers, the watchtowers and the roving sentries along the heavily guarded perimeter of 'my home away from home'. I knew then that I had well and truly left Paradise behind--half a world away--in our lovely home island of Rotuma.