The terrible tragedy of the bus accident near Sigatoka was in all the Fiji news during the past week. Here is one version as Margaret Wise, a journalist for the Fiji Times, describes her experiences. We thought that we did not know the families, until we were told yesterday that one of our friends lost her mother in the accident. I am always asking the question about human suffering and justice as good people experience pain and awful circumstances in this world. I know that compassion can be a response out of these experiences but I still wonder why. We drove along that road in a bus the other day, saw the burnt grass and trees and the flowers left there as a sad memorial.
Bearing witness to a national tragedy
Sunday, September 07, 2008
A BURNT patch remains, strewn with what looks like everyday roadside litter. If you didn't know, it would be hard to imagine that this was the site of an unimaginable nightmare where ten members of an extended family met their tragic end in a horrific bus fire incident. Where at least fifty of their relatives, mostly women and children, suffered the disturbing experience of witnessing their loved ones burn to death. Scarred for life, this is the spot where terrified survivors fled a raging inferno with harrowing tales of survival.
It's been a week and two days since the deadly RBL001 fire and I have driven past eight times already. Each time it was not the same.
Bearing witness has emerged as the language that describes my work where we are supposed to be objective and psychologically detached. But how does one prepare oneself for exposure to mass human suffering? Where lives were lost in such a heart-rending manner. Where one was confronted by gaunt looks of deep and enduring pain. Where one was met head on by the outpouring of grief - grieving for the dead and grieving for the living.
In truth, I was not prepared. I cried. Not when I got that late night phone call from chief-sub-editor Ilaitia Turagabeci alerting me to the death bus incident. I cried later - when I was told upon arriving at the scene that ten people remained trapped in the bus. Reality set in and quickly too. The charred remains of some of them were visible from a distance, the smell of burnt skin and fuel fanned by the breeze of the night.
Arriving as a team of three, I and photographer Jai Prasad left Felix at the scene so we could catch up with the injured who were being transported to the Sigatoka Hospital. We also wanted to visit those evacuated to nearby Navuevu Village. The stretch between Malaqereqere Villas and the entrance to Shangri-La's Fijian Resort was closed and motorists were diverted to the old Queens Road that runs between the shoreline and Navuevu.
To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. All I knew through Ilaitia was that a group from Levuka were on their way to a funeral in Nadi. While travelling from Lautoka we almost turned back because both the Sigatoka police and medical staff said nothing about casualties when I made enquiries over the phone. All they confirmed was there was a bus fire. I did not know who made up the passenger list.
We arrived to a crowded hospital, both inside and out. Nearby villagers converged on the premises and continued to trickle in through the early morning hours as word got around. Inside we found wide eyed men, women and children - badly burnt, scorched, or injured. Hospital staff were working feverishly. The injured were quiet. Very quiet. But they carried strong images of stress and distress. Four were admitted, two women past their fifties severely burnt, one of them dying four days later.
That's where I met Laisenia Elia. Walking out the hospital doors, he was in tears. His right arm was bandaged and he was looking for a seat outside. I asked him if he needed something. All he asked for was a cigarette. I fished out five dollars in coins from my pants pocket. He told me he was left with only the clothes he had on. Then he proceeded to tell me his six year old grandson was admitted. I later learnt the boy suffered sixteen per cent burns to his body. Laisenia is originally from Kiuva but married a woman from Natokalau Village, Ovalau. His wife's family had just buried a relative and were on their way to the funeral of another family member. He told his story of how he rang and rang the bell in a futile attempt to get the driver to stop the bus.
Soon after we followed those who were treated and discharged to Navuevu. At the village hall we witnessed women huddled in groups, some with tears streaming down their faces while others had faces swollen from crying. Most were jolted from near slumber to a scene of panic.
I couldn't make the decision about whom to approach. It was here that the ordeal took a greater personal toll. The survivors were surrendering to anguish. Those dead were somebody's mother, sister, aunt, grandmother, grandfather, uncle, nephew, cousin and sister-in-law.
What do I say to Rusiate Matakitoga who had just found out through his 12-year old daughter that his wife Monika had perished in the fire? How do I console Monika's sister, Koleta, who had survived the fire?
What words of comfort can I, a stranger, offer Sovaia and Aisake Babitu who lost the youngest of their five daughters - Joana Adivesi. Diagnosed with Downs Syndrome she was the darling of the back seat crowd, keeping up the energy with her singing and dancing.
And what about Elenoa Kuboutawa?
She lost her mother Ilisapeci and her newly married sister-in-law Bulou Sera Waqanivavalagi Valemei.
Her mother's only brother Samuela Donu, who was sitted next to granddaughter Sera Soqo also perished.
Her mother's only other sibling, Laisa Dinene, was admitted with severe burns to her body.
How do I approach the head of the group, schoolteacher Kevueli Titia, who like his wife was still in shock. Not only was their three month old baby miraculously saved by fellow passenger Gaberieli Soqo after being thrown out the bus window, Titia's younger brother Seveti lost his pregnant wife and two young nephews in the fire. Hazel's seated profile, with each arm tightly hugging sons Seveti Jnr, 3, and Daniel, 1, into her bosom was the second heart wrenching image eyewitnesses were subjected to.
Titia told me that night that there were many stories, but that I should wait because everyone was tired, distressed and too shocked to answer questions. The only man who appeared ready to talk was Rusiate. So we talked a little about Monika.
Out of respect I gave the rest of the survivors time and space by returning to what was earlier the site of pandemonium. The forensics people had completed their jobs so we drove to the hospital where the bodies were being transferred to the mortuary.
It was around 3.30am Friday or thereabouts. As police went about their business, transferring bodies carried in white sheets, there was complete silence. No pictures were allowed so we stood back to watch the crowd. It was then that I noticed a man pacing the side of the building. He was restless, stopping every now and again, retracing his steps, weeping quietly by a vehicle his body slumped in manner that screamed pain. He would disappear into the darkness and then reappear from the opposite end of the hospital building. He looked lost.
One survivor pointed out that the man I was watching was Seveti. My heart went out to him. I did not even think about approaching him. No word could have allowed me to carry on with my work and yet not seem intrusive.
By 5am we were back at Navuevu. It wasn't until an hour later that two young girls, Joana Qacia a 20-year old university student and Savaira, 14, walked towards us. Red eyed yet willing to talk we strolled to a store just outside the village to buy toothbrushes. Joana told me about her 73-year-old grandmother Vani Lutukiwai who survived the fire and so I asked for an interview. That was how my I entered the village hall and from there on the horror stories unfolded. By mid-day we were back at our Lautoka office, filing our stories and pictures by 5pm.
On Saturday, I tried to inoculate myself from the exposure to trauma by busying myself with the children.In the evening we called Titia and he said the group was on their way to Suva.
However, we found out the next day the group encountered problems with the bus and had returned to Navuevu. We decided to follow the bus after villagers farewelled them with a church service and lunch. They made three stops along the way, quickly hopping in and out for what they later said were "breaks". The trip was my longest and slowest drive to Suva as we were travelling at speeds between 40km/hr to 60km/hr.
It's surprising what two days can do to people. Unlike the first hours where they were stifled by grief, we had a warm reception when we disembarked at Nabua. We ended up sitting with them till 10.30pm that night, listening in to funeral arrangements and the counselling by Father Leronio Vodivodi. It was here that Saurara Raika gave me a picture of Joana, her deceased young cousin who adored Inosi, her eight-month old baby.
The best stories are stories from the heart. In instances such as these, journalists have to engage with the subject in a way that is compassionate, meaningful and personal. We are the greatest conduit for enhancing trust.
But therein lies the hazards of my work. For in extending myself, I expose myself to the trauma and sufferings of others.
As we exchanged phone numbers and bade farewells I realised they were just going through the motions of life. Everything looked much the same on the outside. But inside everything had changed.