January 23, 2022
(This Jan. 18 story corrects to remove incorrect reference in para 5 to Taumoepeau’s visits to Tonga)
SYDNEY (Reuters) – “The worst fear is always that you’re not going to see the people that you love again,” says Seini Taumoepeau, a Tongan-Australian artist and activist based in Sydney, as she waits to hear from her family after Tonga’s volcanic eruption and tsunami.
“The worst fear is the suffering of other people, that’s hard to cope with. Probably even more than your own suffering,” Taumoepeau says as she holds back tears.
Taumoepeau, who was born in Australia but spent part of her childhood in Tonga, said she has “hundreds of close and extended family members” across villages and towns in the Pacific archipelago, but stresses that all Tongans feel a kinship with each other.
“Our ability to empathise with each other is quite massive,” she said. “When somebody else loses a parent, we all feel it.”
Taumoepeau returned to Australia when she was eight. She has yet to have contact with any of her relatives in Tonga since the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano erupted, which damaged the island nation’s main undersea communications cable.
With telephone and internet links severed, relatives in Australia and New Zealand are praying for their families.
“At the moment we’ve had no contact at all with anyone from Tonga since … before the volcano had hit and then everything went dark,” said Taumoepeau.
Seeing footage of the destruction to the island being broadcast around the world has added to the sense of disbelief.
“It kind of comes to life right in front of your eyes, and especially being able to have satellite footage and that kind of thing, it’s really quite, almost a disembodying feeling.”
Tonga’s small outer islands suffered extensive damage from the volcanic eruption and tsunami, with an entire village destroyed and many buildings missing, a Tongan diplomat said on Tuesday, raising fears of more deaths and injuries.
(Reporting by Reuters teams; Writing by Susan Fenton; Editing by Alison Williams)