The people of a village Fiji’s prime minister described as the “worst-affected” by Cyclone Yasa in December have decided to completely relocate, instead of rebuilding on the same exposed patch of devastated land.
Cogea, which sits at the junction of two rivers in Vanua Levu, was nearly wiped out by floodwaters on the night of 17 December, as Yasa tore a path directly over the village, leaving 32 families homeless.
Aminiasi Turaga, a resident of Cogea, said the night of the cyclone was the scariest he’d ever experienced. They had all gathered in the town’s church, he said, which was strong enough to withstand the winds.
“Everyone in the village was just expecting the wind,” said Turaga. “No one was expecting the floodwaters to rise to the level that they rose that night.” Except for one flood in 1980, the town was usually spared from floodwaters, he said.
The people of Cogea are people of the river, they know its ebbs and flows and where the waters can rise. Cogea has sat at the same junction for generations, its nearby hot springs its jewel. But on the night of Cyclone Yasa, each river burst its banks, consuming the village from both sides and destroying nearly every house.
“On that afternoon, it didn’t rise for about five hours, then around 9pm it just rose,” Turaga said. “In about 20 minutes, the houses were gone.”
Turaga said those who were in a fast-submerging church had minutes to race with only the clothes on their back – in the middle of a ferocious cyclone in the pitch-black darkness – they scrambled up to some houses on a nearby hill.
In the daylight of the next morning, they emerged to find nothing left. 35 of the village’s 37 houses were destroyed, the FBC reported at the time, and all their possessions had vanished downstream.
When he visited in the days after the cyclone, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama described the village as the worst-affected by the cyclone, while promising support to rebuild, according to local media reports from the time.
Speaking to RNZ, Turaga said most of the village was now living in 18 tents scattered around the silt-covered remnants of Cogea, spending their time salvaging leftover root crops and retrieving materials for the eventual rebuild.
He said the village had received several visits from government aid teams, as well as politicians and diplomats, including the New Zealand High Commissioner. They had been delivered several rounds of food rations, although he did not know for how long this would continue.
“We are coping,” Turaga said. People from Cogea who are living in cities like Suva, Lautoka or abroad have also helped with funding and supplies. The town has also created a page, Cogea Will Rise, to help too.
But with the village levelled, Turaga said the people of Cogea had to confront a devastating decision: to stay on the land they’ve been attached to for generations, that forms part of them, or to abandon it.
“It’s a very huge decision,” he conceded. “But everybody has agreed that we must relocate our village. Our elders just said, ‘enough is enough, we have to move’.”
Last week, the village elders and residents made the journey about 5 kilometres into once bush-clad, now debris-strewn hills above the river valley. There, they met with the other landowning clan, and reached an agreement: Cogea would move.
“We’ve traditionally borrowed the land from the landowners,” Turaga said, adding that a traditional handover ceremony was held last Friday where the people came together.
“The landovers have accepted it and they have given us the piece of land and we stepped on it,” he said. “There are huge trees, many of them already fallen by the cyclone, so we have to clear all that so we can begin our relocation.”
It was a heartbreaking decision, Turaga said, but Cyclone Yasa had forced it upon them, and with ever growing presence of climate change, old Cogea could flood again.
“It’s a very huge decision, but everybody has agreed that we must relocate our village. In our village we have our hot spring, it drags people back to the village,” he said. “[But] we have to move. We can leave behind the hot spring and the rivers.”
“We can go and visit from our new village.”