| My Land, My Country
POPONDETTA - It’s early morning at Hohorita village, a few kilometers outside Popondetta town.
Organisers of the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Mt Lamington eruption on 21 January 1951 are putting the final touches to preparations as they wait for the guests to arrive.
While at one level, it is a solemn occasion. It is the remembrance of 4,000 men, women and children who died.
It is also a celebration of life and, for these devout Anglican communities, a resurrection and a revival.
“I’ll tell you about my clan,” says Winterford Suharupa, a former NBC broadcaster from Hohorita.
“My whole clan was wiped out. Only two people survived, my father and his brother. Both of them were out of the province.
“We lost everything. I wish the people who were there could tell you the stories.
“I wish the man who ran from the foothills to the administration centre was here to tell you his story. But he is gone.”
Hohorita is a village that grew from a post-eruption settlement. The people originally lived in the foothills of the volcano.
After their villages were destroyed, the survivors were resettled here. The traditional owners of the land were kind and generous, the survivors said.
A lot of the history about the Mt Lamington eruption has still to be rediscovered.
After 70 years, records on the Papua New Guinea side remain part of oral history drawn from the mental archives of the elders.
All the survivors of the Lamington eruption are now in their 70s and 80s. At Kiorota village, two of four survivors told of their experiences.
Avari Lucien Koiembo was eight-years-old when he was scolded by his brother-in-law and told to flee from the eruption.
“I saw very thick dust and it was rolling down the mountain. The mountain exploded like a bomb.”
Rediscovering that history has been like putting together pieces of a puzzle.
When you speak to the elders, you get to understand the unimaginable pain they went through. Some were very young when it happened.
Koiembo is now 78. He fled with his younger niece and nephew when the sky became pitch black in mid-afternoon.
“It was dark for three hours. It wasn’t night. The ash had covered up the sky. We couldn’t see anything.
“The clothes people wore became so heavy with the wet ash, they fell off.”
The disaster not only destroyed villages and the environment. It killed whole clans and families. At eight-years-old, Avari Lucien Koiembo lost his entire clan.
“If you speak to the local people within the vicinity of the volcano, their stories suggest that the number of those who perished is higher than what has been estimated,” says Northern Province Governor Gary Juffa. Our oral history needs to be better documented.
For the colonial Administration, the Mt Lamington eruption triggered a huge post-war relief operation.
Before he passed away in 2018, Des Martin was honoured by the Papua New Guinea government with an Order of Logohu award. He wrote an article describing horrific scenes where hundreds of people lay dead after the eruption.
Tony Taylor’s work studying the Mt Lamington volcano identified safe zones where the Administration could conduct the rescue operation.
His work is still classed as one of the best studies of an active volcano. He died on Manam Island in 1972.
For people in Northern Province, Anglican missionaries led by Bishop David Hand are still held in high regard for their work in rebuilding the communities devastated by the disaster.