Wednesday, July 31, 2013

PICKING UP THE PIECES AFTER THE RABAUL QUEEN DISASTER

 More than a year since the Rabaul Queen tragedy,  investigations remain uncompleted  and relatives continue to seek closure.

Reverend Arua Oala, stands in front   of  sparsely populated   church pews at  the Cassowary road  United Church in  Lae. His eyes slowly scan the faces of  those present and he fights back tears  as he  talks about his son, Arua Baru, who died in the Rabaul Queen  disaster in February 2012.
Rev. Arua Oala
           “How am I going to explain in a few long years to my two grandchildren what their father  has perished,”  he says.
            Arua Baru, was the  Rabaul Queen’s chief engineer  he died  when the ferry,  sank in stormy weather off the Morobe  coast.   According to witness statements,  the ferry was overloaded when it  left Kimbe for Lae.   Onboard were over 300 passengers  - many of them  were students  returning to intuitions   in the  Momase and  the Highlands   for the start of the new school year.  
Reverend Arua is one of   hundreds of relatives and survivors who are still coming to terms with  the loss of their loved ones   more than a year after the worst  maritime disaster in Papua New Guinea’s history.   
In a society where the spiritual and the physical  are seen as one and the same,  many of the families cannot accept that  their family members  have died because  179 people remain missing to this day.  
Rabaul Queen survivor minutes after the rescue
            “When I asked my daughter-in-law to share her experiences at the first anniversary service,  she said: ‘I can’t  because I might harm  the relationship I have with my husband.  To me he is still at work.”
            Tommy Yep,  chairman of the  Rabaul Queen Action Committee,  the group formed to take legal action against the shipping company and its owner, Peter Sharp,   it has been extremely difficult to bring some sense of comfort and closure  to the relatives and survivors.
            “For Papua New Guineans it is difficult to get on with life  because we  don’t have a body bury.  For  us it is unnatural,” he says.
            “We  need to have a body to bury and grieve over  in order to end one chapter and move on to the next.”
            Yep’s son  was a passenger on board the Queen. He was fortunate to have survived. But the psychological trauma of the disaster has  affected him  so much that he has been unable to  live a normal life.
            “My son just  left his job in  and he has gone back home to take care of  his family and try to pick up the pieces.”
Government support to the families of victims  and  the survivors has been very limited.  Counseling sessions  stopped two weeks after the disaster and  those affected by the tragedy have had to fall back on traditional family structures  to draw support.  But it has not been easy  when multiple family members  have died.
            Catherine Maniot from Bougainville  lost three of her sons.  Two were studying at the National Polytechnic Institute in Lae. Her eldest was on his to becoming a mechanical engineer.  For  almost a year, she has been trying to close  their bank  accounts.  For many, it seems a trivial matter. But for Catherine,  closing   her sons’  bank account  will mean  a step forward.   But it has not  been easy  to close  the account. The bank  has asked for   death certificates  which have not been provided  by  government coroner’s office.
            “I am lost. I don’t know what to do,” she says.  “It’s like a dream. I wake up one day and three of my  boys are gone. How am I supposed to get on with my life?”
The start of investigations into  the disaster   was announced one day after  the first anniversary of the  of the Rabaul Queen disaster.  The government reacted following  mounting public pressure. 
            But the  investigators faced ongoing funding problems.  Police teams  in Lae and  Kokopo  were  not allowed to  reside in hotels  and hired vehicles were taken back by the owners after  the initial   lot of funding  was used up.
            Months short of end of investigations,  teams were  called back to  the Police headquarters in Port Moresby.   The official  explanation  has been that the money required to complete the investigation had not been released. 
As the delay drags into fourth month,  the action committee  has called on the Police commissioner, Tom Kulunga,  to explain  why the investigation has not been completed and why there have not been any arrests made since the disaster  over a year ago.

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