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Day the river of life brought death

Salaseini Moceiwai
Tuesday, February 05, 2013

JANUARY 14, 2003, will always be remembered by the Dutt Family of Korotari outside Labasa Town.

The day brings memories of nine missing family members who died at the height of Tropical Cyclone Ami.

The family is still haunted by the dreadful incident to this day.

Every year, the date has been set aside for a special pooja (prayer) to commemorate the lives of the missing members.

Rishun Dutt, 58, looked towards the Korotari River, about one kilometre from his home, as he related what the past 10 years have been like for the surviving members.

The river that was known as the source of life for villagers and nearby settlers claimed the lives of Mr Dutt's mother, his sister and her two daughters, his brother and his wife, his nephew, niece and his eldest daughter.

His younger daughter and wife had gone to visit a family friend in Labasa that fateful day.

Recounting the incident, Mr Dutt said they were listening to the radio on the night of January 13 and heard nothing about a cyclone warning.

He said they decided to go to sleep after listening to the radio and never thought of moving to higher ground or to prepare themselves for the monstrous storm headed their way.

There had been no warning of what Ami was bringing with her

It was only a matter of seconds when the life-giving river swallowed their home at 4am on January 14.

Rudely woken from their sleep, the family members fled for their lives into the cane fields.

That was the last time Mr Dutt saw any of them.

"All I could hear was the roaring sound of big waves and strong winds raging everywhere. Efforts to call out the names of my loved ones were in vain as I was fighting the currents that were sweeping me away like debris."

Mr Dutt thought it was the end of the world.

He decided not to fight and allowed the currents to master his path.

"I suddenly came across a small log and clung on to it for support until I reached Nagata, about three kilometres from my home," he said.

"In the middle of the floodwaters was a tall tree which was partly submerged. With all my might, I swam to it for refuge and I sat there from 7.30am to 2pm."

As tired as he was, Mr Dutt never gave up hope, even though he was stranded in a strange place with no trace of a human being.

"I was dehydrated and hungry while waiting for the water level to recede. Only God knows how I felt that moment, craving for food and drink or at least for someone to spot me on the tree top," he said.

"After a while, I saw some people picking coconuts some distance down the river. When I tried calling them, no sound came from my mouth. I took off my T-shirt and waved and suddenly a man saw me.

"I thank God for the miracle."

He said he knew it was God that sent the man to rescue him.

"The man approached me in a small punt and took me to a house where they gave me some food and drink. I couldn't stop thanking him because I knew he saved my life."

The food and drink, Mr Dutt said, gave him a bit of strength that allowed him to walk back to his home.

It was there that he realised the enormity of Ami.

He encountered another heartbreaking moment when he saw his farm completely ravaged and his house filled with debris. "To my surprise, I could only see thick silts and debris. Then it clicked my mind that the rest of my family was not at home and at that moment, I couldn't think of anything else but to report the matter to police."

Mr Dutt said he walked back to the Labasa Police Station to lodge a report. A search was conducted for the missing members and six bodies where found. The other three were nowhere to be found.

He said his mother's body was later found at Korovatu, about 40 kilometres from their home.

"It still hurts me to this day that I never bid a proper goodbye to them or even saved them from the cyclone," an emotional Mr Dutt said.

"My daughter was only in Form Three and she had big dreams of helping us once she completed her education. Unfortunately, it all went down the drain when she disappeared without a sign during Cyclone Ami."

After the cyclone, Mr Dutt and surviving family members rebuilt their lives.

He had to start from scratch as his family's only source of income — fruits and vegetables — were all destroyed.

"I knocked on doors to seek assistance from people just so I could rehabilitate my farm and help my family regain a normal life again. It was a bit difficult but I managed to pull myself together and put the past behind for the sake of the surviving members," he said.

"Even though we couldn't replace our loss, we continue to thank God for our lives because I know that he saved us for a purpose.

"Every year, we remember our missing members and we pray that their souls may rest in peace."

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