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Suffering in silence

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, February 24, 2014

IT is an event that changed the lives of hundreds of people 23 years ago.

The decision to go on strike did not augur well for about 420 workers at the Vatukoula goldmines.

They may have expected a solution to their grievances soon after the strike but they were wrong.

As a result of the strike action on February 27, 1991, the lives of the goldminers and their families were shattered.

It resulted in there being very little or no food at all in homes, families breaking up, social problems and 81 striking miners dying so far.

The events after the strike also resulted in an innocent bailiff losing his life while performing his duty at the mines.

He was stoned to death.

We will bring you stories that were never told before by the striking miners, their family members and the bailiff's widow.

Today, we bring you the story of some of the widows of miners who went on strike with their colleagues and died over the years.

TEARS rolled down her face as she recalled the struggles she went through being the wife of a goldminer.

Fulori Yabakivou's story starts from the day her husband Sanaila went on strike with other miners at the Vatukoula goldmines.

It is not only about the struggles she went through then but it is also about the situation she is in right now.

Like any other day, February 27, 1991, was just a normal day for many of the families in the mining community although trouble was brewing.

It didn't take long on that day when Fiji Mine Workers Union members put their tools down in one of the mine shafts, followed by their colleagues in other shafts.

About 420 of the union's 600 members walked off their jobs in the days following February 27 in protest against several issues.

That day changed the lives of the goldminers and their families, as the majority of them had children in primary school and even infants.

It was not only the strike that Mr Yabakivou participated in. He was also at the centre of a protest march and confrontation with police in the aftermath of the strike.

On May 8 and May 10, 1991, The Fiji Times reported of the protest march and the confrontation between the police and the striking miners.

Mr Yabakivou and his wife had three children when he went on strike. One was in Class Three and another in Class One; the youngest was a toddler.

They had another child after the strike. Mrs Yabakivou lost her twin babies during pregnancy after the strike.

She worked as a housegirl to supplement the family's income even when her husband was working for a contractor at the mine, earning $1.56 an hour. She earned between $25 and $30 a week.

"It was hard to buy our children's school uniforms and stationery even when my husband was working at the mines," said Mrs Yabakivou.

"I used to work as a housegirl to support my husband and when the strike happened, I continued working in order to get money for our needs.

"Life became very hard one year after the strike and I had to sell cassava and other things that I had planted to send our children to school.

"There were also times when my children got sick and I had to take them to the doctor. But there was no money to buy the medicine, so we had to resort to herbal medicine."

Mrs Yabakivou, 55, said when her husband died on December 1, 2000, her world was shattered as she was left alone to look after their children.

"I couldn't afford to pay the fees for my children who were in high school, so I had to ask my relatives for help. But those in high school then couldn't complete their studies."

She has a son, who is in Form Five and is living with her. Her daughter who left school when in Form Four in 2008 also lives with her and works as a housegirl while other children live on their own.

"My daughter does chores for people in the neighbourhood sometimes and earns $10 a day. She didn't want to continue with her studies.

"I struggled to feed my children when my husband died and they know what we've been through. We used to have lemon leaf tea and cassava almost every day. And on most days, it was only one meal.

"Our situation was such that we used to boil bele and have the water as soup with cassava," she added as she wiped away her tears.

Mrs Yabakivou said she used to talk to her children and tell them to have faith in God as He was the provider. Like her, Milika Lewabotiki, 71, also has a story to tell, especially of the hardships she faced when her husband Etonia Naitokorua died one year after the strike.

"I had six children at that time and the eldest was in high school and the youngest in primary school," she said.

"It was very hard for me to feed the children and I went around the neighbourhood and looked for housegirl jobs. I earned $15 a day washing dirty clothes."

Ms Lewabotiki said she had planted cassava, bele and vegetables to supplement her household income, as putting food on the table three times a day was difficult.

She asked her relatives for financial assistance to educate her children, all of whom are living on their own now.

"We also survived on cassava and lemon leaf tea most of the time and luckily like other miners' children, my children also understood the situation we were in."

Ms Lewabotiki said her children assisted her sometimes and visited her every month or so.

"I'm living alone and my neighbours and relatives help me by giving food as I don't have any source of income.

"I'm surviving on their assistance and I'm very grateful to them," she said with teary eyes.

NEXT WEEK: Stoned to death

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