The Returnees of Manam Island
While all of the former residents of Manam Island fled the powerful eruption of the island’s volcano in 2005 only a select few had dared to return to the island. Over the past decade, several communities had tried to adjust to the various living conditions at the Care Centers found in Madang. As most have managed to survive the various lifestyle changes they encountered at these sites, a select few have made the conscious decision to leave the sites and return to their active volcanic homeland.
“This place will always be our home.” says Michael, a resident from Baliau, one of two communities that have since returned to the active island.
Like the others, the community of Baliau had lived in one of the Care Centers for years trying to survive and encountered the similar hardships as those in Mangem and Potdsdam Care Centers. Those issues included rising tension with nearby host communities for essential resources. Six years after the eruption of the Manem Island Volcano, tensions between the people of Baliau and host communities reached a breaking point resulting in violence including the death of six people, of which four were from Baliau. The deaths proved to be the turning point for the community and what followed was the long transition returning to their home and rebuilding their lives in the ashes of their old ones.
Upon arrival their homeland bared little resemblance to what they left behind. “Everything was covered in ash, especially the gardens. You could grow nothing on it. It took us an entire year to clear up the land and remove the volcanic ash and rock before we can start growing foods again.”
In addition to their struggles in tilling the land, the community of Baliau arrived to the island also to find that public services including schools were completely abandoned.
“Even though we face even worse hardships here than before the eruption, we respect this land as well as the land of the other communities who have not returned back home.”
Despite being one of the few communities to have returned to Manam, the community has not actually expanded its territory to use land formerly used by neighbouring communities. “We were taught not to use what does not belong to us. This is one of the reasons why we had to leave the mainland.”
The community tries to regain a semblance of normality in the face of all such hardships; however, it is undeniable that the community continues to exist within dangerous proximity to an active volcano as it continues to spew out large plumes visible from the mainland, a haunting reminder of the threat they face.
“We often feel some small rumbling and see the large smoke coming from the top but we are no longer nervous. We have no other land; we have seen what happens trying to live on what does not belong to us. Knowing that we have no other option anymore, we will accept our fate if it erupts again.”