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Vaitupu Memorial Fund

Guy and I would like to thank everyone who donated monies to The Vaitupu Memorial Fund.

The total amount that was raised by friends of Tuvalu in UK and Ireland was 3270.27

A personal Fafetai lasi from Tuvalu Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana “My sincere thank you to Kiribati and Tuvalu Association of UK and Ireland. Pacific Islands Society of UK and Ireland, Pacific Study Society, Pacific Stamps Collectors Society. I wish you all good luck with your association.”


From: Samoala Jackson Kofe.
(KTA Chairperson)

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                When Samoala and I opened the fund at the end of March we had no idea what sort of response we would have.  Letters were sent to all members of the Kiribati and Tuvalu Association living in the U.K. and, thanks to the good offices of the committee of the Pacific Islands Society, all Pisuki members were contacted as well.  In addition various people passed on the information to friends, who are not members of either society.  We were most heartened by the response.  We initially set a time limit for contributions, but for a variety of reasons we decided to leave the fund open until after the KTA’s AGM in July.  We did, however, arrange to transfer the sum of 3000 to the Motufoua Victims’ Memorial Fund at the beginning of June.

                Among the first to contribute was Great Dunmow Town council, where the AGM is being held – ‘We are concerned and feel more so directly involved with your mourning, because we are looking forward to the celebrations in July’.   Another contribution came from the London Branch of the Victoria League for Commonwealth Friendship – ‘For a number of years the Greater London Branch gave a special prize in the Commonwealth Essay Competition to Tuvalu and I know that pupils from Motufoua School were amongst the prize winners’.  

                Samoala and I feel, however, that, with one exception, it would be invidious to mention individual contributors by name even if we knew them all, which we don’t, as donations could be paid into any branch of the Nationwide Building Society.    The exception is 11-year-old William Iererua, who sent 25 after he finished cycling the length of Wales (248 miles from Chepstow to Holyhead) to help celebrate his uncle’s 50th birthday.   The other letters sent to us came from Tuvaluans and I-Kiribati living in the U.K., former members of the Colonial Service, MPs, contract officers, missionaries, doctors, teachers and those who have worked in the country as volunteers – people who have at least two things in common – affection for Tuvalu and a desire to make some gesture of sympathy with its people following the appalling tragedy. 

We thought you might be interested in some of the comments included in their letters: ‘Since leaving a condolence message on the Tuvalu web site I have received a couple of e-mails from Tuvalu folk and, while I have been delighted to renew these contacts, it is sad to think it should take such a terrible tragedy to make this happen’. ‘For the tragic loss of so many beautiful young lives..’.  ‘We are appalled by the thought of the peace and beauty of Vaitupu being assaulted by such an horrific event with its nationwide implications, which will leave its mark on the country for years to come’. ‘We were touring officers 1970-1972 and remember well the warm welcome we received on Vaitupu (as indeed on all the Ellice islands)’.   ‘I recruited many excellent young seamen from Motufoua back in the 1970s and look upon that island and its people with affection’.  ‘I was shattered to hear of the terrible tragedy…There are not very many of us in the Pacific Islands Society who have actually been to Tuvalu.  I went to Funafuti as a guest of the Tuvalu Church and celebrated a pre-Christmas Communion service in the then new main church in the capital’.  ‘Although I know the money is not important it might help those people on Vaitupu to know that their tragedy has affected all of us’.  ‘It was I who lowered the Union Jack for the last time in Tuvalu at the Independence Ceremony….We have tried to keep in touch with events in Tuvalu, though this is not easy as you seem to be almost totally ignored by the British media….Of course the girls who died were all too young for us to have known them, but quite possibly they are related to people who we knew and worked with …we felt terrible when we heard the news..’. ‘ I have a very happy memory of Vaitupu and the school, where I recorded a great deal of singing by the children of hymns, fatele, fakatapatapa as part of an attempt to build up a library of recorded material for the radio station that would evolve following separation from Kiribati… It was such a lovely island and then so well run, lively and happy’.  ‘When we were in Fiji in the 1960s I had a most happy visit to Funafuti, writing about it later in my “South Sea Spell” book.  I was horrified to read of this tragedy and only hope the fund gathered will alleviate some of the medical costs and help to set up a memorial’.  ‘I worked on Tarawa for two years only and never visited any of the islands of Tuvalu except for touching down at Funafuti coming and going – it was a long time ago..’.  ‘I was interested in the list of the names of the girls who died and recognised some of them - the girls must be granddaughters or even great granddaughters of Ellice islanders who I knew 50 years ago (what a long time ago - 1946-57 - when I was in the G. & E.I.C.)’.  ‘I was deeply shocked to hear that such an awful thing could ever happen in Tuvalu….I feel passionately about all of the former colony, although my own experience was as a VSO in Kiribati’.  ‘I was with ODA on Vaitupu from 93-95 and my wife taught at Motufoua during that period’.  ‘I visited Vaitupu three times whilst serving in the former GEIC, most notably as a gopher for Sir Leslie Monson during his visit in 1972, when we used the school as the venue for the Ellice Separation Conference.  I have warm memories of it’.  ‘Although I made but one visit to Tuvalu while working on Beru, I feel as if I knew it, partly from those Tuvaluans living in Kiribati’.  ‘Even after over 30 years absence we still have happy memories of our two-year stay and the friendliness of the Gilbert & Ellice islanders we met – a very happy time’.

The response from ordinary people in this country was heart-warming.  H.M. the Queen sent the following message via the Governor-General: “I was shocked to learn of the death today of eighteen female students and a staff member in the fire at Motufoua Secondary School in Vaitupu.  Please pass on my condolences to all their families and friends”.   And what response did the British Government make?  Nothing at all – not even a message of condolence!  - a fact which astounds me, saddens me and, for the first time in my life, has made me feel ashamed of being British.

The Government and people of the Republic of China immediately donated US$5000 to the Motufoua Victims’ Memorial Fund; BP South-West Pacific gave AU$10000.  Businesses and individuals throughout the region contributed generously.   Staff at the British High Commission raised F$561, but the British Government, which was officially associated with the islands for 86 years, did nothing!

On 26th March I wrote to the Prime Minister asking what had been done and suggesting it would be a good opportunity to counter reports in the national press on 24th February that Britain no longer cared about Tuvalu.  On 5th April I was sent a reply, which stated: Mr. Blair hopes you will understand that, as the matter you raise is the responsibility of the Department for International Development, he has asked that your letter be forwarded to that Department so that they may reply to you direct on his behalf.     On 24th May, as I had had no reply, I wrote to Clare Short at the DFID.   On 1st June I was sent a reply to my letter to Mr. Blair, totally missing the point, stating that ‘although it is unlikely that funds would be available for a memorial, it is possible that an approach to our office in Suva might be worth pursuing through the small grants scheme’ and sending me details of Britain’s general aid to the Pacific.  On 8th June I was sent a fax by the Head of DFID Pacific, who had been asked to reply to my letter to Clare Short.  For the first time this actually attempted an answer to what response the government had made.  ‘I was distressed to learn of the fire in Tuvalu and I can imagine the devastating impact that this has had on the country.  DFID Pacific did not provide any assistance following the fire, as DFID does not have a bilateral programme of assistance with Tuvalu’.

Finally, in order to be certain of my facts before making the sorry story public, on 26th June I phoned Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana, whom I have known since 1979.  He told me that he was not aware of any response by the British government to the tragedy.  He added that, although his government had been in office for over a year, the British High Commissioner in Suva had yet to find time to go and pay an official visit. 

To my mind that, very sadly, sums up our government’s attitude to Tuvalu and confirms former Prime Minister Kamuta Latasi’s quoted remark that ‘nobody cares about us’.  Fortunately the generous response we received to the Vaitupu Memorial Fund has shown that, although the British government could not even manage to send a message of condolence, ordinary people in Britain were deeply moved by the tragedy and, particularly if they had had any direct connection with Tuvalu, have not forgotten the many kindnesses they received while living there.

I asked Prime Minister Ionatana how the Memorial Fund was to be used.  He said that the first thing was to provide a headstone in the cemetery on Vaitupu for each of the victims.  A group of people had been appointed to advise him what payment the government should make from its own funds to the victims’ families and how the rest of the Memorial Fund should be used.  At the moment there was no date in mind for closing the fund.

In due course Samoala and I will let you know the total amount raised in this country and any news we have from Tuvalu.

                                                                                                                                Guy Slatter

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         Click here Tuvalu: Motufoua Memorial Service, 2001 (Photographs)      
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