‘Not knowing is heartbreaking’: sleepless nights among Tongan diaspora after contact with country cut off

·5 min read

Communications blackout from undersea cable’s apparent damage prompts some to turn to Facebook livestreams from outside Tonga for updates

Since the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai volcano erupted on Saturday, Seini Taumoepeau has barely slept.

“I would say I’ve had four hours [of sleep each night] at the most,” says Taumoepeau, a Tongan-Australian artist and activist based in Sydney.

Many in the Tongan diaspora community feel the same. Some, like Taumoepeau, have been tuning in to Facebook livestreams from Tongan churches, media outlets and community groups based in Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Related: Tonga volcano eruption: Pacific tsunami damage unclear as ash blankets island nation

“The first night I tried to force myself to sleep, and I couldn’t, so I tuned in to an online broadcast … Basically it was just a vigil [from New Zealand]. They said: ‘We’re going to pray and play music and wait,’ so everyone was waiting online together through the night.”

On Saturday, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai undersea volcano, 65km north of Tonga’s capital of Nuku’alofa, erupted in what is thought to be the largest volcanic event in 30 years.

Satellite photographs showed a huge grey mushroom cloud billowing over the Pacific Ocean and the reverberations of the eruption could be heard in Vanuatu and Fiji. Some people reported mistaking the noise for thunder, or an eruption of their own – much nearer – volcano, and of feeling buildings shake for hours. The blast could be felt as far away as New Zealand, more than 2,000km away.

Then came the tsunami. Waves of up to 1.2m washed ashore in Tonga, with videos showing water swirling around buildings, through city streets, crashing into a church full of worshippers.

Pictures emerged of the sky turned black in the middle of the day; ash and pebbles rained down on cars while long lines of traffic snaked through Nuku’alofa as people fled the city for higher ground.

And then there was silence. The all-important subsea communications cable, which is key to Tonga’s communications network, was apparently damaged and almost all contact cut off.

For Australia’s 15,000-strong Tongan-Australian community and the more than 80,000 people who identify as Tongan in New Zealand, the wait for news has been heartbreaking.

“We’ve heard nothing at all,” Taumoepeau says in Sydney. Her main concern is her uncle, who is paralysed and in a wheelchair and lives in Nukunuku village on the main island of Tongatapu.

“He’s an important person, so we’re lucky in that regard,” she says, referring to Tonga’s strongly hierarchical social system. “He’s chiefly, so there are people strongly obliged to help him, even in a tsunami. So that’s very lucky – that’s a cultural obligation.”

Even so, people are worried.

“We weren’t able to contact him.” Normally, she hears from him daily. “I’m in contact with him every day via Messenger, not only because he’s a disabled person but also because my parents have already passed, so he’s my parent.”

Initial reports coming out of Tonga are hopeful. On Sunday Jacinda Ardern said no reports of casualties had been communicated to her as New Zealand stood by ready to assist its Pacific neighbour.

Jenny Salesa, the Labour party MP for Panmure-Ōtāhuhu, in Auckland, said she had been able to speak to a Methodist minister on the Tongan island grouping of Ha’apai on Sunday who reported there had been no casualties on Ha’apai’s main island.

When she shared that news on Twitter, it was greeted with emotional replies from people with family in Ha’apai, who have been waiting, desperate for news.

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Salesa told the Guardian communication and internet lines were still down with the other islands.

“Just not knowing is actually really heartbreaking for a lot of our families. It’s good news from Ha’apai that at least the main island has no casualties,” she said. “But we’re still waiting to see the effect of the tsunami on those coastal areas and the main island.

“There are thousands of people … that live here and they are still waiting to hear whether their own family members are all right. We’re waiting very patiently and hoping – everything crossed – that not too many lives have been lost or washed out to sea.”

Salesa said that from Ha’apai, there were reports of thick ash covering the ground, and concerns that drinking water would be contaminated.

Taumoepeau said that without news from people on the ground in Tonga, diasporic Tongans have become the mouthpiece of the crisis, and have had the responsibility of keeping the disaster front of mind for international media, and keeping people anxious for news informed.

“I found out and got to work and basically I haven’t stopped since then,” she said. “Given that there’s no communication from the country, the onus is on Tongans in countries where we have access to communication … Some individuals in communities have become news outlets. My Facebook page became the news outlet.”

But Taumoepeau knows that the real work – of rebuilding, recovery and supporting family members – is still to come.

“I say that I’ve been working non-stop, but really I’m spinning my wheels in my house in Sydney, on my social media feed. None of my plans with any of the Tongans I’m talking to has any effect on anything on the ground. That’s where the frustration is: the futile nature of all this energy being expended.”