LALOMANU, Samoa (Reuters) - Grieving Samoans buried their dead in unmarked beachside graves on Thursday as the gruesome task of recovering bodies from villages destroyed by four tsunamis continued and an aftershock shook the region.
Some Samoans started rebuilding their South Pacific paradise, clearing debris from shattered homes, but others remained in nearby mountains, afraid to return to the coast for fear the ocean will again turn deadly.
Leausa Letoa, his wife and four daughters refused to return home, preferring to camp under a blue tarpaulin in a hilltop banana plantation and cook what little food they have on an open fire.
A fresh, smaller quake at magnitude 6.3 rattled the region south of Tonga on Friday, said the U.S. Geological Service. Tonga is west of the international dateline and a day ahead of Samoa.
The death toll from Tuesday’s tsunamis, caused by an 8 magnitude undersea quake, is near 150 in Samoa, 31 in American Samoa and nine in neighboring Tonga.
Officials feared whole towns have been destroyed on outlying islands and hundreds of people remained missing.
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi was near tears on Wednesday night when he called on this tiny South Pacific island nation to rebuild.
“The winds have uttered their strength, earth has spoken its grief and the wave has scattered its strength,” Tuilaepa said in the chiefly Samoan language.
Samoans are a deeply Christian people, but also an ancient Polynesian race with strong myths and legends about ancient gods linked to the ocean that surrounds them.
Thousands of Samoans are homeless and hundreds injured. Many in the main hospital in the capital Apia have bruised faces and cuts on their arms and legs.
Australian orthopedic surgeon Dr Rob Atkinson said wounds were similar to those seen in Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which killed 230,000 people in 11 countries.
“We’re seeing a lot of lacerations, tiny cuts everywhere going in all directions thanks to the sharp rocks and coral,” Atkinson said in Apia. “They look as though they have been churned up in a massive, really dirty, washing machine,” he told reporters.
Samoa’s main morgue was full and two refrigerated shipping containers were quickly filling up with bodies, with local media reports the government was considering a mass burial.
Some Samoans sat silently on the rubble on Thursday, looking out to sea, still shocked at the loss of life.
“People are staying away from devastated villages today. They’re still in shock and a lot are not ready to start again,” said Oxfam Australia aid worker Janna Hamilton.
In the devastated village of Lalomanu, which bore the brunt of the waves that hit the south coast of Samoa’s Upolu island, Biento Fua surveyed the wreckage of his family-run resort.
Fua’s 98-year-old father and 11 other family members died in minutes when the waves hit his five-bedroom home and he’s not sure whether he can rebuild.
“Right now, not really fancying the idea of building again when it reminds us of a place that lost our dad, and so, perhaps not,” Fua told Australian radio. “Nature’s taking its course and we may need to learn something from it.”
But others, like Faaolaina Kalolo, were unfazed by the scale of the task facing the Samoan people.
“We are so thankful to be alive. So many others in other villages have been lost,” said Kalolo, who escaped the tsunamis by fleeing to a taro plantation in the hills when he heard his dogs barking and running away from the sea.
“If the dogs run to safety, you follow. You run,” he said.
Prime Minister Malielegaoi called on church leaders to pray as Samoans grieved. One mother of two, Koke, simply wept as her daughters, Rachel, 7, and Emma, 3, were buried in an unmarked beachside grave at Lalomanu.
Along the shore, rescuers worked frantically to recover bodies decomposing in the South Pacific heat.
“Most of the bodies we’ve come across are young kids and babies, who were already in a bad state of decomposition. It just makes you want to cry,” said Samoa’s fire chief Seve Tony Hill.
Aid officials have warned of disease outbreaks with more than 1,000 people crowded into makeshift camps around Apia and a lack of fresh water.
(Additional reporting by Baris Atayman in Samoa, Adrian Bathgate and Mantik Kusjanto in Wellington, Rob Taylor and James Grubel in Canberra and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles)
Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Nick Macfie