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Devastated Pacific island (Rabi) facing starvation after Cyclone Tomas

By MICHAEL FIELD - Stuff.co.nz WORLD NEWS Last updated 09:04 22/03/2010
A small island in Fiji, home to a forgotten band of exiles, is facing starvation and disease in the wake of last week's Cyclone Tomas.

First news of the fate of Rabi Island came out over the weekend with the head of the Rabi Council of Leaders Bauro Vanualailai getting a message out that the island "is devastated".

Rabi is the home to 5000 people.

Their original land, Banaba, was destroyed when the topsoil was striped off to make super phosphate, mainly for New Zealand farms.

Banaba, which is now part of Kiribati, has around 500 people living amongst its ruins.

Many of the people on Rabi dream of returning to the home they exiled from in World War Two.

Dr Vanualailai's message said one person died on Rabi and many houses have been destroyed.

"Yes, Rabi is devastated: 100 percent agriculture, all the food crops and fruit trees have gone," he said.

"It will take just another day or two; people will starve if no food arrives on the island."

The islanders have urgently met to try and get help.

"Communication is all damaged, it will take more than five to seven days for this, but by that time, food will be scarce...

"I am afraid of outbreak in epidemic since the hospital has exhausted most of its medicinal stock.

"I appeal to all our Banaban people and to all of our friends around the Pacific and the globe, please come to our aid, we desperately need your help," Dr Vanualailai said.

Mining rights to Banaba, the original homeland, were effectively stolen from the people in 1900 by New Zealander Albert Ellis. He got mining rights for 50 pounds a year for 999 years – a contract written into New Zealand law.

After World War One Banaba and neighbouring Nauru were placed under the British Phosphate Commission and mined into exhaustion. Banaba was part of the British colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now Kiribati and Tuvalu).

When the Japanese invaded in World War Two, they took most of the Banabans into slavery on Chuuk (then Truk) in Micronesia. Around 160 islanders left on Banaba was massacred by the Japanese who pushed them off a cliff - days after the war had ended.

The British refused to return the survivors to Banaba at the end of the war, instead placing them on a coconut plantation on Rabi.

The Banabans eventually sued Britain and the case in 1976 was at the time the longest running High Court case, lasting 221 days. The court found Britain had no legal obligation but did have a moral debt.

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