May 21, 2021
Resettlement is a two-way exercise

Six weeks after many areas in the north of St Vincent had to be evacuated owing to the volcanic eruption, persons evacuated from “Orange Zone” areas are being encouraged to return home.

The call was made by Prime Minister Gonsalves after he was advised that, except for the still ash-covered communities of Fitzhughes and Chateaubelair on the Leeward coast, the other Orange Zone areas have been deemed fit for cleanup and reoccupation. Of course, there are persons whose homes have been destroyed and they will have to be relocated, temporarily at least.

The conversation must now shift to a focus on the most challenging aspect of the entire exercise, that of resettlement and reconstruction. Side by side with this however, it must not be forgotten that there are still many persons from the “Red Zone” who are still out of their homes, either in evacuation centres or private homes, who will continue to need relief support, and those returning will need to be supported as they try to rearrange their lives.

Indeed these are critical areas for, although permission has been granted, there is still uncertainty on the part of those evacuated and being encouraged to return, because what if, defying predictions, La Soufriere should suddenly erupt again? Then there is the formidable challenge of starting over life again, in a worse position that you were on April 8.

In any case the success of the voluntary repatriation exercise depends on the willingness of those evacuated to return home and engage in reshaping their lives. While those who have completely lost their homes may have their houses rebuilt, one must always remember that “a house is not a home”, much more is involved. We must also try to avoid a repetition of what happened in a few evacuation centres in 1971, when police were called in to remove some persons fearful or unwilling to leave. Conditions must be made to make it conducive for persons to return.

Resettlement is not an easy exercise. Those affected and having to be resettled in an area, different from their original community, would be wondering about the choice of area, how to make a livelihood in new circumstances.  We must however draw on our own experiences as a people. Generations of Vincentians have migrated over the last six decades, to London, New York , Trinidad, Barbados, BVI, Toronto etc., virtually to the unknown. They had to readjust and rearrange their lives and by and large have been successful. If we can do it abroad, we must be able to succeed with the will and faith in the Almighty.

This phase will severely test the patience of all involved. Evacuees facing uncertainty can sometimes be testy, while those involved in the administration of centres and the whole relief effort are becoming worn down and tired. Volunteers in particular must not only be complimented for their sacrifice, but we must understand that they are human too with families and lives as well.

All told, it all depends on us. On the part of the government and its agencies, it is important not to give the impression that we want “these people” to go back home for these people could one day be you and your families. We must be in this together, understanding the needs and psychological pressures on those disrupted from home. Only so will we make a success out of this massive undertaking.