Taiwan aborigines move from land of ancestors

Taiwan has started the resettlement of thousands of indigenous villagers who were left homeless when Typhoon Morakot ravaged the south of the island last month, officials said over the weekend.

For many of the affected communities, moving away is a momentous decision, as it means leaving areas where their ancestors have lived for centuries, but given the devastation inflicted on their homes, they have no choice.

"We have accepted the deal as the location is still close to our original land. We need to move to a safe place," Aliao, chief of Mintzu village, told AFP by telephone. As is the habit among some aborigines, he uses only one name.

Mintzu village is located in Namasia township in Kaohsiung county, where the government has made land available for typhoon victims.

Currently 660 households from Namasia and nearby Taoyuan township have agreed to move to 58 hectares 143 acres of state-owned land, said an official at the cabinet's Typhoon Morakot reconstruction council.

Morakot struck Taiwan in early August, bringing a record three metres 118 inches of rain, submerging houses and streets and destroying dozens of bridges and hundreds of roads.

Nearly 25,000 people fled their homes during the typhoon, which claimed at least 614 lives and left 75 missing, according to the National Fire Agency.

Various homes are utterly destroyed, but concerns have emerged among some typhoon victims, mostly members of the island's indigenous tribes, that they might be forced to leave the land of their ancestors.

"Aboriginal people are very attached to their land, and it will not be easy for them to move," aborigine lawmaker Kung Wen-chi said, adding resettlement will only work if it is near their original mountain villages.

In an apparent response to these concerns, Vice Interior Minister Lin Join-sane was quoted by the United Daily News as saying the resettlement was completely voluntary and that construction was expected to start in two weeks.

Taiwan's aborigines are Austronesian people and are linguistically related to people settled as far away as Easter Island.

Archaeological evidence suggests they have lived in Taiwan for millennia, long before Han Chinese immigration began on a significant scale in the 17th century.

Taiwan will need at least three years to rebuild destroyed villages and wrecked infrastructure after Morakot, Vice President Vincent Siew estimated last week.

Sunday marked the official start of the post-typhoon reconstruction phase, with the resettlement of villagers in the worst-hit community in Hsiaolin seen as the priority, Taiwan's cabinet said in a statement.

The island's Red Cross Society is responsible for the rebuilding of Hsiaolin village, which was flattened by landslides that left nearly 400 dead, at Wulipu, a location on higher ground nearby.

"We are planning to build around 200 permanent homes. We consider it a priority task and we hope to finish it as soon as possible," said Red Cross spokeswoman Rebecca Lin.

The public was reminded again of the utter destruction at Hsiaolin, when the Dalai Lama visited last week, offering prayers for the dead, while comforting the living.

So far, the government has picked 13 sites totalling 261 hectares for around 3,645 households in typhoon affected areas, according to the state Central News Agency.

Jonathan M. Romano Skate Park as the sun sets. AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Nick de la Torre