Deprived of a state-funeral after his death on 21 April, supporters of Fiji's ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase helped his family to give the 79-year old leader a send-off befitting the national and populist leader that he was.
Tonnes of traditional artifacts including whales teeth, tapa and intricately woven pandanus mats were presented and ancient rituals revived for Qarase's burial on Thursday April 30 in a newly-constructed concrete tomb, built atop a small rise in his sea-side village of Mavana, on Fiji's eastern Lau province.
Early that day, mourners – in their hundreds - had lined the streets of the capital Suva in pouring rain to pay their final respects as the hearse carrying his body travelled from the morgue of a private hospital to a chartered plane at Nausori Airport. Many stood with umbrellas, others had their uncovered heads bowed, while others waved Fiji's flag or banners of condolences.
Images of this spontaneous outpouring of grief mixed with messages of respect on social media showed Fiji's opposition party leader (and former Prime Minister) Sitiveni Rabuka and his wife, as well as National Federation Party president and MP (and former Fiji First cabinet minister) Pio Tikoduadua as among those who braved the early morning rainstorm to line the main road to the airport.
The Government did lift a ban on inter-island travel and offered to meet the cost of the plane to carry the late Qarase and the ship to take the family members to Lau.
However there were no sightings of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, nor any members of his cabinet, or the top brass of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (RFMF), which 14 years ago ousted Qarase from office. Bainimarama was then RFMF Commander.
The most senior government official at Qarase's tomb was a police sergeant based on Vanuabalavu.
The senior officials' absence, nor their refusal to afford state funeral to the semi-retired banker who was thrust into national leadership by Bainimarama himself following the civilian-led coup of 2000, which later saw Qarase contesting and winning the two general elections that followed in 2001 then again in 2006, did not dampen the spirits of Qarase supporters and his mourners.
Hundreds more filled the tarmac at the airport, singing hymns and waving Fiji flags as a Fiji Link 18-seat Twin Otter plane waited to take Qarase for the final time on a journey he had taken so many times in the past.
His widow Leba and four close family members accompanied the body of the late Prime Minister for the 50-minute flight to his final resting place at his home island of Vanuabalavu.
Such outpouring of grief and respect are rarely seen in Fiji, as it only occurs when a paramount chief or a national leader dies while in office. Such a scenes were evident in April 2004 when the country's first founding Prime Minister who later became President of Fiji, the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara passed away.
But as Prime Minister at that time, it was Qarase's government that accorded Ratu Mara a full state funeral, where flags were flown at half-mast, and the body of the high chief was laid in state at Government House, the official residence of Fiji's president. The funeral mass was celebrated before a large crowd including overseas government representatives at Suva's Albert Park before a flotilla of ships accompanied his body for burial at his home island of Lakeba.
And although such an honour from the state was denied for the Lau economist, his supporters were unfazed and in what looks like an act of civil defiance that was assisted by social media, organised themselves into what they later termed as the 'peoples' state funeral. A Facebook page created to allow supporters of Qarase to pay tribute and record their message of condolences reached nearly 20,000 members in just a fortnight.
On arrival in Vanuabalavu, rituals reserved only during the funeral of a high chief were performed, as more whales’ teeth, highly prized in Fijian tradition, and heaps of fine masi (tapa) and ibe (mats) were displayed and exchanged among mourners.
Shirt-less men blew conch shells, as women in mourning black dress sat in silence, lining both sides of the road that the pallbearers took, carpeted with more fine tapa and mats.
For one day, Vanuabalavu was united in its grief for a favourite son, who despite the trauma of being ousted from office by armed soldiers, dedicated the rest of his public life to the uplifting of the life of his people on Vanuabalavu, and to Fiji's largest Christian denomination of which he was a staunch member, the Methodist Church of Fiji and Rotuma.
Fiji's sixth Prime Minister, the late Laisenia Qarase will be buried next to his mother, opting not to be entombed in the sautabu, the sacred burial ground reserved for chiefs in his sea-side village in Lau.
Qarase's private wish had made known before his passing at a private hospital in the capital, Suva on Tuesday last week.
In opting to be buried in the village cemetery with his common subjects, Qarase continued – it appears – his humble and unassuming demeanor right down to his final resting place. As chief of the village of Mavana, Qarase held the traditional title of Tui Kobuca.
Overnight, a charter roll-on roll ferry from the capital Suva arrived on the island of Vanuabalavu, in preparation for Qarase's burial later today (Wed) in his village, Mavana, one of 17 that dot this remote island in Fiji's eastern sea borders.
Most of the passengers seemed unperturbed by the decision of the Fijian Government to deny their chief a state funeral. Perhaps they were just content to be back home, coming out after weeks of a strict lockdown including nightly curfews imposed nationwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Inter-island travel both by sea and air was lifted last weekend as Fiji's numbers of new COVID-19 cases halted, and the recovery of 12 out of the 18 that tested positive of the virus.
Even the long wait during boarding in Suva's Narain Wharf on Monday evening as health officials implemented body temperature screening of passengers was accepted, albeit grudgingly.
For most of the people on Vanuabalavu, all they want is to give the 79-year old former banker a send off fitting for a leader who had worked tirelessly to unite what used to be a acrimonious island community, carved up by the colonial administrators into one island but with two separate administrative districts.
His legacy is an island investment company now operating with F$3.5 million paid up capital, and a total asset portfolio of $10 million.
Called Vanuabalavu Vision Limited, Qarase spearheaded fundraising drives over a period of nearly ten years that saw him rallying his people of Vanuabalavu who are in Fiji and the diaspora living in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, to unite behind the investment company.
After being ousted in a military coup by Bainimarama in December 2006, and later jailed – unfairly many felt - for nine months for a crime allegedly committed before he entered politics, Qarase's mantra to his people was to be self-reliant, to be the master of their own fate, and not dependent on government handout.
With his passing on Tuesday last week after suffering a mild stroke, the challenge is now on the directors of the island company to grow the work Qarase had started.
Although the government of Bainimarama has refused him a state funeral, it is footing the cost of the plane – and a ship - that will fly Qarase's body for burial in Mavana.
Leba Qarase together with five close family members will accompany the casket.
Air travel usually on an 18-seater Twin Otter plane of domestic carrier, Fiji Link, has been the popular mode of transport for the former Prime Minister to his home island, departing Nausori airport on the outskirts of Suva to the island's grassy airstrip.
It will be his final plane ride, where a delegation from Mavana will meet the plane, before they take his body for the 20 minute drive by road to Mavana for a memorial service at the village's big concrete Methodist Church.
A choir from the Centenary Church, in Suva had also travelled to Mavana to attend the funeral, as Qarase was a staunch member of the congregation. He also was chair of the church's business think tank, the Lako Yani Trust, recognised for turning the fortune of the church around to make it debt free.
From the village church, it will be a short walk pass his private seaside residence of Naivaka to the village's common cemetery, shaded by an orchard of huge mango trees, a stone's throw away from Mavana's sea front.
Some 400 people have arrived on Vanuabalavu – a remote island on Fiji’s eastern sea borders – as they prepare to bury one of their favourite sons who became the country’s sixth prime minister.
They are the first of many people that Mavana village expects to host for Laisenia Qarase’s funeral, planned for tomorrow (Wed).
A delegation from the Fiji Government is expected to arrive later today aboard the government boat, the Veivueti.
Mourners underwent body temperature screening when they boarded last night, as Fiji’s medical officials continued their efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The body of Qarase will be flown in by chartered plane tomorrow, and driven to Mavana by road for a church service before burial. He will be accompanied by his widow, Leba Qarase and close family members.
Qarase was chief of Mavana, bestowed with the traditional Tui Kobuca title.
He rose to national prominence in 2000, when he was handpicked by then-military Commander Frank Bainimarama to head an interim government after the elected government of Mahendra Chaudhry was ousted in a coup in May of that year.
Qarase went on to contest and win the general elections of 2001 and 2006, before he was ousted by Bainimarama in a coup on 5 December, 2006. Prosecuted for a corruption- related offence when he was on the board of Fijian Holdings 16 years earlier, Qarase was jailed for a year in 2012.
Ironically, Qarase was instrumental in the creation of Fijian Holdings as the main investment vehicle for Fiji’s indigenous community.
Following his release, and barred from contesting the 2014 elections, the 79-year old banker plunged himself into the affairs of his home island, successfully uniting what used to be two divisive districts into forming one united investment company.
Vanuabalavu Vision Limited was registered in 2018, and now has a paid up capital of $3.5 million and an asset portfolio valued at $10m.
Qarase died Tuesday last at a private hospital in Suva after suffering from a mild stroke.