The scene was chaotic as thousands of people flocked to the EFKS Youth Hall at Mulinuu in the hope to process last-minute voter registrations before the official closure of electoral rolls, six months out from next year’s April 2021 general elections.
The Samoa Police, Fire and Emergency Services and Red Cross Society all responded in efforts to control the crowds and treat people injured from broken glass doors, and others unconscious from being squashed up against each other as they desperately tried to enter the building.
Inside the hall at about 12pm in the afternoon, Samoa Global News spoke with a man, seen holding his 2-week old baby boy.
Junior Lavatai from Vaigaga said his wife had not yet registered, and was standing in the crowd while he looked after their baby. He said she was hoping to register because they would not afford the $2,000 tala being announced as the fine for anybody who fails to register for the elections.
Junior says they had arrived at Mulinuu in the early hours of the morning, and had to bring baby along because there’s noone at home to look after him.
“I know it’s not healthy to bring baby here, but we have to because there’s noone to look after him at home, and his Mom may have to spend the whole day here waiting to be registered”, Mr Lavatai said.
Junior Lavatai had managed to be let inside because they were lined up outside the hall before daybreak and he told Samoa Global News that what he had witnessed outside was like a scene from a movie.
“Pei a o se aka kifaga… lucky a o leoleo ma le FESA la e iai fafo i o..”
“It was like a scene from a movie; women unconscious, injured people bleeding, people in the crowds panicking from not being able to breath..lucky the Police and FESA are there..cos there were so many injured and many that just collapsed,” he said.
Mr Lavatai says he had witnessed a woman with blood gushing from her forehead, caused by a cut when the glass door of the building had shattered. He said he had also seen a man with a big cut on his hand, also caused by broken glass.
Another woman, Evelina Pereira from Vaiusu told Samoa Global News that she and her aunty had been queuing outside the EFKS Youth Hall since 3am in the morning.
She said they were amongst more than a hundred people who arrived at Mulinu’u at 3am this morning, many had been there when they arrived.
“My aunty and I got here at around 3am this morning, and when we got here there were like 60 to 70 people already here – some got here way before us,” Ms Pereira said.
“We just got in here (inside the hall) at around 9am, and then waited another three hours to get to where the registration booths are,” she said.
Ms Pereira says she does not ever want to remember what they had gone through and seen that morning, squashed up against thousands of people, unable to breath and feeling helpless deep inside the crowd.
“This is the first time I’ve seen something like this, it’s just unbelievable,” she said.
Ms Pereira added that they made the effort fearing the $2,000 tala fine imposed in the Electoral Act for failing to register.
“O lea ua faatulafonoina le lua afe tala, ia e leai seisi e iai se tupe faapena ma o le maimau foi ia o lena tupe tele pe afai e oo le faasalaga”.
Asked why they did not register earlier, when the team at the Electoral Commissioner’s Office had gone out to the community, Evelina claimed that they did put out white ribbons as requested, but did not get a visit from the Office.
As the registration continued, three toddlers who looked to have been between 1-3 years od age became separated from their mothers as children were seen being carried over the crowds to be taken to safety inside the hall.
Unable to speak or tell authorities who their parents names, the distraught babies were taken up to the stage of the EFKS hall for people to see, however, it was feared their mothers may have been amongst women who had been taken away unconscious, or in the crowds outside the hall unable to see the stage, nor hear the announcements.
Authorities took two of the three babies to Police Headquarters in Apia.
The three main entrance doors in the front of the EFKS Hall were damaged by some men who threw rocks, screaming and swearing wanting police and security guards to let them out from the crowd.
Inside the hall, it was all-hands-on-deck for the Office of the Electoral Commissioner (OEC) team, to register the crowds of people who had literally left it to the last minute. It had been a hectic week for the OEC and the day before at the SNPF Plazza Office, people were still lined up after 2am. In response to the last minute registrations, the OEC team have literally worked throughout the night, for three consecutive days this week.
Speaking to Samoa Global News Assistant Electoral Commissioner, Lefau Francis Ainu’u said the approximate number of people registered at the SNPF Plaza the day before had been around 1,300.
“Our original target for the group between 21 to 30 years old who were yet to be registered was approximately 18,000 and from our door-to-door registrations, we were able to cover 14,000 people,” Lefau said.
“So we did reach the majority of that target group,” he said.
Lefau says he estimated that 80 percent of the people packed into Mulinuu are those who need to register for the first time, while 20 percent are those wanting to transfer.
Lefau said altough many were there to register for the first time having turned 21 since 2016, a great number of first registrations were actually older people who had never bothered to register, with some having missed the last two or even three elections.
At 4pm, the call came from the Electoral Commissioner that they would process everyone inside the gates, and ordered Police to lock the two gates accessing the Youth Hall compound.
Another crowd quickly formed outside the gates, with Police and Security Guards sympathising with the desperate requests of people, who remained standing even as the rain poured down at around 5.20pm.
A senior police officer tried to console the crowd, explaining that the call had come from the OEC, and that the cut-off time was announced as 4pm.
Standing outside the gate was Mareta Atonio of Moamoa Fou who had arrived at Mulinuu at 7am with her eldest son Dominic. She says they endured the crowds throughout the day, and finally reached the registration booths at 3pm, only to be told by a “teine lapoa la e toalua ma le tama” – that they needed to go and get the Pulenuu of their village to verify Dominic’s registration.
Mareta said they went all the way back to Moamoa, but were told that the Pulenuu, Taaleo Vaifale, had come to Mulinuu and was believed to be inside the hall somewhere.
Mareta and her son arrived back after 4pm, and could not enter through the gate. The mother of five said they did not have a candidate to back, but just wanted to have 22 year old Dominic register for the elections.
Pulenuu were asked to verify identities of those who did not come prepared with proper identification such as passports or birth certificates.