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By Michael Field

TARAWA, Kiribati (June 13, 1999 - Agence France-Presse)---Where U.S. and Japanese Marines once bled to death in their thousands children play amidst mounds of garbage, and in this central Pacific micro-state of bizarre proportions, that is progress.

"Red Beach" is an official dump unlike nearby "Green Beach" which plumbs depths of sheer filth. It is a public toilet for the 28,000 people who live on the 114-hectare island without running water, sanitation or decent housing.

Kiribati, a Micronesian republic straddling the Equator and until recently divided by the International Dateline, is facing a population and health crisis centered on its capital atoll of Tarawa.

The atoll's seven southern islets, including Betio, are linked by a causeway, but instead of making life easier on the narrow, flat islets people are packed in; just over 1,600 people per square kilometer. It is one of the most crowded places in the Pacific.

Betio evokes many ghosts for it was there on November 20, 1943, the U.S. Marines landed. They got caught by the strange tides and had to walk across the lagoon to Red Beach. After three days, 1,027 Americans were dead while around 4,800 Japanese, the entire garrison, were killed.

The big artillery pieces are still there, houses are built on concrete bunkers and bodies keep coming up. The Catholic Church recently built a new meeting house and found bodies of beheaded New Zealand soldiers there. When authorities showed little interest they were reburied, a little deeper.

In Kiribati -- formally the Gilbert Islands -- the war is a little known event of 18 months that occurred 60 years ago.

The overwhelming bulk of its 80,000 people are under 16. They live on 33 islands with a total land area of just 810 square kilometers (405 square miles) spread over three million square kilometers (1.2 million square miles) of ocean.

For a long time Kiribati lived the dream of moving its surplus population east to Kiritimati Island, formerly Christmas Island, and the scene of British nuclear tests in the 1950s. But with around 4,000 people on the atoll authorities are finding its delicate ecological system cannot cope with more people.

Until a month ago, a severe drought was afflicting South Tarawa and as a consequence a virus swept through the population, killing four. The country has previously had cholera. The new menace is Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, bought here by the hundreds of i-Kiribati men who are hired to work on mainly German owned merchant vessels.

Ieremia Tabai, the founding president of the country and now in opposition, fears worse is to come.

"I'm pleased you use the word filthy," he said. "People here do not realize just how dirty this place is and they need the i-matang (whites) to remind them."

Red Beach is the first formal attempt to clean the place up.

To complete the battleground irony the biggest foreign presence again on Betio is Japanese -- Dai Nippon Construction is building a new wharf across the lagoon the American marines walked in waist high water through.

The drought was recently broken, sending fuel oil through Betio from the disastrous leaking power station on Betio.

Although verging on catastrophe, Kiribati has won praise from the Asian Development Bank, which noted that last year it grew 1.5 percent and possessed foreign exchange reserves equivalent to around nine years of imports.

When Kiribati became independent in 1978, the British Government set up a trust fund, which has been added to by major donor nations. It now has around 145 million pounds sterling sitting in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. The interest pays for the running of its government.

Kiribati has limited exports, copra, which is used heavily by the European Union, and a growing business in seaweed. It makes money on fisheries licenses but is bullied by Asian nations. This was illustrated early this year when they seized a South Korean fishing boat -- only to see it stolen from them, along with a kidnapped policeman.

Michael Field Agence France-Presse New Zealand/South Pacific Tel: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 E-Mail:

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