The bitterest storm
COMPOSTELA VALLEY, Philippines - This is a story that begins with a storm. It was black, they say, and screamed as it spun in the night. Some say the wind tasted like salt, others say it was bitter, like rust on a broken nail.
Those who lived to tell the story talk about crouching down inside tiny bathrooms, the safest, they say, small enough that roofs rip away instead of falling in. There is a glassy-eyed look to most of them, especially the children, who sit quietly in evacuation centers or outside shattered houses.
I'll tell you how it was in the days after Pablo tore through Mindanao, in towns where yellow teddy bears and baby shoes hang from electric posts. The air is still, and smells of sweat and rotten flesh. The dead are part of the landscape here. Stalls in the town market share space with coffins. Dirt roads are lined with baking bodies, the occasional swollen hand stretching out of an unzipped body bag. Bodies lie in rows outside a gymnasium in New Bataan, bright blankets covering muddied grey feet, small towels over faces, right beside lines of families waiting for aid.
In the grandstand, the bleachers are crowded. Some hold chickens, others clutch at plastic sacks. A chopper flies in, carrying the president of the republic. A woman in a red vest takes the microphone. The President, she says, will now meet the survivors who will be awarded P10,000. She announces their names, and the moment becomes a morbid mix of a game show and the reaping scene from “The Hunger Games.”
Randy Sayson, injured, nephew dead, father, mother, 3 siblings missing. Randy Sayson is carried before Benigno Aquino III on the back of a neighbor. There is an envelope from the President, a handshake, then a plastic bag of aid. The list goes on. The crowds of waiting are silent. Ricardo Alcano, one dead, his child, two missing, his mother- and father-in-law. Marietta Alferez, husband Angelo dead. Justin Traya, brother Charlie dead. Jose de la Rosa, one dead, mother and father missing. Pedro Madronero, two dead, both his children.
The bags of relief goods are distributed the moment the presidential chopper lifts off New Bataan. There is rice and noodles and coffee, enough for a family of 8 for a day, maybe two. Women begin separating the food into meals. A pack of noodles today, two cups of rice. Sardines tomorrow, two cups of rice. Maybe it will last 4 days.
The numbers of dead are rising, by the 20s, by the hundreds. There is a man named Dante, a laborer from Andap – who was told all 18 of his family were lost in the floods – who now walks from corpse to corpse across the length of Compostela Valley hoping for a single body to bury.
End of the world
In Cateel, north of Tagum City, 7 hours through a road that passes through village after village of shattered homes. They are waiting for the end of the world to come, says a sign painted on the wall. A plaster Virgin Mary stands unbroken on a pedestal inside a yellow chapel – it is the only object left standing.
There is very little food and water, in the night, where there used to be videoke machines and the blare of television, there is silence, with the occasional barking dog and howling infant. In the forest, a body was burned after 5 days under the sun. His family had escaped, they did not know he had been found, and there is no way to send word.
Sometimes, once a day if we're lucky, we manage a signal to Manila. The Internet seems to know more than we do. We are told people are at fault, because they didn't evacuate. There are tweets and blogs and articles about government warnings and people who should have known better, about how sad it is that people have died but that maybe it serves as a lesson.
It is difficult to understand this standing across villages that seem eerily like the bombed-out landscapes from file photos of Vietnam. The farmers stand on the road, smoking the last of hoarded cigarettes, staring at flattened fields of banana and coconut. It is planting season, they say. They should be planting now. It is all they can say. They should be planting now.
Many of them admit they were warned. Those who listened marched to evacuation centers, some died inside the schools. A mother sent her daughter to the barangay hall to hunker down with the rest of the village, the little girl died too.
In Isla Kinablangan, what residents call Isla Poo, a red patterned couch sits where Meljohn Monteza’s home used to be. The matching armchairs are scattered across the island. Poo once had over 500 families, now there are little more than 10, the others are dead or lost or had run the morning after the storm.
They are at fault, says Meljohn, because they did not leave. They did not believe there would be a disaster, because the warning was the same as all the warnings before of disasters that never took place, because they had never seen a storm in the 21 years he was born and raised in Poo.
If they had understood, they would have moved, would have found somewhere to go, not the evacuation center provided by the government where most of the villagers ran, because that was shattered by the storm. Now he is afraid. Their boats are shattered. Their sack of rice is running out. There has been no aid for days. There is no contact with the mainland. They cannot leave, because they have no money to travel, and even if they do, all they know is how to fish.
‘They left me’
In New Bataan, there is a woman who searches for her daughter. Wife of a Surigao miner, mother of 8, she took her whole family to Compostela Valley when her son-in-law called to say that her daughter was lost. She arrived to find a grandson missing, another dead by the river, and two more traumatized by the floods.
For days they searched, the grandmother and her miner-husband and the sons who carried their small nephews while waiting to find their dead sister. On the 3rd day, the grandfather walked into the evacuation center, leading a small boy holding on to his arm. The boy is 10, was found in the storm, had watched his mother and father and brothers die in the floods.
“They left me,” he says. “They left me, because they are all dead.”
Today he goes home to Surigao, the new son of a miner and his wife and several large brothers. They are poor, say the miner and his wife, but not so poor they cannot find a corner for a small lost boy. He will go to school with the grandsons who survived, and they hope they can make him smile.
This is a story that begins with a storm. It was black, they say, and screamed as it spun in the night. Some say the wind tasted like salt, others say it was bitter, like rust on a broken nail.
This is written in the hope that there is another story, one that does not end with a spinning wind. – Rappler.com
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