A small smile from Tacloban's children
The day after I graduated from journalism school in December, I flew to Tacloban on my first big assignment, which eventually ended up in the New York Times. I knew going in the city that I’d be interviewing children and so I went from orphanage to orphanage, shelter to shelter, looking for orphans.
There were, thankfully, not as many of them as I thought. The children were taken from the city and put on planes, on boats, and brought to Manila, to Cebu, one to Bataan, to be reunited with far-flung relatives. Second cousins, sisters of distant aunts and uncles, all ready to absorb the orphan child of the storm into already-large families. The ties that bind Filipino families are interminable. We are born and we die bound in obligations of blood.
I did still find some children. In a Catholic women’s shelter, I found S, 15, wet hair tucked neatly into a head band, who survived the storm because she had already been in the safety of the shelter months before. Her neighbor, drunk one night, had attempted to rape her; fearing for her safety, she filed a case with child services and entered the women’s shelter in September. This is the world she lives in: the walls of her home are 10 by 4 sheets of wood bound together by rusted nails, her door a thin curtain hanging on a rod, her mother a maid in Cebu, her stepfather a drunk who’d once crept in her bed in the night.
There is nothing to protect her from a neighbor, not walls, not her parents, and so on a rainy September day she left her home and her siblings for the solid gates of the women’s shelter. Months later, her mother - home for a time from Cebu - and 3 of her siblings drowned in the storm, their bodies never recovered.
I pulled her in for a hug after the interview, feeling incredibly useless and cruel behind the camera. One of us clung to the other tightly. I remember it was her, but it might have been me, blinking away tears and wondering why it seemed she was comforting me and not the other way around, like I thought it was supposed to be.
On my 3rd day, I found Phirlene, 12, and Philip, 9, who sat obediently on the couch in front of my camera after being summoned by the social worker. She told me nothing about them, only that they were orphans who lost their parents in the storm, just as I asked, so I wasn’t prepared when they told me that they lost their mother because she abandoned them in the middle of the street days after the typhoon. I asked again.
Philip, with a shy smile, repeated himself. They had sought shelter in a church after their house was destroyed, Phirlene, Philip, their mother and 3 of their siblings, and after a few days the priest told them to leave. Once outside their mother told them she could no longer feed them, and went the opposite direction with their 3 younger siblings. Nine hours later, the police found them wandering around the city and took them to child services.
And of course, the hardest, most necessary question any journalist has to ask.
Paiyak-iyak, Philip told me, his shy smile holding for a second.
Sad, his sister replied, her voice soft and high, the word suspended between us.
The silence after that was too long and too heavy, and I stumbled on a clumsy question - something mundane about school, I think - to break it.
And then Jhoanna, the girl in the video, I found in a barangay right on the sea, living in the remains of a house on stilts. It was my last day reporting in the city. I was led to her by another girl who heard my request in the Astrodome shelter, and she took me to the neighborhood on stilts. There were a dozen other boys and girls there with Jhoanna who flocked to me, curious about the camera. Jhoanna wasn’t like the other children. She was quiet, almost cold in her shyness, and had that natural stoicism that came with being in charge. She’s the eldest in her family, after all. I always think she’s 14, my brother’s age, but she’s only 11. She’s taller than most other girls her age.
With the rest of her friends looking on behind me, snickering at her, she refused to answer my questions and ignored me and the camera.
There were no indoor places to hold the interview in - even if the storm hadn’t levelled the entire neighborhood, the shanties still would have been too dark and too small. I led her to the edge of the road, right by the water, and left the other children to play. They followed, of course, and, patience worn thin, I snapped at them to stay on their own damn side of nothingness and debris. When they left us alone, she told me her story, and you might know the rest.
I think journalists in the business of storytelling work with such fragile, volatile elements. We work with fragments of someone’s life, entrusted to us without realizing we have the ability to shape it however we want.
And the children, they're twice as innocent. Every time I turned the camera off, they always looked at me in surprise, as if I’d taken something of theirs in secret.
In journalism school, we're taught the art of the interview, how to draw someone's story out - gingerly, like peeling off eggshells, or forcefully, like pulling teeth. They never tell you about the moments after the interview, when you've taken the story and you unclip the mic from a child's dirty t-shirt, and they look at it, then you, finally understanding what it means that you've taken something important, something freely given, from which they will get nothing in return.
Jhoanna’s story, broadcast to the world, is mostly all there is of our interview. We didn’t have long, only 10 minutes before the boys caught up to her and started goofing off in front of the camera again. I cut off an important line, when she described how her father tried to reach for her mother before she fell, because a boy blew a raspberry right into her mic, and she glared at him then broke into a small smile. - Rappler.com
Anne Lagamayo (@annelagamayo) is a video journalist based in New York City. Her work has been published in the New York Times, AOL and the New York Daily News. In another life, she wrote fiction. An earlier version of this piece appears on Anne's blog.