Yolanda and the comfortable among us
She was hesitant to talk at first, but when I asked about what she experienced during the onslaught of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), she swallowed a lump in her throat.
I met Adelfa Liusendo standing beside a roofless classroom on top of a hill that overlooks azure waters surrounding Las Islas de Gigantes in Carles, northern Iloilo. She was garbed in a flowery orange top and pants, a bit colorful for her age. She is 72.
Adelfa is just one of the many survivors that I had talked to when a non-governmental organization invited me to document their work in the islands ravaged by Yolanda.
On November 8, 2013, she saw the waters rise from the ocean, accompanied by a forceful wind. She huddled with her grandchildren inside her house made of bamboo and galvanized iron sheets. In Lantangan, a barangay in the island, Adelfa witnessed the roof of her house get blown away by the strong wind. She made sure her grandchildren, 3 grade school students, were safe.
She did not want her grandchildren to lose another loved one. Her son Henry Liusendo Sr, the children's father, was one of those reported as missing when Ondoy lashed through Manila in September 2009. She still doesn't know if her son is dead or alive or simply missing.
She just tells her grandchildren that their father went to Manila to look for work. She doesn’t have the heart to reveal the truth to her grandchildren: that their father could be one of those whose lives were snuffed out when Ondoy rampaged through the country.
Adelfa did not say this with a sense of finality. She still hopes.
Or maybe the people in Las Islas de Gigantes are people who cannot afford to lose hope. In spite of the circumstances that they have to live with every day after Yolanda shattered their lives, they carry on.
Take Elvira Iyawan for example. Having been warned of the impending dangers of the super typhoon, she brought her family with her inside a cave on the eve of the day when Yolanda struck northern Iloilo.
Although she felt that the cave would not be flooded, what worried her was that if there should be an earthquake, it would be the last of her and her family.
When Yolanda left the island and Elvira returned to her house, she found the roof of her nipa house gone. Still, she was thankful because her family was safe and that her house was not totally destroyed.
Hearing these stories, I, too, felt helpless like the families who stared death in the face when it came knocking on their doors during the onslaught of Yolanda. As a person who only witnessed the horrors of Yolanda on television and on the Internet, I could not completely imagine the damage it had inflicted. Not until I hopped onto a motor boat and went with community workers from an international non-governmental organization did I witness the extent of the damage.
With limited signal, no Internet connection, and only stories of hope and survival to reflect on, I felt that the lives of the people on Las Islas de Gigantes are so much precious than the one I was trying to live before I came to the island.
During the visit in schools, it broke my heart to see students say, “Good morning, visitor,” as they smiled at me while their foreheads dripped with sweat because of the heat in a makeshift tent that served as their classroom.
On the island, while community workers from Save the Children distributed starter kits or bags filled with school supplies, raincoat, slippers, and boots, I would take pictures of kids happily receiving their gifts. But there was a moment when I turned my back to wipe a tear from my eye.
That time, I felt that I was among the millions of Filipinos in the country who are helpless while elected government officials plunder the people’s money. I was angry at the circumstances these children had to grow up in and yet they needed to adapt just because human beings need it to survive. I was mad that these children lack better chances because the people in power are too busy talking to the press about the need for a reform in the educational system, not realizing that school children on this island will shake in the cold as torrents of rain drench their makeshift tents.
But like Adelfa, I also hope.
Amid the destruction, I witnessed how parents on Las Islas de Gigantes motivated their children to stay in school. Others walked for more than an hour just to bring their children to kindergarten so these kids could learn how to read and write.
The teachers braved the heat of the sun to teach inside a makeshift classroom, a stage, or a tent. I can only imagine what happens when the rain pours and they have no walls to keep the teachers and the children safe and dry.
The children smiled when their photos were taken. They listened to their teachers even if they had neither chairs nor desks. They laughed, as if life is simple. Their smiles bespeak of hope and promise.
I may not be privy to the innermost dreams of a child who survived Typhoon Yolanda, but all kids dream of something that they want to be when they grow up.
A wise teacher once told me: “I hope that when you all grow up, you will not become sheltered, myopic, and apathetic. Kids, do not lose your sense of idealism.” I wonder if these kids who braved the horrors of Yolanda will become apathetic someday. Judging from their enthusiasm in going to school, I doubt it.
Hearing the stories of Adelfa and Elvira and of the people on Las Islas de Gigantes, I say to my wise teacher who encouraged me not to lose my idealism: Never. – Rappler.com
Alfred John Tayona is a volunteer writer and social media team member of Typhoon Yolanda Story Hub Visayas, a network of veteran journalists, student writers, mobile journalists, and photographers based in Iloilo City, Panay Island, central Philippines formed in November 2013 in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). He is also a student of the University of the Philippines Open University.