After Yolanda: The week before Christmas

Stories from a city where the living hunt for their own dead – some defiant, some resigned, some refusing to accept their lost will never come home

IN MEMORY. Tacloban City residents light candles in memory of their dead 40 days after Typhoon Haiyan. Photo by Geric Cruz

TACLOBAN CITY, Philippines – A week before Christmas, more than 40 days after Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) killed thousands and left hundreds more missing, families of survivors face the reality of empty tables.

In this city where the living hunt for their own dead, some are defiant, others resigned, and still others refuse to accept their lost will never come home. These are their stories. 

Dustin’s mother

What Rhodelyn regrets is how she held him.

Hands can slip, she says, but had she mounted him on her back and wrapped his arms around her neck and gripped his wrists as the waves came, Dustin would be alive today, instead of dead at 5 years old. 

It is what she thinks about now, more than 40 days after Yolanda, a little more than a week before Christmas.

The water sucked her deep when the waves came, pushed her under tumbling debris. She was holding Dustin by the hand, and then she wasn’t.

She fought her way up, saw her husband pushing their two other children up a coconut tree, heard him shout over the airplane-like howl of the wind. Up, he said, up, up the tree.

She swam to him. When he asked where his other child was, she had nothing to say. There was nothing she could say.

He was frantic, whipped his head around to scan the waters, but there was nothing to see. It was like being marooned in the middle of the ocean, she says. There was no one, no roofs, no people – no one but herself and her children and her weeping husband. The raindrops slashed like needles, cold and sharp.

They found Dustin’s body four days later, one village away, his body sprawled on a pile of roofing. They waited to have his body collected, to be buried in a mass grave.

Rhodelyn will not visit her son’s grave. She refuses to believe he is dead. She works, every day, as hard as she can. The distraction is important. She pretends Dustin is in Manila visiting her mother, or with her own cousins playing with other children. He is alive in her mind, even when her other children tell her to smile, tell her that Dustin is gone, that God took him, or that he is up there, in heaven, playing with his grandpa.

She would like to say sorry to Dustin, that she couldn’t save him, that she couldn’t do anything. She would like him to know she loves him, and that she wishes, every day, that she carried him on her shoulders instead of holding him by the hand.

The lost boys

The boys who are alive talk about that morning. How there was screaming, and then there was none. How it was impossible to see beyond your own arm. How they prayed, how they told God to send them to heaven if they died, how they clung to plastic tubs and swinging branches. How they found the bodies of their friends crushed under concrete.

The boys of Village 89 are sons of fishermen, in their teens and twenties, brothers and cousins and friends. Every night they would sit at a storefront in their village, drinking cheap rum, watching girls. Some of them were in school, some were already working, out in the bay with their fathers. They grew up together and had their first hangovers together and fell in love together and got their hearts broken together. On the day the storm came, they were together still, trapped inside a single-storey concrete house with dozens of others.

That day, three of them died, and their bodies were found together. Benjie is dead at 23, Benjie who cut all their hair and colored their mohawks red and yellow and green. Jimboy is dead, Jimboy the joker who had a slew of girlfriends and laughed at the world. And Onyok, Onyok is dead too, Onyok who dressed in stylish black and was serious when they talked about life and love and the future, whose laughter made them laugh even when his jokes did not. 

The gang buried them, out on the coast, all of them digging in the wet sand. Their fathers helped, and the fathers of the dead.

Today those who are left stand on the side of the road, standing guard over a single lit candle. Their mohawks have grown, their hair is black, because Benjie is gone and there is no dye to be had.  

At night they gather in a tent to sleep, all the boys who are left of the gang of Village 89, to talk about the girls they still like and the rum they don’t have and all who lost mother or father or second-cousin-twice removed. In the morning they go home to families living inside classrooms and shanties, then leave to ferret out relief operations and cash-for-work programs. They hand money to their mothers, squirreling the rest to buy imitation Vans sweatshirts.

Christmas is coming, they say, and they have collected enough metal to sell at P6 a kilo, more than enough to buy a few bottles of alcohol to share after eating with their families.

They intend to be happy, or as happy as they can get.

On the night before Christmas there will be a tent on the sand along the sea, where the boys of Village 89 will raise a toast to old friends. If Benjie can hear them, if Onyok or Jimboy can, they would like to extend an invitation. 

Come, they say. It won’t be the same without you. 

The eve of lost children

Irene will be alone for Christmas.

She is 37, a medical representative from the Happy Homes Subdivision in Village 99. She had separated from her soldier husband years before, and had taken over the raising and caring of her 3 small children.

When the waves came, she swam out a window, plucking her children out one at a time, pushing them up to grip what remained of her roof gutter. The water was 15 feet, and they fought to stay afloat.

Everything was the color of smoke, she says, like fog. They hung on to the metal bar, Irene and her children, until another wave came, black and tall, slamming against the house and everyone who clung to it. It is the last sight she remembers of the storm.

When Irene woke up, she was alone, 15 feet from the ground, hanging from a light post. She made her slow way down, her arms red with gashes. There was a commotion, and she saw her second child, lungs being pumped by neighbors. The boy was dead. The other two were found a kilometer away.

Irene stood on the sidewalk for days, watching over the bodies of her children, afraid of the trucks that picked up cadavers. She wanted to be at their burial, she did not want them rolled down a dark hole without their names or their mother.

On the third day, she and her neighbors carried their dead to an open space in a nearby cemetery. Irene dug, her arms swollen, and watched as kindly hands wrapped her babies in plastic and tied them with rope and slipped them under the earth.

She did not eat, she did not sleep, she drank coffee, boiled in cups of salt water, when she remembered. There was no food in Village 99 for 5 days, she will testify to it, no matter what the government says.

On Christmas Eve, she will sit and watch all the other children who lived. She will not attempt to be happy, she only hopes she will not be as sad.

She has a message to all parents, everyone who ever held a child: Hold your baby on Christmas. Tell them you love them. Kiss them, and let them know mama is here.

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