Philippine economy

The orphans of Guinsaugon

David Lozada
The orphans of Guinsaugon
9 years after the tragic landslide, the orphans of Guinsaugon already lead different lives. Some have success stories but there are also those who never got to move on from the tragedy.

SAINT BERNARD, Southern Leyte – When the Guinsaugon landslide happened in 2006, 24-year-old Perla Bautista thought it was the end of the world.

At the age of 15, Bautista lost her parents and 4 siblings in the rubble that crushed a thriving community after a portion of Mt Can-abag collapsed due to continuous rains and a seemingly insignificant 2.6-magnitude earthquake. 

“I immediately went home but I found none of my family members. I only saw mud. My siblings and I didn’t know where to go and our grief was beyond words,” Bautista recalled.

The landslide killed at least 1,500 people. While many parents lost their children because Guinsaugon National High School was completely buried in the mud, many children studying in the nearby Tambis Elementary School like Bautista were also orphaned when their parents farming their lands died. (READ: Geohazard mapping in the Philippines and the Guinsaugon landslide)

Bautista and her siblings were just some of the orphans that the Guinsaugon tragedy left behind. 

‘Lone survivor’

Natividad Pia was the only teacher from Guinsaugon Elementary School who survived the landslide. Three days before the tragedy, she took a leave from work to accompany her sick son for a medical check-up in Cebu.

IN SERVICE. Former teacher Natividad Pia now serves Guinsaugon as a kagawad after the landslide. Photo by David Lozada/ Rappler

Her husband was not so lucky. He went home to Guinsaugon dawn of February 17. The landslide happened around 11 am that day, according to survivors.

“Some people were calling and asking me if it was true that Guinsaugon had been wiped out from the map. That really shocked me,” Pia recalled.

She added: “It’s really painful when we look back at the incident. It still hurts and it is a scar that will remain forever in the hearts of the Guinsaugon survivors.” 

But the tragedy didn’t stop Pia from helping other people. After the landslide, she coordinated with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to make sure the 56 Guinsaugon orphans get scholarships for their secondary and tertiary education.

Orphans turned scholars

With the help of international and local NGOs, the orphans of Guinsaugon were given the education they needed to secure their future. 

Joanne Koquilla lost her parents and two siblings in the landslide. She was only 20 years old, working as a helper in Manila, when she lost all her loved ones.

“I immediately went home but I found nothing but mud. It’s as if my heart exploded when I saw what happened to our community,” she said. 

FAMILY LIFE. After working for 2 years in Manila, Guinsaugon orphan Joanne Koquilla now lives a quiet life in New Guinsaugon, raising her first daughter. Photo by David Lozada/ Rappler

Koquilla studied for free in St Joseph College in Maasin City and finished a 4-year office administration course in 2011 with the help of donor organizations.

Her studies gave her the opportunity to work in Manila for a couple of years before returning home to a quiet life in Saint Bernard. Now, she is happily married with one daughter.

“All of us orphans have our own families now. We’ve moved on. But it’s still painful when we remember our loved ones,” she said.

Koquilla added: “When my daughter grows up, I will tell her what happened to her grandparents. I will show her our former town. I’ll tell her to pray for her relatives there.” 

Giving back

Many orphans have been successful because of the education they received. Some of them even secured jobs abroad after graduation.

While Pia is happy for her orphans, she always reminds them to never forget about the people of Guinsaugon.

“What I proposed to the scholars is that they should donate money to help other children from Guinsaugon. I told them to organize an organization – Guinsaugon Orphan Scholars – to give back a little of their salary to the poor children here,” she said.

Pia added: “In that way, it will become a cycle of support. Those might be small steps, one by one, but I’m hoping it will grow.”

Not all happy endings

The former teacher admitted, however, that not all former orphan-scholars can provide support. While there are success stories like Koquilla, there are those who didn’t take the opportunity to finish their studies.

STAYING. Guinsaugon orphan Joanne Koquilla says she did not take the many opportunities presented to her because she did not want to leave Saint Bernard. Photo by David Lozada/ Rappler

Bautista only finished until high school despite the outpour of support to orphans like her. 

“I wanted to start a family of my own. Some of our relatives wanted me to leave Saint Bernard and work somewhere far. I didn’t want to go. I couldn’t leave my family who died in old Guinsaugon,” Bautista, holding her two children, added.

Survivors of the landslide have been relocated to New Guinsaugon, located a few kilometers away from the old landslide site. Though they are no longer permitted to live in the landslide site, survivors are allowed to farm in the old town.

“My husband, also an orphan, works in old Guinsaugon. If it were up to me, I’d want to live there. I somehow feel that my family is still there,” she said.

Nine years after the tragic landslide, the orphans of Guinsaugon already lead different lives. Some have success stories but there are also those who never got to move on from the tragedy. 

“We have all the infrastructures we need – houses, schools, churches. But how do you truly heal a people whose gone through so much loss? Maybe, all they need is time,” Pia concluded. –

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.