Weeks after Pablo, hundreds of bodies still unburied

Patricia Evangelista
More than a hundred unidentified bodies still wait for burial in New Bataan, Compostela Valley. 'The stench is terrible. You almost can't help vomiting.'

Hundreds of bodies remain unburied in New Bataan, Compostela Valley. Photo by John Javellana 25 Dec 2012.

COMPOSTELA VALLEY, Philippines – (UPDATED) On Christmas Day, more than 3 weeks after Typhoon Pablo ripped across Mindanao, more than a hundred unidentified bodies still wait for burial. 

Casualties after Pablo have been officially put at over a thousand, with majority from Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley. A total of 60 of the 423 of the bodies found in Compostela Valley have been claimed and buried by their families. At least 363 have yet to be processed by the NBI, while only 111 are in caskets.

Mass burials of unidentified bodies were postponed repeatedly in the days after Typhoon Pablo. A field in the New Bataan Public Cemetery is spread with the same orange and blue tarps issued to survivors to use as tents and temporary roofing. Bodies in dark bags are laid out in rows. Others are piled visibly inside concrete structures.

A total of 251 are in body bags. Another 111 are inside white caskets. Maggots have eaten into most faces. Photojournalist John Javellana said birds are “feasting” on some bodies.

Marlon Esperanza, information officer of the Pablo Incident Command Center in New Bataan, said there were difficulties finding an area for the bodies.

“It was an effort just to find a holding area,” he said in Filipino.

Esperanza is 40, a father of two, and counts himself lucky to have survived with his family when flashfloods smashed through most of his village in Barangay Cabinuanuangan. He lost his roof, but neighbors lost their lives, and some are missing. He has sent his two young daughters with their mother away to Davao. All of them are worried for his safety.

Most of New Bataan, a town of over 40,000 residents, now live in fear of another storm. Esperanza handles the grievance desk, and said a single text message of possible floods spread among survivors can spur sudden panic and evacuation. He said he and the other officers of the command center try to assuage fears, but to little result.

NBI pullout

In the week after the typoon, bodies were still lining New Bataan’s dirt roads or lay under rescue boats by rivers. Some of the bodies were stored in coffins inside the local—and still operating—public market.

Esperanza said the bodies now in the public cemetery were initially held at the Municipal Nursery of New Bataan but residents nearby were unable to endure the smell of week-old cadavers.

It is standard operating procedure to process bodies and extract DNA samples. Dr Rene Locsin, Municipal Health Officer, said only 55 of the 423 bodies have been processed; some were among the 60 already buried in a mass grave on December 21.

Processing has ceased in the meantime after the forensics team pulled out from New Bataan. Locsin said that the NBI committed to begin processing again on January and said there is “a sense of incompleteness” on their part with bodies still unburied weeks after Pablo.

Esperanza said they are not aware of reasons why the NBI stopped operations. He said no NBI team is currently operating among the cadavers of New Bataan. 

“We can’t do anything, they set the schedule,” he said in Filipino. “I wish they had kept on going, because there’s no break for the bodies. They’re in a state of decomposition. The stench is terrible.”

The NBI’s Tagum District office says the forensic medical team is based in Manila, and were still at work last week. The office of Assistant Chief Richard Consuelo says the team will return on January, but that orders to pull out “came from above,” referring to the office of NBI Chief Nonnatus Rojas.

Atty. Dante Guierran, Chief of Staff of Director Rojas, said that it is not so much pulling out staff as a relief system. A team of three will be dispatched to Compostela Valley on January. 

In the three weeks since Pablo, only 55 bodies have been processed. Guierran said this is because a number of personnel are required to process every body. A cadaver requires not only a forensic chemistry expert, it also demands at least a fingerprint analyst and a medico-legal.

“It’s a slow process, it’s really very slow,” said Guierran.

Waiting for burial

Instructions for the building of temporary collective burial sites came from the NBI. The concrete crypts are built to preserve the bodies in the best manner possible, according to Dr. Wilfredo Tierra, the medico-legal officer in charge of the NBI forensic team for Pablo. The construction of sites was the cause of delay, he said, as there was a need to adjust specifications.

His team left on December 18 because they were waiting for the temporary burial of the more than three hundred bodies.

“We were waiting for all the cadavers to be buried in the temporary sites,” Tiero said in Filipino. “Once they’re buried, we will establish our temporary mortuary site but I already instructed the mayor how to handle and bury the bodies.”

He said the choice to go had nothing to do with the holidays. They will be returning possibly on January 7, “although we’re not sure because there’s so much paperwork attached.”

Tierra’s forensic team is the only NBI team operating to identify Pablo’s victims. They concentrated on New Bataan, and chose to stay away from the equally hard-hit areas of Baganga and Cateel, both of whose dead soar to the hundreds as well. Tierra says that New Bataan became the focus because it was the most destroyed town in terms of human casualty in Compostela. 

“When I sent an assessment team to Matti, Banganaga, Cateel, Bostom, initally, these places were not accessible because all the roads and bridges were destroyed so my team was only able to reach Mati City [in Davao Oriental] and we were informed that only 5 unidentified cadavers were retrieved.”  

Roads to Davoo Oriental opened as early as December 7. Tierra said he sent word to local government units and departments on proper burial, but he said the handling of the dead is the primary responsibility of the Department of Health. He admits that they have limited resources. 

This comes a year after Typhoon Sendong ripped into Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in December 2011. Over a hundred bodies were piled over trash in the Cagayan de Oro landfill on orders from local officials, triggering outrage from human rights groups and families of victims. Reports said funeral parlors refused to hold the rotting bodies.

Bodies cannot wait

In the meantime, local government workers continue with the construction of small tombs to burry the bodies. Each of the cement structures are designed to house 3 cadavers, if body bags are used instead of coffins.

Bones stick out of a body bag in one of the newly-built crypts in New Bataan, Compostela Valley. Photo by John Javellana 25 Dec 2012.

Esperanza said they cannot afford to wait for the NBI to return for processing. The bodies cannot wait.

“We’ll start as soon as construction is done. The NBI can process by pulling out the bodies. The people who are building are complaining, and it’s a miserable job to work surrounded by bodies that have been rotting for more than 3 weeks.”

The workers broke off from construction on Monday, Christmas Day. They return on the 26th. Construction is difficult, with no electricity and sudden rains.

Esperanza himself was on the site Christmas day. “You almost can’t help vomiting. It gets in your system.”

Bodies lie at the New Bataan Public Cemetery on Christmas, 21 days after typhoon Pablo killed more than a thousand. Photos by Kiri Dalena 25 Dec 2012.

Christmas in the dark

New Bataan is still without power. The midnight mass on Christmas Eve was cancelled, and was held instead at 4 in the afternoon. People still left midway through the service because of the darkening sky.

Retrieval operations did not stop on Christmas Day. Two bodies were found, the first by the victim’s family.

Heidi Lisa Bisocatan, an elderly woman in her 60s from New Bataan’s Barangay Andap, Purok 8, was found by the river, her body buried under slabs of wood. Bisocatan had been reported missing.

“Families voluntarily look for bodies,” says Esperanza, “but finding the bodies is mostly chance.”

The second body, found pinned under a coconut tree, is yet to be retrieved. Part of the victim’s leg is already visible, but a backhoe is needed to recover what may be the body of a young girl. All 3 of the backhoes in use in New Bataan have already been deployed across the river from the body was found. Esperanza hopes to find a fourth backhoe.

Just survival

There is no lack of aid in New Bataan.

Donations have flooded in from both the national government and NGOs, unlike barangays situated farther in Cateel and Baganga in Davao Oriental. The Command Center in New Bataan has developed a system of distribution to replace the chaos of the first week. Relief goods are distributed to purok chairmen, who then distribute packages to residents on a master list.

The system works, according to Esperanza, but there have been the inevitable complaints from those who are not official residents, including indigenous peoples, informal settlers and evacuees. They are asked to go directly to the command center, where officers personally distribute aid.

“The problem is that there are those who go from relief center to relief center trying to get as much aid as possible.” It can’t be helped, said Esperanza. “This is about survival.”

According to information from the New Bataan Command Center, as of 10:50 am Tuesday, December 25, a total of 418 individuals are still missing. Retrieval operations continue. At least 16 barangays and over 10,562 families were affected by Pablo. Many of them remain in local schools and gymnasiums, as well as in the Hall of Justice.

Esperanza, like many other survivors, is afraid of the sustainability of relief efforts.

They are not hungry now, but they will soon be if residents, most of them workers in the flattened banana and coconut plantations, are left with no means to earn a living.

Asked why he continues with the relief and retrieval efforts, Esperanza said he speaks for many of the survivors now fulfilling their jobs in public service.

“We lost friends and neighbors, and some of them are dead. We’re alive. Maybe this is what we’re supposed to do, maybe it’s why we were left alive.” –  With reports from Kiri Dalena and John Javellana/Rappler.com

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