Corpses still scattered across parts of Tacloban
TACLOBAN CITY, Philippines – Nearly 3 weeks after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) ripped into Leyte province, bodies still lie uncollected along the inner villages of this city.
In Paradise, Village 83, a short walk from the Tacloban Leyte Ice Plant, a man’s body bobs in the water, everything but his clothes bleached a powdery white. Feather strings of skin trail in his wake, small clumps of fish gnaw away at the stumps of his arms. On the coast another corpse lies sprawled on debris among pink bottles of baby powder, his swollen body bursting the seams of his blue baseball jersey.
The children of Village 83 point to the center of the bay, right where the steel edges of half sunken container trucks are visible. There are men out there, say the children, drivers sitting inside the cabs of their own trucks. Fishermen repairing their boats along the port say more bodies are caught in the grass along the edge of the coast.
Just by the trucks, in clumps in the water, more bodies float in piles, caught on wooden markers.
Waiting for burial
In Village 88, a hamlet named Timex remains among the worst hit after the storm. As of publication, a number of bodies are scattered along the coastline. Some lie face down in shallow water, others are caught under fishing nets.
In the mangroves, near where children are playing, the corpse of a woman hangs impaled in a tangle of branches, her legs spread, her arms akimbo, thigh and ankle pierced by twigs. Her naked torso is a yellow bag of little more than bones. What is left has turned the color of wood.
Village 88 chief Emelita Montalban says she encouraged residents to help clear the bodies. She does not yet have a final count of the dead, but says that out of a constituency of 11,000, at least 1,000 were killed in the storm. She says most of those who died are residents living along the coast, most of them fathers and young men who sent their families to evacuation centers and stayed to protect their homes.
Montalban and the village council spent the 3 days before the storm ferrying residents to the Astrodome.
“We couldn’t have done it in a day,” she says. “We didn’t have enough vehicles, and there were so many.”
Many dead here
A number of families still refused to leave their omes, including two village councilors who died after insisting their houses could survive the typhoon. Several families chose to evacuate to the elementary school in a hamlet called Fisherman’s Village.
“They didn’t want to go to the Astrodome,” Montalban says. “They said there were too many people there, and that the Astrodome might collapse and kill them.”
On the morning after the storm, Montalban saw the bodies of at least 20 children sprawled inside the Fisherman's Village classrooms.
“I couldn’t look,” she says. “I saw them and turned around.”
Josephine Lapid, whose 4 children evacuated with her to the elementary school, says they broke the jalousies of the first floor classroom windows to escape the rising water.
“I thought I would die,” she says. Her husband had brought her to the school, had even visited to bring her and the children rice to eat. He returned to their Timex home befor the storm. He remains missing.
Montalban says the village had hoped a clearing team would come to recover the bodies. When none came, she asked for body bags instead. It took 5 days for the first batch to arrive, the next came two days later, and more in the days after.
Today, there is a painted sign over the roof of the elementary school, visible from the sky.
Help, it reads. There are many dead bodies here.
Toding Apan leads the team of Montalban’s volunteers who are retrieving bodies from the debris of Village 88. They collect the bodies from where they lie, pack them into body bags, then place whatever identification they can find on the victim's chest before zipping the bag and carrying them out to the highway.
Apan says he is worried about the children and the elderly who are forced to live with the stench of rotting corpses. Many believe the stench is poison.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says otherwise.
"The belief that dead bodies can cause epidemics," says the ICRC manual, "is wrongly promoted by the media, as well as some health and medical professionals." The point of rapid retrieval is to "aid identification and reduce the psychological burden on survivors."
Community members argue they will not wait to become ill, they will do what they can instead.
None of the men who volunteered to pack the bodies are elected officials. They ask for body bags from scene of the crime (SOCO) operatives who pass by to pick up bagged corpses from the side of the road. Yesterday they asked for more.
“They gave us 18." says Apan. "We think there are more bodies, but we couldn't ask for more because they said we might use the body bags to sleep in.”
Fisherman Jose Olesko estimates there are between 30 to 40 bodies still scattered across Village 88. Some are caught among the branches of mangroves, others under fishing cages.
“There was some United Nations team who was here yesterday,” he says. “We don’t know from what country. They told us we had to pick up the bodies. How could we? We don’t have boats to go into the water, or even saws to cut them out of the roots.”
Apan points to a tree fronting the highway.
“There’s a body under that,” he says. “The head is sticking out. We can’t get the rest out.”
Waiting for Cecilia
In Village 88, along Timex St. in Calubian, there is a square hectare where residents say over 50 bodies were recovered.
William Cabuquin says he lived beside the corpses of his friends for 14 days before body bags came in.
“We bagged 6 of them,” he says. One of them was the young daughter of his best friend.
William is one of several men who continue to live in Timex. Most of his neighbors have left for the Astrodome, or have chosen to build shanties along the San Jose Highway.
He does not want to live with the noise of evactuation centers, he says. It is quiet where he is.
William sent all 4 children of his children away before the storm. He tried to send away his wife Cecilia away as well, but she insisted on staying with him to watch their house.
The couple tried to outrun the storm when Yolanda hit, but they were caught in the surge of water with 20 other people, all of them clutching a bundle of bamboo. When the bundle reached the other side of the bay, only 6 people were left, including William.
William wishes he had forced his wife to leave with his children. He looked for her body among the corpses, but he couldn't find her in the hundreds he saw.
He does not know if she is still alive. He admits the doubt is the reason he chooses to live in Timex, in spite of the stench and the dead.
He hopes Cecilia will return safe. If she does, he will be waiting at home. – Rappler