Catfight over who gets to help Yolanda evacuees?

Carmela Fonbuena
With thousands of victims to attend to, Oplan Salubong was hastily moved to Camp Aguinaldo because of a turf war with Air Force officers' wives in Villamor

PACK YOUR BAGS: DSWD moves Oplan Salubong from the Villamor Airbase in Pasay City to Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City. Photo by Carmela Fonbuena

MANILA, Philippines – Buses carrying about 2,000 Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) survivors arrived in Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City Thursday afternoon, November 21. The operations of the well-celebrated Oplan Salubong, which attended to evacuees flown in from the Visayas, was hastily moved from the Villamor Airbase in Pasay City.

Volunteers at the airbase were surprised and discouraged.

The story behind it is ugly. It got some officials scratching their heads. Government social workers “packed their bags” because of a turf war with the Philippine Air Force Officers’ Ladies Club – wives of PAF officials referred to as the “ladies,” according to a volunteer. 

Oplan Salubong was set up at the airbase in Pasay to help the typhoon survivors who fled to Manila – they were fed, sheltered, offered free calls, among others. The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the ladies, and hundreds of other volunteers joined the efforts. 

“The DSWD is technically the one [that] should be in charge, but since Villamor is the home of the Air Force, the ladies simply would not want to be overshadowed,” volunteer Junep Ocampo told the Philippine Star

Ocampo is an organizer of Oplan Hatid, whose 500 volunteers have been transporting for free survivors who land on Villamor Airbase to relatives as far away as Baguio City. They worked with DSWD and the ladies. A general’s wife, Imee Ona, is the known leader of the Ladies Club. Director Alicia Bonoan heads DSWD-NCR.

At least 2,576 families or 10,088 individuals have arrived in Manila via the Air Force’s C130s and rented commercial buses.

In Camp Aguinaldo, the typhoon evacuees were oblivious to the turf war. Travelling to the military headquarters meant experiencing Manila’s heavy traffic from Pasay City to Quezon City, but they were offered the same assistance: hot meals, free calls, and a play station for the babies, among others.

As of Thursday afternoon, however, other evacuees the DSWD expected to be moved to Camp Aguinaldo were still being held at the airbase, allegedly at the behest of the ladies who want to keep the operations there. 

PAF spokesperson Colonel Miguel Okol belied the turf war. He said they decided to move the “processing” of typhoon evacuees to Camp Aguinaldo because they’re expecting an influx of evacuees and the space at the airbase is too small. The instructions came from Malacanang’s Assistant Secretary Ronaldo Geron, he added.

Okol said the decision did not sit well with Ocampo and Oplan Hatid, which wanted to continue its operations at the airbase.

EVACUEES: Typhoon survivors arrive at the Villamor airbase. Photo by Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler

The move to Camp Aguinaldo caught even Armed Forces chief General Emmanuel Bautista by surprise. “I don’t know about that. That is not under military people,” Bautista told reporters Thursday morning.

He later explained that the Armed Forces got a memo from the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) to accommodate the evacuees.

Asked about the turf war, Bautista said: “That operation is not within our purview. We do not know the details. We just provided the venue.”

The move to Camp Aguinaldo from the Villamor airbase was announced Wednesday night, November 20. Camp Aguinaldo worked double time to prepare a venue for the evacuees.

“We are being kicked out of Villamor. Yes, all of us. We’re being shut down,” Oplan Hatid wrote in a statement posted on Facebook Wednesday night.

New volunteers were called to help operations in Camp Aguinaldo. Ocampo said they decided to stop their operations “after the DSWD and the Villamor Air Base decided to part ways – with DSWD packing its bags at 12 noon tomorrow (Friday) to go to Camp Aguinaldo.”

An angry Ocampo wrote his frustrations on his own Facebook page. “Puro sarili lang nila ang iniisip nila. Wala silang pakialam sa paghihirap na dinaranas ng mga kababayan natin na nasalanta ni Yolanda (They are only thinking of themselves. They do not care about the sufferings of Yolanda’s victims),” he wrote.

The turf war has affected operations since Day 1, he said. “The turf war has led to confusing and arbitrary changes in rules and policies, making it difficult for volunteers and those who want to volunteer to help the survivors of typhoon Yolanda,” Ocampo said. He did not elaborate. 

Here’s the twist: Hours later, the DSWD realized that Villamor airbase is “the more suitable facility.” Oplan Salubong was returned to Villamor airbase by night time Thursday. A DSWD statement said Bonoan will be heading the operations at the airbase.

Oplan Hatid immediately called on its volunteers to help the evacuees arriving Thursday night. “Let’s save our commentary for another time. Right now, there are more important things to focus on,” reads the Facebook appeal of James Deankin, also an organizer of Oplan Hatid.

And that was another episode in the growing list of side stories on the government’s response in the aftermath of a monster typhoon. –

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