All Dante prays for is a body to bury


NEW BATAAN, Compostela Valley - It is high noon, and Dante Balura has walked many hours. He has done this for 5 days, plodding down dirt roads like this one, left hand wrapped in a red plastic bag, a pink hand towel clutched in the other. He is looking for his family, and he hopes they are here.

The 25-year-old laborer was working in Davao when he saw on television how tropical storm Pablo ripped through Compostela Valley. He arrived in Barangay Andap, Purok 1 to find his house shattered, and his family gone. His few surviving neighbors said they had been swept away. He went straight to the town hall, where he found 4 relatives among the survivors. A total of 18 more were missing: his wife Josephine, his 3 children—5-year-old Dan Jimmy, three-year-old Dan Joshua and 10-month-old Daphne Joy—his parents-in-law, siblings, along with his wife’s siblings, uncle, nieces and nephews.

“I went to look at all the dead they brought, but I couldn’t recognize anyone because of what they  went through.”

Andap is one of New Bataan’s hardest-hit villages, where bodies are still being retrieved from under piles of logs. Mass graves are being dug by local authorities for the unidentified bodies.

One day after President Benigno Aquino III shook hands with constituents and announced his intent to normalize the situation, corpses lie scattered on Compostela roads covered with flies. Dante is one of many who hunt for bodies days after the typhoon. Some ride motorcycles from town to town, others wait in evacuation centers and outside mortuaries for word of new recoveries. 

It is Dante’s brother in Davao who lent him the money to pay for food and water, enough to sustain Dante during the trek from funeral home to the town. He has checked records of survivors and included all 18 of his family members in the list of the missing. He has gone from New Bataan to Tagum City in Northern Davao to New Bataan again, visiting morgues and wakes, opening every coffin, following army trucks hauling back recovered bodies.

Only wish left

At first he had hope some of his family would be found alive, now all he prays for is a body to bury.

“I will accept whatever happened to them, all I ask from God is that I see them again, even if they’re dead, so that I can bury them, so that I can be the one to have them buried.”

It is the only way, he says, for his family to rest in peace.

Today he stands over body bags lining the side of a dirt road near a river that was once a road. Most of the bags are already open. A greasy arm stretches out of one bag, a knee out of another. There are bodies frozen in rigor mortis, stuffed into the bags, arms and legs akimbo, fingers fat and swollen and crusted with mold. 

Dante bends over each of the 18 corpses, looking into faces, turning bodies, searching for this brother’s tattoo, that son’s birthmark. The pink towel is pressed against his nose and mouth. The stench is overpowering. It does not matter, because the body wrapped in a tablecloth under the body bag could be his wife, his mother-in-law, his sister.

He will keep on searching until the recovery teams pull back. He will wait and walk until he has seen every body. Then he will go back to Davao, away from Compostela Valley, and begin again, whatever beginning means for a man who has lost it all. -

Subtitled video:

(Video by Patricia Evangelista, John Javellana & Adrian Portugal)