Yolanda survivors pray before nameless graves

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Yolanda survivors pray before nameless graves
'I don't even know where to light a candle,' a man says on the eve of All Saints' Day, as he visits a mass grave for 2,200 Yolanda victims in Tacloban City

TACLOBAN CITY, Philippines – Gil Alarcon, 44, looked dazed when we met him at the mass grave for victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) on the eve of All Saints’ Day, when Filipinos pray for their dead in cemeteries.

A maintenance worker in a hotel, Alarcon lost his 37-year-old wife Belen and 3 of his children – Jennylyn, 4; Helen, 2; and Johel, 2 months – after Yolanda ravaged eastern Visayas nearly a year ago. He was left with his eldest son, 13-year-old Vincent.

To make things worse, he has no idea where exactly his family is buried. All he knows is that they’re likely in the Tacloban City mass grave, a one-hectare lot that the local government bought from the privately-owned Holy Cross cemetery for P7 million ($156,006)*.

His eyes fixed on the mass grave, Alarcon told Rappler, “Hindi ko nga alam kung saan ako magtitirik ng kandila eh.” (I don’t even know where to light a candle.)

Thousands of Yolanda survivors share Alarcon’s plight on Saturday, November 1, when Filipinos flock to cemeteries to light candles and offer flowers before their loved ones’ graves.

Tacloban’s assistant city administrator, Brando Bernadas, said 2,273 bodies lie in the mass grave – more than a third of the 6,300 people across the Philippines who died because of Yolanda**. (WATCH: Yolanda memorial wall to help bring ‘closure’)

In an interview with Rappler, Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez said the government has plotted the mass grave in a way that allows them to pinpoint the location of identified bodies.

(Watch more in the video below.)


Dead relative in a dream

People like Alarcon, however, couldn’t find their relatives’ spots in the mass grave for various reasons: They haven’t coordinated with the government, the government hasn’t helped them, or the bodies of their loved ones remain unidentified.

Jun Cormero, 40, also couldn’t find where exactly his relatives’ bodies lie.

Cormero visited the mass grave on Friday, October 31, along with 11 of his relatives from the nearby town of Palo.

His sister, 48-year-old Maribeth Cormero Piñeda, and his niece, 25-year-old Rochelle Piñeda Verdejo, died because of Yolanda.

Dreaming about Rochelle, his sister’s daughter, prompted Cormero to visit the mass grave.

Kaya nga ako pumunta rito kasi… napanag-inipan ko na parang sa isip ko, buhay siya. Tinanong ko nga siya sa panag-inip ko. Sinabi ko, ‘O, buhay ka pala. Saan ka napadpad?’ Sabi niya, ‘Doon lang, doon lang,’” Cormero said.

(I came here because I dreamt…she’s alive. I actually asked her in my dream. I told her, “Oh, you’re alive. Where have you been?” She said, “Just there, just there.”)

OFFERING PRAYERS. Relatives of Yolanda victims light candles on the eve of All Saints' Day in the mass grave in Tacloban City. Photo by Franz Lopez/Rappler

‘Whenever I go here, I cry’

Adam Stephen Baldota, 28, also visited the mass grave on Friday to avoid the crowd on Saturday. He was wiping his tears when we saw him.

He lost his mother, 45-year-old Maria Maiso, and his sister, 26-year-old Cheryl, after waves triggered by Yolanda swept them away to a nearby subdivision.

“’Pag napunta ako dito, naiyak talaga ako, kasi naaalala ko ‘yung sinapit ng magulang ko at saka ng kapatid ko,” Baldota said. (Whenever I go here, I really cry, because I remember what my parents and siblings went through.)

At the mass grave, Alarcon, Cormero, and Baldota all lit candles at random places. They prayed for different people but had one prayer in common: peace for the souls of their loved ones.  

Alarcon, who keeps himself busy to forget the tragedy, said he wants his wife and children to know he is all right.

When asked what he prays for, he said, “Sana maging masaya din sila sa kanilang puntahan, kung saan man sila.” (I hope they’re happy wherever they are.) – with reports from Franz Lopez/Rappler.com

*$1 = P44.87

**Tacloban City government’s Brando Bernadas told Rappler on Friday that 2,973 bodies lie in the mass grave. He later said the NBI gave the wrong figure.

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email pat.esmaquel@rappler.com