After Haiyan: No man left behind
The Filipino people, says the President, will not bow before any crisis. He is proud of the courage and strength demonstrated by the nation in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan: “In the face of enormous challenge, the spirit of brotherhood is alive and well.”
And yet, says Benigno Aquino III, the response to disasters of this nature cannot solely rely on the well-tested determination and compassion of Filipinos. It also relies on the government’s straightforward service: “And as I have always said, wherever we go: In this government, no man will be left behind.”
Perhaps there is no need to doubt the sincerity of the Commander-in-Chief, as many of those left behind almost two months after Typhoon Yolanda are dead, their corpses still rotting on a field under swarms of flies in San Isidro, Tacloban. Perhaps the President meant he and his government would be there only for the protesting living, that a corpse whose skull lies one foot away deserves little of the government’s much vaunted service to the people.
It was Aquino who told CNN 4 days after Haiyan that a reported death count of 10,000 was an exaggeration probably brought on by the emotional trauma of people on the ground. He reported instead a current toll of 2,000, but then demanded an investigation of the “extraordinarily high” number of casualties in critical areas 10 days after his CNN interview, when the death count more than doubled his own estimate.
That count may or may not necessarily be accurate, given the number of survivors forced to bury their loved ones along the coasts of Leyte and Samar after days of waiting for the government to pick up the bodies, as was the case for a 37-year-old medical representative named Irene from Diit. She had waited 3 days along the highway, standing guard over her dead children while waiting for the government to collect the dead. The help did not arrive, so she took a shovel and buried her own sons. It took 5 days for food to arrive, a fact that did not matter to Irene as much as watching her children rot in the sun.
The actual death count matters very little to the people whose mothers and brothers and wives belong to that count. Fourteen million were affected in the wake of Haiyan. Many of them knew someone who is dead or missing or injured. Those who survived the worst saw their children drown, saw their wives scream for help, watched helpless as walls fell on the friends who were playing basketball just the day before. The statistics do not matter to them, only that Celia is gone, that Dustin is dead, that Jimboy and Onyok and Benjie will never come back. Their stories are the same stories told in the night in Tacloban City, by fathers who say they should have died instead of their daughters.
And yet they are luckier, they say, than the others who never found the bodies. Some of them have gone mad, walking the streets barefoot and near naked a full month after the storm, scrabbling under garbage, looking for missing babies.
Others like Edgardo Almasad waited inside a dripping tent on Christmas Day, certain his son would come home. Then there is 33-year-old Elisa Obejas, mother of 4, who survived the storm and stood waiting at the gate of the evacuation center for the husband that never came. She told her children that Papa was in Manila, that he will be back, but she does not know when. It is what she tells them until today.
“The priority now,” said Interior Secretary Mar Roxas 11 days after the storm, “is the recovery and possible identification of the cadavers still buried somewhere or among the rubbles left behind by Yolanda.”
That priority, as with most priorities in the aftermath of the storm, seems to have lost its urgency in the face of the politicking and media posturing that followed.
Even after assurances from the President and his men, even after Roxas announced on CNN he himself had joined the cadaver collection, the survivors continued to live with the uncollected dead. On the 12th day after the storm, a line of bodies, several inside trash bags, lay in a crooked line outside the Basper Public Cemetery. On the 15th day, a backpack sat on the side of the airport road, a baby inside. On the 16th day, the body of a young man floated face down beside the Paradise Village pier, feather strings of skin trailing in his wake, schools of fish chewing on what was left. On the 17th day, clumps of corpses floated beside sunken container trucks on the bay, their limbs tangled on wooden markers. On the 22nd day, village chiefs in San Jose reported at least a hundred uncollected bodies scattered along their coastlines. On the 23rd day after the storm, Navy men stationed along the city seaport said they did not have the equipment for the retrieval of headless cadavers caught in recesses beneath the pier.
It was the civilians who dragged out the bodies of their neighbors from under rubble, who put them in body bags and carried them to the highways for the corpse trucks to collect. In Village 88, none of the men who volunteered to pack the bodies were elected officials. They asked for body bags from scene of the crime operatives, and got less than they needed. The government, they said, were concerned the body bags would be used to sleep in. Many bodies could not be recovered, because there were no saws to cut the bodies out from under trees.
“I can assure our people and the whole world that the entire force of our government of President PNoy is looking after our people here,” said Mar Roxas.
It appears Roxas does not quite consider those who died under his watch “people.”
Today, on New Year’s Day, 53 days after the storm, more than 400 unidentified bodies lie in haphazard lines inside sopping body bags in San Isidro, Tacloban. Some have been left half-sunk in puddles of water, others have been covered by sheets of green plastic, many others lie on crumpled campaign tarps, crowded so close it is impossible to tell them apart. They have been here for weeks. The stench boils out past the highway and into homes, in spite of enormous tarps raised to block the site from the road.
According to health protocols, every casualty needs to be processed for future identification. The National Bureau of Investigation maintains jurisdiction. In San Isidro, a number of cadavers have been processed. Many others have not. And although there are procedures that allow for burial in temporary graves without processing, the city cannot bury the dead without the presence of the NBI.
The NBI forensics team has left Tacloban, said the city mayor. They have promised to be back after the New Year.
This is not the first time a field of corpses lay decomposing in the open long after a disaster. On Christmas Day in 2012, more than 3 weeks after Typhoon Pablo ripped across Compostela Valley, more than a hundred unidentified bodies lay under the sun in the New Bataan Public Cemetery. Human bones were scattered on the field among ripped body bags. The NBI team had gone home 13 days after the storm, and promised to return after the New Year.
There may be some justification for failing the dead at a time when the living are in desperate need, but the government has forgotten that the dead still belong to the living.
The field in San Isidro has 400 men, women, and children whose families know they are missing. The survivors who still search for the corpses of their loved ones say all they want is a proper burial. Many of them come to San Isidro, and to anywhere they hear bodies can still be found. What they see are 400 decomposing bodies that may or may not be the same men and women who were alive and laughing before the storm struck.
The President says he is well aware that his approval ratings may be affected by the national calamities that affected the country. He does not mind. His decisions, right or otherwise, are occasionally unpopular. The Filipino people, he believes, “are fair judges.”
“The important thing is: Will our people see me as doing that which is right? And that is what is important to me.”
Perhaps it is important to remind the President that no son looking for his mother will consider right this government’s treatment of Haiyan’s dead. This is what Haiyan is: A field strewn with corpses, while the President goes to birthday parties and smiles for the photographers. – Rappler.com