The baby in the backpack

Patricia Evangelista

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The truth is that there is no going home from Haiyan. It is difficult to write about it, and more difficult to write about anything else.

PATRICIA EVANGELISTA. Photo by Raymund AmonoyThe backpack sat on the curbside. The surface was flaking, the purple print scratched.

We found it in the afternoon, beside three corpses in body bags. The men working along the highway said that the bodies had just been recovered. They said there was a baby in the backpack. 

It was cold that day. The air smelled of dead. I remember crouching beside the bag and hunting for the zipper, remember thinking I had to verify the story, remember feeling uneasy. It was a morbid act, like opening a stranger’s closed coffin. Maybe it was a convenient excuse, an odd conservatism in a city where the dead had been shoved into plastic garbage bags. I didn’t open the bag, ran my hands over it instead, tracing the lumps of head and hands and folded knees. 

It was 15 days since the storm, and there was a corpse inside the backpack.

I write this late at night, in Manila, almost three months after typhoon Haiyan. It is difficult to write. I meant to write something else, have been trying to write something else for a week, an analysis of post-disaster vulnerabilities and government mishandling. I did the interviews, read the documents, watched the congressional hearings and the resulting glad-handing and politicking that came with it: the secretary of the interior smiling, the mayor of the broken city smiling back, the men and women in the background smiling along, all of them grinning as if they were not witness to weeks of calling each other liars and frauds.

Instead I’m writing about how it was, on the ground, the apocalypse that all of us found when we landed on the Tacloban tarmac. I seem to be unable to write about anything else. I’ve been a columnist for ten years, a reporter for the last five. My beat is disaster and human rights and the stories that fall in between – the dead, the lost, the rebels and the survivors. Nothing I’ve seen prepared me for what I saw after Haiyan.

I don’t claim to be a veteran. What I’ve seen is nothing to what many others have seen, and my version of reportage is very often limited to individual human experience instead of the larger implications. I fixate on images, sentences, narrative arcs, the smoke in the sky, the blood on the doorknob, the bottle of White Flower carried by the defendant, the color and pattern of the tiles on the floor of Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221 instead of the decision handed down by the trial court judge. For me, Haiyan was the rainbow blanket around the dead boy. It was the father who covered his drowned daughter’s corpse with a tin roof to protect her from the rain. It was the man who walked daily to his girlfriend’s grave, the plastic panda floating in the water, the baby in the purple backpack.

There were many other stories. Government ineptitude. Political infighting. The scale of displacement and the terrible conditions forced on the survivors. I admit I went looking for the dead, an easy thing in Haiyan country. My reasoning is the same as it’s always been – in a situation where morals are suspended and the narrative makes no sense, it is necessary to hold whatever truth is left: that the dead shouldn’t be dead.

Maybe there is some ego involved here, the awareness that the sights and smells and sounds that will force the average person to turn away is something that can be handled without flinching, safe under the cloak of public interest. It is necessary to pretend those of us who report are tougher than everyone else. It is necessary, very often, to pretend this is a job, a commitment, a challenge met that separates us from the government clerk or the lawyer or even the reporters who cover the seemingly safer beats. We understand, for example, that it is possible to step away, to retreat to some safe mental corner while noting down the observation that the body in the water is probably female, that what may or may not be breasts are still under the faded yellow shirt, in spite of the fact the face above the shirt has been stripped of skin and flesh.

It is of course presumptuous for me to use the word “we” instead of “I,” but “I” is a pronoun that I have used under protest in the last few years. “I” is personal, it redirects the spotlight, it is arrogant and indulgent and emphasizes the primacy of personal opinion instead of the real story. I don’t pretend to speak for all journalists, or even for some journalists. I’m not certain I even speak for myself, as the safe mental corner that I used to have is no longer particularly safe. Fourteen million people were affected, at least 6,000 died. What I felt and continue to feel is not the story I mean to tell, as there are many things more deserving of public space than the confusion of a 28-year-old journalist, especially one who demanded for this coverage and found out that the magic cape has holes.

Everyday I asked the questions. Framed the interviews. Rolled the video. Held up a hand to stop a weeping man midsentence because of the roar of the C130 swooping overhead. Nodded, in understanding, as if it was possible to understand how it feels to watch wife and children drown while hanging on to a slab of concrete. I asked survivors about the height of the waters and the loss of daughters, and although many of them were desperate to tell their stories, it was impossible not to feel exploitative, that we were, or I was, using their grief to add to the grand drama that was the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan.

I don’t pretend I made any sort of difference. The stories I told were stories people might or might not read or watch – or share, in the language of the Internet – but they were only stories, and at the end of the day I knew I was leaving, knew that in a week or two weeks I would be in Manila at my desk and the weeping father would still be there, in the dark, dreaming of his lost babies. I suspect I went looking for the worst to validate my being on the ground. It would be romantic to say I was bearing witness for the victims. The truth was that I went from shock to further shock, and I was afraid, always, that I wasn’t doing anyone’s story justice. Covering Haiyan was like walking into a Salvador Dali painting and discovering the paint was still damp.

I asked for a week longer, after a week I stayed one more, and then was allowed one more. I like to think I stayed as long as I could, but that’s only one way of telling the story. The longer I stayed, the less guilty I felt. I admit I didn’t finish out that last week, because on the 16th day I found myself on the coast shooting a woman’s corpse hanging from a tree. It took a long time to see the body. I was standing less than five feet across, I could smell it, I was told it was there, but her head was pushed back and her arms were the color of dead wood and my brain refused to acknowledge that what I was staring at used to be a person. When the image suddenly made sense in my head, I took the photo, then turned to vomit into the bushes.

There were many more bodies before and after that, mass graves with hundreds of tangled dead, but none of them had me heaving with my hands on my knees. Maybe it was the fact she hung meters away from the shanty of a man who refused to leave for an evacuation center because he was waiting for his missing wife to come home – “I want to be here when she comes,” he said. His name is William Cabuquing, and he was one of the survivors who packed the bodies of his neighbors into bags 14 days after he staggered home bleeding after being swept across the bay. He did not know who the woman on the tree was.

That night I was on the phone with my editor. Are you all right, she asked. It was a question that at that point seemed terribly important, and I stuttered and mumbled and was largely inarticulate until I managed to say, after a series of evasions, that yes, I wanted to go home.

The truth is that there is no going home. It is difficult to write about it, and more difficult to write about anything else. I am aware there are many journalists who can move past stories like this, that my job demands I move past it myself. I also know there are others like me who have been smoking too much and sleeping too long, who have come home to wake in the night, unable to move on to other stories and other responsibilities, aware, one way or another, that whatever story comes along, Haiyan is out there, and the promises we made are still no more than promises.

I like to think of journalism as an attempt to make the public imagine. We cannot protest against what we cannot see, we cannot move when we cannot be made to feel. Six thousand is a large number, larger than Ketsana’s 464, Bopha’s 1,067 or Washi’s 1,453, but it is difficult, as with any statistic, to remember that each one of the thousands in each of the storms shouldn’t have died, could have been saved, deserved, if nothing else, to be buried with some attempt at dignity instead of being left to rot in a muddy field covered with campaign posters. We are meant to understand that, to imagine that, to stand in the shoes of the man scrabbling in the muck for his fiancée. To forget what happened makes us all guilty, makes us accomplices to what brought them here, allows the same tragedy to happen again and again, as it has happened, again and again.

I don’t know what I intended to say. Maybe that I can’t forget, or that I’m afraid I will. Many of us who were on the ground are afraid to say what it was like, because we’re supposed to be tough as nails. We’re supposed to be brave. We’re meant to serve the story. We’re supposed to walk away from the mass grave and report the number and the state of decomposition. We can stand in the hellhole that was Zamboanga City in September and say yes, we can take more. We’re afraid if we say we can’t, we won’t be sent to the next story, will be told we don’t have the balls, don’t have what it takes, can’t deliver, won’t survive. I say “we” because it’s harder to say “I,” and maybe that was what I meant to say. –

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