Except for us (two from the USA and two from Manila), everything and everyone was on flat affect: subdued, pinched smile, faraway look, monotone voice. People’s comportment matched the wasteland that had once been Tacloban, from the airport where the bay windows overlooking the tarmac had lost their glass so airplanes spewed fumes into the waiting room, to downtown, where the footprints of water giants remained in the jumble of sharp-edged wood, roofs on the ground, twisted concrete and piles and piles of flotsam: crumpled motorized tricycles, dented cars, a ship marooned on shore as garbage grew about it. What intact buildings remained had windows shoved in, with glass cracked. There was no forgetting Typhoon Hai-yan or Yolanda; the air was so humid it was like breathing water. Each night, one awoke with a coughing fit, expelling phlegm.
I had to look for them, the unburied dead, despite official and spin denials. In a sprawling lot of grass and low shrubs, with an errant tree or two, there they were, a thousand body bags strewn under the mild sun. Soldier tandems in yellow overalls hefted each end, carrying bag like a strange hammock, and stocking them one atop another in a large canvas tent with the words “I (heart) Tacloban.” Just now, nearly two months after the typhoon. One bag had a small body: a child. A sweetish breeze kept swirling through the lot. They were the last of 3,000 dead, the barangay captain said.
Every spot seemed to have been a locus of a dying, of a loss. In the village of Candahug, the litany is non-stop: “over there was a house where nine of a family died; only one child survived because he was not here… John came up behind that tree, when the wave receded, and he was stark naked, much like everyone else, and we made a joke of it, saying he was like the Terminator… the town hall got flooded and its walls cracked… three waves hit us, huge waves tearing, pushing everything in its path, then the last wave dumped both living and the dead on the rice fields; it took so long for help to arrive, the dead stayed there for 22 days…” The rice seedlings, a foot high, were healthy; they grew wherever the water had carried them, green as life. The villagers gave them horrified side-long glances, saying they couldn’t harvest these at season’s end for the dead had fertilized them.
Flat affect all around, even the children who played in a subdued manner. Nobody yelled; no loud laughter. And when they looked up at the stranger, their eyes were huge and dark, their faces blank. Once in a while, a slight breeze made a remnant tree branch creak and I wondered if a heart breaking made the same sound. A mother of four, who lost her husband and eldest son said, “during the day there’s no time to think but at night, you don’t even realize it, tears roll down your cheeks non-stop.”
Food was scarce, processed stuff, expensive, fresh fruits and vegetables absent. Chicken was the most available and I wondered if we were eating parts of the 50,000 chickens drowned by the typhoon. But we were hungry, starving even, and we ate what there was, paid what was asked, eyeballed the mountains of debris, inhaled the stench, swatted at mosquitoes – without complaint. It was the only tribute we could give to the unbearable mood of suffering in the island. Only once did I break this resolve, while eyeing the new slapdash shacks being built at the same shoreline swept clean by the sea; “you know you’ll get hit again, don’t you?” was my diffident question.
Government presence was nowhere, as roadways and canals, once cleared of debris under a charitable foundation’s “cash-for-work” program, re-filled with garbage. The supposed mountain of donations, — private, organizational and governmental — was nowhere in sight. Instead, women with children roamed public places, looking for help, as relief measures dried up. “We’ve been in crisis before and we’ve always managed somehow,” said Lilia of Barangay 37. “But this time, there’s nothing left. Absolutely nothing. Not even clothes. I don’t know how to rise from zero.”
In the sudden empty spread of land, there were no butterflies; and even in the deepest dark of an urban power outage, no fireflies.
MISERY OF THE AFTERMATH
The worst incident was outside of Leyte, in Cebu actually. A tall fair-skinned woman with red-rust hair, upon learning that Jollene Levid, AF3IRM national chair, and i had just left Tacloban, bragged about the 11 children she was “placing” — orphans from Leyte, brought to Cebu. They had not been registered with the DSWD, since those who had the children preferred to avoid “stringent rules.” The woman was looking to place the children overseas. She’d done this before, for 35 children, when she’d been in Lingayen. As we walked away, Jollene and I whispered, “She’s trafficking! Does she know she’s trafficking?”
Sexual violence and trafficking were skittish issues. Everyone feared they were happening but no one checked. Even initial reports of sexual assaults were denied. I was repeatedly assured, however, that these occurred and that at the Tacloban Astrodome, where survivors huddled in interlocking shanties, the sex trade was brisk.
Two members of an international relief agency were propositioned in Tacloban. The first by a boy aged 12; the second, by two girls, aged 10 and 11. That the kids could transact such business indicated they’d sold their bodies before. At the hotel where we stayed, young women, often wrapped in a beach towel or bath robe, plied the corridors. Men gathered at night, with bottles of beer. It was sad; like most of the city, the hotel lay in a cloud of lambent hurt and despair. The sound of laughter was rare; a joyous cry even rarer. Children in the dismantled village of Candahug were inordinately quiet. 153 had died there, mostly husbands, fathers, eldest sons who’d stayed behind to watch their homes.
Slap-dash shanties were rising within neighborhoods scoured flat by the sea. When I diffidently asked, “you know you’ll be hit again, don’t you?”, the reply was a sad “where will we go?” Young women begged to be taken away; they’d be my servant, do anything. As Lilia of Barangay 37 said, “I don’t know how to rise from absolutely nothing.”
It took three weeks to set up a safety zone for women and children; longer before sanitary napkins and diapers made it to the relief goods list.
The next calamity will see the same issues neglected. AF3IRM and the National Association of Asian and Pacific Islanders Ending Sexual Violence are therefore launching a program to train trainers in creating Rapid Deployment Teams against sexual assaults, prostitution and trafficking. Pooling the survival skills of women from Haiti, Indonesia and other catastrophe-struck nations, this will empower people to help themselves. Out of these strands of experienced calamities, we hope to weave a banner of hope.