Code of silence hampers search for missing minersBy DJ Yap
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MONKAYO, Compostela Valley—By his mother’s account, Alfred Cobol was a stubborn man.
At 21, he spurned all job opportunities in his hometown to try his luck on the slopes of Mt. Diwata, more popularly known as Diwalwal, a 700-hectare gold mining community of 42,000 people.
“He told us that he didn’t want to earn just spare change. He said there was real money to be made by mining in Diwalwal,” said his mother, Luzviminda. “We all tried to convince him not to do it.”
But Alfred, now 24, was determined to strike it rich, caught up in the gold rush that had swept the valley.
On Tuesday, Luzviminda, a resident of Montevista town where she lives with one of her seven children, was too preoccupied with her own troubles to worry about them. Strong winds whipped up by Typhoon “Pablo” had sent the roof of her house flying.
But the next day, as the 54-year-old mother listened to the escalating reports of death and destruction spawned by Pablo, she started asking about her six grown children. Five replied, but not Alfred amid rumors that scores of miners had been killed.
“I heard the helicopter could not even land because there were landslides,” she said, her eyes red from weeping. “I heard there were so many corpses in Diwalwal.”
In her head, Luzviminda said she kept hearing her son’s voice telling her: “What is taking you so long? Come here, find me.”
That voice had been haunting Luzviminda since Wednesday when she failed to contact Alfred or his fellow miners in Diwalwal as the death toll from the typhoon rose steadily.
“I just hear his voice all the time. I can’t relax even for one moment. I can’t eat. I have hardly slept,” she said. “In my head, he is saying, ‘I’m here. Hurry up.’”
On Thursday, the woman began a frantic, desperate search.
Diwalwal was not accessible due to landslides that destroyed roads. So she visited adjacent towns—hospitals, evacuation centers, and finally, morgues—for any sign of her missing son.
At Montoya Funeral Parlor in Poblacion of Nabunturan town, Luzviminda braved the stench of rotting flesh and the sting of formaldehyde to inspect the corpses in the hope one of them might belong to Alfred.
“His front teeth are chipped, and his pinky toes are quite long,” Luzviminda said in Cebuano.
The village chair of Mt. Diwata, Rodolfo Boyles, dismissed speculations that hundreds had died in the mine tunnels.
“All the miners are safe. There were no landslides in the tunnels, only on the roads,” he said. He insisted that he himself had spoken to some of the miners, and that they were in good condition.
“The only problem is they have no signal as the tower broke. There’s also no power. We sent 3,000 packs of relief goods,” Boyles said.
Asked if they were trapped on the mountain slopes because of obstructions, he replied: “No, they are in the houses there,” he said.
If the miners were not trapped and could get down the mountain, why weren’t they doing so? If they could not resume working because power was out, why were they not leaving?
Fr. Romeo Castillo, head of San Miguel Mission Area in Mt. Diwalwal, said he had counted at least 20 dead after the storm abated.
But as of Saturday, the village of Mt. Diwata had officially recorded only 13 deaths and nine missing.
Boyles dismissed Luzviminda’s fears. He said he knew Alfred Cobol. He said Alfred’s name was not on the list of fatalities. “If he’s not on the list, then he is safe,” he said.
He said someone who was working with Alfred in the same Australian-owned mining firm had told him that the mine “was not affected.”
“Mining is not the problem here,” Boyles said, a statement he repeated to the Inquirer two or three times.
He seemed irked when he was told that Luzviminda Cobol was already searching morgues for her son’s body. “Why would they look among the dead when their family is still alive? If we find him, then we will just kill him ourselves,” he said in what was probably intended as a joke.
Code of silence
Contacted on Saturday morning, Alfred’s older sister, Melody, said the family had gotten in touch with a fellow miner who had worked with Alfred but was not in the mountain when the typhoon struck on Tuesday.
“He said the tunnel was OK,” she said. But the man refused to tell the Cobol family how they might be able to contact Alfred. “We can’t celebrate because we haven’t seen him or talked to him,” she said.
Melody gave the name and cell phone number of the miner, a team leader in Alfred’s company. The Inquirer reached him on the phone, but when asked if he knew Cobol, he abruptly cut off the connection.
Mindanao-based journalist Carolyn O. Arguillas, in a report on MindaNews, cited a long-standing code of silence involving accidents in mines in Compostela Valley, where many politicians held mining interests.
“No one can say exactly how many persons were killed in Diwalwal although reports have been circulating that hundreds were killed in the landslides,” she wrote.
“Verifying has been made doubly difficult not only because of the 30-year ‘code of silence’ practiced during accidents in the small-scale mining operations in Diwalwal but also because transportation by habal-habal (motorcycle) is only up to Depot.”
For Luzviminda, it was never about mining or breaking the code of silence among miners. “Whether he’s dead or alive, I just want to see him already. I won’t be able to rest until I do,” she said.