CARAGA, Davao Oriental, Philippines – Still grappling with the shock and horror over the devastation wrought by typhoon Pablo, people here greet Christmas with a deep feeling of mourning, foregoing parties and ostentatious celebrations to sympathize with those who lost their loved ones to the typhoon.
As downcast skies hovered over town with news of an impending storm and talks about doomsday scenario abounded in evacuation sites, people from nearby Cateel and Baganga towns braved the few boats crossing the raging Manurigao river in Barangay (village) Baogo, where the bridge that used to connect Baganga with Caraga town has fallen.
“It’s better to flee to the city (of Mati), where the children are safe,” said Michael Tesiorna, dragging along a six-year-old child, as his wife tried to appease a crying baby.
He said he had to bring them to the city because of the news of another storm that people said would sweep over the typhoon-hit area by Christmas. He remembered vividly how he and his boy were shivering in the cold at the height of typhoon Pablo, after their roof was blown off, soaking them in the rain for hours.
“I had to bite him in the arms because he was already numb with the cold,” he said while inside a bus bound for Mati. “I was afraid he might get sick, I had to bite myself, too, to keep myself awake.”
Along the stretch of road from the city of Mati, a 104-kilometer ride away to this old sleepy town where Spain first set up in 1884 what has become Mindanao’s oldest church in an area facing the Pacific, the once ubiquitous Christmas lantern, symbol of Filipino Christmas’ celebration, was conspicuously absent from people’s houses.
“Who would want to celebrate Christmas when everybody lost everything?” asked Gemma Mamilic, 24.
“What’s important now is to survive,” she said, as the van going to the Barangay Baogo left Mati City.
On the phone, Mamilic instructed someone to take care of the thermos and to always keep warm water in the house. Her one-year-old child survived the height of the typhoon, when the roof of the school building where they evacuated was ripped off, soaking them in the rain for hours; while she struggled to cover the children with pillows to protect them from fallen jalousie glasses and other debris.
She recalled that about this time of the previous year, they were already having a party. Family and friends gathered together in their house, preparing to cook the food, anticipating the holidays. Now, there are no lanterns hanging in the windows of houses, because most houses were wiped out by the typhoon, according to Mamilic.
If the cost of a Christmas décor could already buy a half-kilo of rice, who would bother for Christmas lanterns anymore? she asked. “Instead, we’re closely watching the weather,” Mamilic said. “We’re so busy trying to survive.”
Beside her inside the van, John Arcel Magbasa, who was bringing along his nine-year-old Jessa and six-year-old Arvin back to his mother in Baganga, received a text message not to proceed to Baganga because crossing the Manurigao river, when the water was raging high, would be dangerous.
When Magbasa reached Baogo, people were stranded along riverbanks, except for others desperate enough to brave crossing the water just to reach safer ground.
Fr. Uldarico Toroba Jr., Caraga parish priest, said Christmas might not be as merry in this typhoon-stricken town, but people have been keeping alive the spirit of Christmas by reaching out to those in need.
He said the Caraga parish, Mindanao’s oldest church, decided to tone down Christmas activities, and postponed parties this year to sympathize with the people in the neighboring towns. They used the money intended for their Christmas activities to buy food to distribute to affected communities in Caraga, which were rendered inaccessible by swelling rivers and damaged roads, as of Sunday.
People regarded it as a miracle that the church of Caraga, which was set up in 1884 as a mission station of Spanish friars in Mindanao, survived the typhoon almost unscathed while the buildings surrounding it were badly damaged, he said.
Toroba also said the tragedy might be sending people a message.
“It is telling us that people in this world should take care of the environment, and to serve other people with sincerity,” he added.
He said he was merely reflecting on the effect of the tragedy. “It’s telling us, that we are only stewards of this earth, that we don’t own Mother Nature,” he said.
“But then, again, it’s also telling us that these things shall also pass away, and that we should make our own spiritual preparations, to sincerely serve others,” he added.
As Toroba reflected on the big difference between Christmas this year and that of last year, he lauded the people who had the heart to give to people in need for they have done it in the real essence of Christmas. “Reaching out to them is the real essence of Christmas, and in that way, the spirit of Christmas is still alive in Caraga,” he said.