In 2011, we joined a group of volunteers from the University of San Carlos sent to Cagayan de Oro City to conduct stress debriefing for survivors of the flashfloods during typhoon Sendong. The team went around the evacuation camps to talk to the victims, many of whom were still obviously coping with trauma.
We conducted art therapy workshops that let children, teens, and adults recount their experiences and express themselves through dramatization, dance, drawing and play. The saddest stories were about the loss of loved ones. Most of those who told them tended to blame themselves for not having done enough to save their loved ones.
One a man who had been awarded by his community for heroism after he was able to save lives during flashfloods that happened in their community in previous years. So when Sendong came, he immediately left home to join his team of rescue workers preparing at the barangay hall. They were able to save many people but he learned later that his wife and kids had all drowned in the deluge that nobody expected would be that huge. He could not forgive himself.
So the volunteers in our group reminded him that it was not his fault and that he should stop blaming himself for what happened. But that was the most that we could do—lend an ear and shoulder. Save for a few relief goods, all we could offer was the moment of fleeting lightness that art and play provide in order to relieve themselves of the unbearable burden of loss and guilt.
This was most evident in the children who were delighted by the return of fun and games, a respite from the crowded and dreary conditions at evacuation camps. Compared to adults, it was easier to change the mood of the children, whose smiles betrayed the nightmares they had just gone through.
Their colorful drawings of the great river flowing from a mountain washing down homes, trees, and people express a certain ambivalence. It is a nightmare portrayed in their usual imagery of a cartoon-like wonderland.
But days after we have left Cagayan de Oro, we heard that some people still committed suicide at evacuation camps. They were coping with living in tent cities and subsisting on donated food. It looked like they were on their way to recovery.
But depression could be a worse ordeal and a lot of victims were not really prepared to cope with it. The lack of food and shelter was easily solved as donations flowed in and the local government soon responded by providing temporary shelters and relocation sites. What was not sustained was the psychosocial intervention. Trauma remained the most invisible of all problems.
We are seeing a repeat of these experiences in the Oct. 15 earthquake in Bohol and the supertyphoon Yolanda that struck Leyte, Panay, and northern Cebu. The victims were first preoccupied with dealing with immediate needs, such as food, water, shelter and safety, in the first few weeks.
But trauma is expected to sink in much later. When people have all settled in, they actually begin to feel the great pain of loss. This is when psychosocial intervention becomes critical. Not only psychologists are needed but artists, too, can take part in stress debriefing by engaging survivors in art play as a form of healing.
Before the Yolanda storm, a group of artists, church workers and other volunteers came together to plan an art therapy mission for victims of the earthquake in Bohol. It began as a spontaneous action, inspired by the anonymity and randomness that characterized the Occupy Movement.
Called “Art Quake,” that initiative begins today with a day-long art fair in the Redemptorist Church grounds starting at 9 a.m.
The art fair is meant to raise funds for the mission in Bohol. But hopefully some of it will be saved for later missions in areas hit by Yolanda. The group realizes that the Bohol activity would be a pilot project.
So come to the Redemptorist grounds today and support this initiative by buying art work from the artists or sitting before them to have your portrait or caricature sketched. Artists are willing to give 100 percent of the proceeds to the mission fund so they can sell their paintings, drawings and prints at very affordable prices.
You may also drop by to donate crayons and pencils that will be given to the displaced children during the art play activities.
It’s a chance to collect art and be able to help. See you there.
Forgiveness and trust