“AM I still on earth or am I in a movie set?” Tess thought to herself as she surveyed the surreal ground before her – a wide expanse of broken trees, twisted metals, splintered houses and dark debris, against the backdrop of a bruised brown earth. Destruction and the stench of death was everywhere. Several ships had been driven inland perched on unlikely ground. A drive down the road from Tacloban to Palo now offered an unobstructed view of the sea, something unheard of before as densely-packed houses had blocked the view.
Tess and other volunteers had arrived in Tacloban 12 days after supertyphoon Yolanda devastated a large swath of area in central Philippines last November 8, 2013. Four days before her arrival, Archbishop John Du of Palo had reached Cebu City that had been spared from the brunt of Yolanda. He had invited a group to jumpstart the formation of a command center for his local church. “We are all victims there and we need outside help,” he said.
A composite team was formed with volunteers coming from earthquake-struck Bohol, the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. and members of the Dilaab Foundation Inc. Other volunteers eventually came from Cagayan de Oro, Tagum, and even Manila. They all had first-hand experiences of being victims of disasters but making a faith-filled decision to recover from the experience with others. The volunteers made sure they would not be an added burden to the victims of Yolanda so they brought their own tents and other personal necessities.
The command center came to be called RCAP (Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Palo) Misyon Bulig, the latter a Bisayan term for “help.” Members of the local clergy were assigned to do overall coordination as well as leadership of three clusters of concerns: relief operations, resource mobilization and partnership development, and secretariat. The chancery became the headquarters of Misyon Bulig, sharing space with the Catholic Relief Services.
Soon the composite team was making the rounds of the surrounding areas. As they came back late in the afternoon a woman suddenly darted in front of their slow-moving vehicle. A child was tugging at her waist, sobbing frantically. The distraught woman had wanted to end her misery. Fortunately she failed.
The mission was not to be a walk in the park.
* * *
I arrived in Tacloban on December 7, more than two weeks after the first team arrived. By then patches of green had began to invade the otherwise brown earth. Much of the debris was being removed and many of the dead buried, some in mass graves. Bodies continued to be recovered.
Upon my arrival at Patmos, the residence of Palo’s retired priests and built of solid concrete and red bricks, I noted clusters of bamboo that had been uprooted or snapped. “Bend like the bamboo to be resilient,” the saying goes. Sometimes certain thresholds are breached.
But even those on the verge of snapping can find inner strength. Fr. Kelvin, parish priest of San Joaquin parish in Palo, found himself in just such a situation at the height of the “surge” (a tidal-wave like reaction of the sea reacting to the 314 kph strength of the winds) that took away the lives of many of his parishioners. When I talked to him, the good priest was still wearing a bandage over his left hand, a reminder of the furniture that pinned his hand against a wall as he maneuvered to create a passageway for his staff to go to the safety of the second floor of the priest’s residence.
Going out after the surge, Fr. Kelvin went out to be with his people. In three hours, he had blessed the bodies of 75 fatalities. Only God’s strength sustained him, even giving him, and other priests, the fortitude to stay with their people when the invitation to leave became incessant.
That night, inside my tent, I found it hard to sleep just thinking about the dead and their still-anguishing families. I finally had a sound sleep only the next day on December 8 ushering the “Days of Prayer and Remembrance”. As I joined others after mass in lighting candles at the mass grave in front of the Palo Cathedral, I felt inner peace.
“Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord and let your eternal light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.”
* * *
The patches of green that greeted my eyes when the plane landed in Tacloban symbolizes hope. I have seen this in the smiles that greet me among survivors and volunteers. A priest even told me that a foreigner, a photographer, had visited him and asked to take his picture together with some children. As he snapped his camera, he blurted out, “Put on a sad face so that we can convince people to help out.” He could not figure out the smiles.
I see hope even in the morbid humor concerning a pig that survived Yolanda that was so traumatized it made no sound at all for next few weeks – until it was chosen for the celebration of the Day of Prayer. As it squeaked for dear life, someone dryly commented, “At last it has overcome its trauma over Yolanda.”
I have also seen the outpouring of love among members of the family, among neighbors, and even between cities and local churches. I know of neighbors, erstwhile not in speaking term, but now working together.
One survivor had this to say: “Ten thousand people died so we learn the value of life and the love of God.”
As relief work gives way to recovery and rehabilitation, one realizes we have barely scratched the surface of the needed work.
With so much money being pledged by the international community and earmarked by the government, we can fall into a sense of complacency. This can easily happen if coupled with the emergence of other issues hugging the media limelight.
We should not let this happen.
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