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Tulfo: I saw people walking aimlessly like zombies

12:34 AM November 15, 2013

I was not prepared for the scenes of suffering that would haunt me for the rest of my life as we landed at the Tacloban City airport.

I had formed a medical and mercy mission of 12 doctors from St. Luke’s Hospital and six nonmedical people, including myself, that landed in the city three days after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” struck. One doctor had backed out so we became a 17-member mission.

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From the air, the once-bustling city of more than 200,000 people looked desolate. Everything was a total mess. It was as if an atomic bomb had been dropped.

As the Philippine Airlines (PAL) plane prepared to land, I saw people walking aimlessly like zombies.

Navy Capt. Roy Vincent Trinidad, officer in charge of the airport, asked our group—the first nongovernment medical mission to set foot in Eastern Visayas after Yolanda struck—if we wanted to go to Guiuan in Eastern Samar. The place was supposedly more devastated than Tacloban.

He offered to take us to Guiuan—three hours by car on a normal day from Tacloban—on a helicopter.

Dr. Sammy Tanzo, head of the medical side of the mission, said our group should just stay in the premises of the airport—then crawling with soldiers and police—for security reasons.

Patients pour in

We set up a makeshift hospital inside the shell of a one-story building near the airport control tower, joining forces with three military doctors and five medical aides who had come ahead of us.

Outside the building, we occupied a tent marked “Department of Health (DOH)” on top and turned it into a clinic.

Patients started pouring in. They came from a line of a jostling crowd 3 meters thick and half a kilometer long.

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The crowd of people, separated from us by a fence guarded by soldiers, were waiting for their numbers to be called so they could board Philippine Air Force (PAF) C-130 cargo planes.

It seemed everybody wanted to fly out of Tacloban.

Reports of rape

One of our first patients was an 18-year-old girl with wounds. She writhed and shouted in pain as her wounds were sutured.

She had lost both parents as the sea rampaged on land, destroying everything in its path. She survived by clinging to a tree trunk.

After nearly drowning, she escaped from a group of men who she said tried to rape her.

Gangs of prisoners had reportedly escaped from the Leyte provincial jail and formed themselves into roving bands, looting stores, barging into homes and raping women.

According to some patients I talked to in the clinic, the house of a prominent doctor was invaded by an armed group—possibly escaped prisoners—who helped themselves to everything in the house, raped the daughter and killed her afterward.

Another patient said 15 of her female sales clerks, who were staying at a department store in the city, were raped by looters.

Parents lost

A 4-year-old boy, his head bleeding from a fall, cried as one doctor in my group treated his wound.

When I asked whose child he was, the woman who had taken her to the hospital said he had lost his parents and she was now taking him to Cebu province with her family.

I saw two children, aged between 5 and 9, separated from their parents as they were taken away to ride on a PAF C-130 plane. The parents had been barred from boarding by soldiers, as the plane was already full.

The children’s parents shouted to a neighbor lucky enough to be one of 30 civilians taken into the plane to take care of the kids while they jostled with others for the next flight.

Healthy passengers were loaded on the plane at random.

Those very sick and needed to be hospitalized were given priority.

Affected by mayhem

I helped a man with a fractured knee get into a C-130 of the US Air Force with his crying wife on Tuesday. By then, the plane had apparently received orders to take on civilian passengers.

The American crew said they wouldn’t take him aboard if he was not accompanied by a doctor. I asked an elderly doctor in my group to accompany the man and his wife on the plane.

The doctor was just sitting in a corner, staring into space, probably affected by the mayhem.

The saying that in a crisis, a person’s real character comes out seemed to have come true in my medical mission.

No food for days

Another member of my mission became reclusive and didn’t want to give away the food we were distributing to the victims.

I had brought a ton of foodstuff, tents, blankets and bottled water to Tacloban.

An English-speaking couple, whom I judged to be from the upper middle class, came to our tent asking for food and water.

“Mr. Tulfo, we haven’t eaten for days and we’re very thirsty,” the wife, a mestiza, said.

As I handed them hot noodles in a bowl, the doctor put down his plate, saying he had lost his appetite, and walked away. He said we should give priority to ourselves, as food and water were in short supply.

Rich and poor alike

There was no distinction between rich and poor in that disaster; everyone was equal.

Rich and poor alike came begging for food and water. Sometimes, we hid our few bottles of mineral water from them, as we also had to keep some for ourselves.

But we couldn’t eat while people in the crowd looked at us with envy. We had to ration the food we were giving away, as we couldn’t feed the entire multitude.

We shared our food with soldiers and police around us. They, too, hadn’t eaten for days.

In a few hours, the medicines we had were gone after we started accepting patients.

There were just too many of them.

Medicines ‘hijacked’

As Dr. Tanzo and I prayed that somebody would come to replenish our medicines, a man from Cebu who had landed on a C-130 asked for the whereabouts of people from the DOH and the social welfare department so he could dispose of his load.

Dr. Tanzo and I “hijacked” the medicines and shared them with the military doctors.

On Tuesday, a PAL plane from Manila unloaded doctors with the letters “DOH” emblazoned on their bush jackets.

I begged them for medicines, as we had already exhausted our supply, including the medicines we had hijacked.

They said they had none.

When I asked them what they came to Tacloban for, one said they were “assessing the situation.”

Another death

B—s—t! They had left their Manila offices for a change from their humdrum existence; in short, a junket.

One of our patients died on Tuesday night and was taken out of the hospital on Wednesday because there was no body bag.

As a body bag was being carried by five men to a truck, the crowd seemed indifferent to the death. In normal times, people would have looked at the relatives with compassion.

The crowd had witnessed too many of their friends and relatives killed by Yolanda to care for one dead person.

I held back my tears as I saw the suffering around me—me, a jaded journalist who had covered the police beat for many years.

I was overwhelmed.

Private tears

Back in Manila, I sobbed in the privacy of my home.

On Thursday, I called my comadre, Deedee Siytangco, my colleague at the Manila Bulletin and a close family friend of P-Noy, to pour out my venom.

I said I was beginning to admire the President because of his handling of the Zamboanga City siege and the Bohol earthquake tragedy.

I told her P-Noy had failed miserably because of the slow response of the government to the call for aid from Yolanda victims.

“Mon, take it easy, you are just traumatized,” she said.

I told her I was.

I still am.

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TAGS: Philippines, Ramon Tulfo, Supertyphoon Yolanda, Tacloban, Yolanda aid
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