Leyte priest says victims must cling to God
PALO, Leyte, Philippines—His church lay in ruins, with the rain pouring in after the roof was ripped off by the ferocious winds of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan).
But Fr. Kelvin Apurillo still offered hope for his congregation that was called there on Nov. 17 by the tolling of bells that were not heard of since the typhoon hit nine days earlier.
“It’s a mystery how we lived through the storm. I can’t explain it,” said Apurillo, 37, parish priest of Barangay San Joaquin here.
He said the wind whipped the village even as the water rose fast. In the adjoining building, which served as the quarters for church staff, the water reached the second floor. They got there just in time, although the water rose about four inches more from the floor.
While struggling to withstand the wind that blew off roofs in the village, Apurillo said he saw a boy who was able to climb a tree outside and cling to the branches.
“We saw him there, but there was nothing we could do to help him. But miraculously, he survived,” he said.
Not as lucky
Not everybody was so lucky. After the wind calmed down and the water began to recede, Apurillo said he took a walk around the village.
“Immediately, we saw bodies and we blessed them. We’re used to the strong winds here, but it was really the water that destroyed everything. All of the houses were destroyed. On our way back, we saw more bodies and blessed them, too,” he said.
Apurillo said he was so bothered by the sight of the dead just laying there that he ordered the front yard of the San Joaquin church to be turned into a site for a mass grave.
“At first, we started digging with our hands. But the water rushed in and we could not dig deeper. So we waited for the backhoe to arrive,” he said.
Volunteers then dug three large holes (about seven feet deep) and residents came to lay their dead side by side. Altogether, more than 200 bodies were buried there, but more kept coming.
“We really can’t bring them to the village cemetery because that was also destroyed,” he said.
Raul Cayaco, the outgoing village chair of San Joaquin, said he was informed of the preparations for the mass grave site and sent others to help.
He said he could not stand and walk for days due to injuries he suffered from the typhoon, but asked his relatives to do what they can to help.
Cayaco, whose house was destroyed, said he had made arrangements for his children to move out of Leyte province. However, he said he and his wife would not leave the village “to send a message that we should stay here and rebuild.”
Along the side of the road, residents waited for relief goods, putting up signs asking for help.
Family lost 12
In front of the church, the mass grave attracted residents who came to light candles and to offer prayers to their loved ones.
In one area, a sign gave an indication of the horror that this village had endured. The sign said that the Lacandazo family lost at least 12 of its members, children included.
Locals told the Inquirer that the Lacandazos lived in a compound that was submerged by the storm surge. Only two family members survived, they said.
Apurillo reminded his village mates that the mass grave in front of his church was sacred. “This is holy ground; nobody should step on it. We are going to [build a] memorial [here],” he said.
Before the Mass started, Apurillo was unsure whether many residents would go to church. But, for the first time, he ordered the church bell to ring. Many people came, still looking dejected, dazed and lost.
“Now we have lost every material possession, we should realize that it is only God that we really need. No matter what happens, He will take care of us,” he told his village mates.
As he was delivering his homily, rain poured in from the damaged roof, soaking residents who did not seem to mind. Overhead, the roar of helicopters could be heard, offering hope that relief goods are getting to places where they are most needed.
In this village of at least 850 households, only the church of San Joaquin remains as the logistical center of the community. Relief goods were delivered and, in turn, distributed here.
During World War II, the church was used by American soldiers as barracks, Apurillo said. The main building survived Yolanda’s rage, but the extension building were destroyed.
Outside the church, the statues of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints stand as if watching over the rest of the village.
Apurillo said residents were still on edge and traumatized, with many telling him that even the sound of pouring rain has been triggering panic.
“Sometimes, when they see me by the side of the road, they ask, ‘Father, are you going somewhere?’ I have to reassure them that I will stay, that I will never leave them and that God will not do that either,” he said.
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