‘Bayanihan’ impresses UN official
He has seen the many faces of death and destruction—in the genocide in Rwanda, in the wars in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Liberia, and in the havoc caused by Hurricane “Katrina” in Louisiana.
But for a man who has seen it all, the aftermath of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” is “worse than even the worst.”
Equally striking for Bernard Kerblat, chief of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Philippines, is how the typhoon survivors are picking themselves up, lifted by a nation with a unique weapon—the spirit of “bayanihan” that Kerblat believes is imprinted in the Filipino gene.
“What I’ve seen in Ormoc, in Tacloban, in all these barangays, in this landscape of devastation, with survivors completely hazed as if they’ve been shell-shocked after bombardment … I must admit I was pretty moved,” Kerblat said.
“The other thing that equally moved me—and we need to reinforce and sustain this—is this incredible national mobilization, bayanihan on the move in support of their ‘kababayan.’ That is also very impressive,” Kerblat told the Inquirer in his Makati City office.
That is also what has endeared the Philippines to this Frenchman, who found love in a Filipino woman at the Thai-Cambodian border during the Indochina refugee crisis three decades ago.
“And I would venture in saying that the Filipino resilience is unique. It is a typical Pinoy trait. It’s part of your genes, part of your culture. You’re born with it,” said Kerblat, 55, who is married to artist Victoria Abad Kerblat, sister of Budget Secretary Florencio Abad.
Sharing of hospitality
Kerblat spoke of the survivors who, despite scrimping on what was left after the typhoon took away most of everything, welcomed neighbors who even had less.
“They open their doors, they don’t have much, they tighten up their belts and they share their rice, they share their hospitality, they support each other,” he said. “I mean, hats off. This is remarkable.”
It is the kind of humanity Kerblat saw the moment he set foot in the Philippines a day after Tropical Storm “Ondoy” submerged Metro Manila in 2009.
Days have been long for Kerblat, who heads the work of providing emergency nonfood supplies—plastic sheeting, tents, blankets, collapsible jerry cans and cooking utensils—to survivors in support of relief operations in Eastern Visayas.
It was a task UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres felt compelled to undertake on the request of UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, even if the agency “usually does not intervene in natural disasters,” Kerblat said.
Long way to go
Before Yolanda, much of Kerblat’s work had been to provide temporary shelter for people displaced in conflict areas in Mindanao. His team also worked in the aftermath of Typhoon “Pablo,” which severely hit the Davao region and Compostela Valley province in 2012.
In the wake of Yolanda, relief agencies have flown in tons of supplies from humanitarian stockpiles in Dubai and Copenhagen, ferrying them to hard-hit areas, like the cities of Tacloban and Ormoc and Guiuan town in Samar province.
Still, there is a long way to go to reach the 14 million people affected across the central Philippines, a figure so tough to grasp, being greater than the populations of Cuba, Greece or Belgium.
On Thursday, when he spoke to the Inquirer, Kerblat was well into his seventh hour at work—and it was just noon. He asked for
10 minutes, dashed to a quick meeting with his staff and later apologized for the many piles of paper around his room.
Gravity of crisis
To the right of his desk was a Philippine map almost as high but wider than the door beside it, marked with circles and little flags that told him which country was present in which area of the disaster zone.
Kerblat said this was so he’d know instantly whom to call when he needed to send supplies.
“I don’t think the average Filipino citizens understand the gravity, the geographic spread and the number of their kababayan who have been affected,” Kerblat said.
He lamented criticisms of the Philippine government’s response. He recalled seeing for himself the aftermath of Katrina, which found even the sophisticated US disaster response systems wanting.
“Let’s put things in perspective. Let’s not throw mud at each other. Let’s remember those are exceptional circumstances—Katrina, Yolanda,” Kerblat said, recalling how even the United States accepted foreign assistance and had to deal with violent lootings in New Orleans.
Message to critics
“I have seen many governments which, because of incompetence, lack of resources or the couldn’t-care-less type, [had a] pileup of humanitarian aid. But in the Philippines, things are running smoothly … . Let’s stop self-flagellation, let’s look at the positive,” Kerblat said, his voice resonating with passion.
He urged critics to channel their concern for typhoon survivors to affirmative action.
“To people who have not gone through these types of situations, some of them live in comfortable subdivisions, they switch on the television and they come up with a very snappy argument that the government has to do this, has not done that. I would like to appeal for more understanding,” Kerblat said.
He noted that Yolanda, a “beast” of a storm as he described it, hit the country just as government was responding to multiple crises, among them the conflict between the government and rebel forces in Zamboanga City and the 7.2-magnitude quake that hit Bohol and Cebu provinces.
“We need to set aside our differences, all of us … . That’s what we owe to the dignity of the survivors,” he said.
It was this same goal—of restoring and preserving human dignity—that drew Kerblat to humanitarian work in 1979, following the end of the Vietnam War. He and his friends had been antiwar activists and felt that the end of the war should not spell the end to their advocacy.
“We saw on TV stories of boat people from Vietnam. We said we owed these people something and we needed to come to their rescue,” Kerblat recalled.
He soon signed up for a six-month volunteer work with a group put together by Bernard Kouchner, former French foreign minister and cofounder of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
“But that six months became 32 years,” Kerblat said, laughing.
Wife and 2 sons
For Kerblat, humanitarian work is more than just a job. It is rather personal—serving in a country he feels has “adopted” him not merely on account of marital ties.
And the entire family is giving back. His wife, a biologist, has volunteered to help the World Health Organization in its typhoon response.
Kerblat’s two sons are in it, too. One who is finishing his studies at Oxford University in the United Kingdom is working with the school’s Philippine society to raise funds for typhoon relief.
The other son, who works for the French Acted (Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development), was pulled out of the Congo war zone and sent to Guiuan, Samar, to help assess relief distribution.
Having seen several monsters—“Ondoy,” “Pepeng,” “Ramil,” “Santi” and “Pablo”—in recent years, Kerblat is concerned that the changing climate might spawn even stronger storms in the future, unless the world takes decisive action.
“I don’t have a magic solution, and it’s a collective responsibility of all member states of the United Nations to seriously look into these macro issues,” Kerblat said.
“It includes revisiting the way we consume, the way we use raw materials, the way we engage in a mercantile society, how can we look at diminishing our fossil fuel consumption and carbon dioxide ejection in the atmosphere. What kind of planet are we gonna leave behind to children who are born today?”
He called on the world to stay by the Philippines’ side for the long haul, noting that work in ravaged areas would take awhile.
Victor in the end
“This monster Yolanda has brought a massive tidal wave (storm surge). Well, let’s call on the world to send another wave: a wave of solidarity, but a long-term wave, not a short-term wave, to erase the effect of the typhoon,” Kerblat said.
“And that wave of solidarity will help your kababayan affected by this disaster to get back on their feet and to retrieve their legendary smile.”
Kerblat is confident while the Philippines had taken Mother Nature’s beating, the Filipino people were not beat.
“I have every confidence that … the Philippines can and will come out a victor from this temporary defeat,” he said.
He rises to this inspiration every day at 5 a.m., not concerned that the day’s work may keep him up for the next 20 hours.
“How do I go with just three hours of sleep a night? Very simple: I have a roof over my head, I have access to three meals, my food security is not disrupted, I have mobility, I go into a car, I have a road I can drive on, there is a bridge where I go to,” Kerblat said.
“Think about your kababayan out there helping each other, day in, day out under the scorching sun, sometimes drenched by the rain, in the stench of death which continues today.”
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