Christmas in Tacloban

/ 12:42 PM December 20, 2013

TACLOBAN – Nenita Palermo, 44,  picked up a Christmas tree dropped by a woman during the  looting at Robinson’s mall in Tacloban city immediately after supertyphoon Yolanda struck in November.

Today the  tree stands outside  their tent in coastal barangay 88 as a  symbol of  hope in finding her lost husband.


“Nahulog ito ng isang babae, pinulot ko ito. Naalala ko ang mga anak ko kasi magpapasko na. Kahit papano magkaroon naman sila ng pag-asa sa pasko,” a teary-eyed Palermo said, adjusting the Christmas tree.

(This fell from a woman, I just picked it up. I remembered my children and Christmas is coming. At least we can have some hope for Christmas.)
She said her only wish for Christmas is to be reunited with Rolando, the father of her eight children, who is still missing.


Body bags
Body retrievals continue. Black bags still lie on the streets awaiting pickup by government agencies. Line men are still fixing power connections.

As Christmas draws nearer, and despite   those horrendous scenes, some survivors are starting to feel a rush of hope and determination.

“Makabangon din kami. Di siguro bukas pero siguradong gaganda din ang aming buhay,” said 34-year-old tricycle driver Marlon Villalobos. He lost his house that was pounded by seven-meter-high waters.

(We will rise again. Perhaps not tomorrow, but I am sure we have better days ahead.)
Villalobos stays at a private lot  with hundreds of other families. Without  getting aid from the government, he  bought posts and a few tin roof sheets for a new house.

“Wala pa ko’y nadawat gikan sa gobyerno. Wala ko nagsalig nila. Nangayo ko og mga motor ug nag drive ug tricycle para ma-kabangon,” Villalobos said. (I haven’t received aid from government yet. I earn money by fixing motorcycles and driving a tricycle.)

Misa de Gallo
At the Roman Catholic San Jose Parish, church bells ring every 4:30 a.m. for nine-day  dawn masses. An eight-member choir led the  singing of Christmas carols with guitars and percussion instruments.

“May each day be very merry, happy all the year through. Around the world you see the face what Christmas spirit can do. Bells will be ringing and everyone singing a merry Christmas to you,” the choir sang while some parishioners cried tears of joy.


But this wasn’t the situation on  the first day of the Misa de Galllo , which many were unable  to attend because of rumors that Badjaos were  planning to steal their relief goods and would kill or rape women.

The misinformation  immediately spread, causing unnecessary anxiety among the people.

The entire neighborhood stayed  up on a rainy Sunday night until Monday morning.

“Takot na takot kaming lahat. Nagkakagulo na. Nagkakaputukan na sa may dagat. Wala pa naman kaming lalaki dito na magbabantay man lang sa amin,” said Palermo, who lives with two other families. All of them are  women with boys. Their  adult men are either dead or working elsewhere.

(We were all frightened. There was trouble. There was shooting in the sea. And we do not even have men to guard us.)

While a few parishioners prepared to brave the dark city of Tacloban to attend the first dawn mass, Palermo and the rest stayed in in their tents to make sure robbers wouldn’t take away their things.

Despite all their ordeals,  another resident said the situation was still the main reason to celebrate Christmas.

“We have to thank God for another life, for saving us. Going to mass and a simple sardines-inspired dinner is good enough,” said a survivor whose house used to stand on the now flattened two-kilometer stretch from the shoreline.

This  kind of spirit  keeps San Jose parish oriest Fr. Hector Villamil going.

He said he was resigned to the fact that he was going to die when he saw the floodwater coming because he doesn’t know how to swim. But he heard a neighbor scream, and it made him realize that people are still alive.

“I saw people helping each other,” Villamil said.

Stories of how they survived the storm and the days after fill the air as people line up to collect relief goods.

Some shared stories of how they survived by stealing from grocery stores or from items  washed out of their neighbors’ homes. They were all thankful to have survived the supertyphoon that left around 7,000 people either dead or missing.

Last Tuesday, the 10-kilometer road from Tacloban airport to barangay Anibong was illuminated by flickering candles lit by survivors for  the souls of their loved ones who did not make it alive. The practice of marking the 40th day last Tuesday stems from the belief that the soul of a departed one leaves the earth after 40 days.
Fr. Villamil blessed the coastal communities where bodies were buried in mass graves.

“It takes time for families to grieve. They undergo post traumatic stress. It is very easy to provide physical relief but psychological and emotional stress is very difficult. The candle lighting may help them cope with their grief,” Fr. Villamil said.

In the meantime, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) is clearing the streets of garbage. Residents help through cash-for-work programs of nongovernment organizations. The  Tacloban city goverment plans to re-zone the coastal areas.

It’s a long way to  full recovery, but Tacloban’s survivors keep  their hopes up.

Without fancy food or the usual Yuletide gift-giving, the neighborhood intends to celebrate Christmas  along dark roads and  amid  the ruins, with bonfire and laughter.

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