Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Vol. VI, No. 9      April 2 - 8, 2006      Quezon City, Philippines











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Photo Essay

Victims of the Killer Landslide

A farming village in the Visayas disappeared from the map on February 17 due to a killer landslide. The tragedy left a long trail death and destruction. The ordeal that the residents there went through cannot be effectively put into words, hence the need for photographs to literally show the bigger picture.

by Johann Hein B. Arpon

Killer mountain. On February 17, a farming village disappeared, swallowed whole by a wall of mud and boulders that swept down at a terrifying speed from Mt. Can-abag (shown in the above photos) in Barangay Guinsaugon, a village of St. Bernard, Southern Leyte (located in the Visayas). The village of Guinsaugon, once a community of 2,500, now looks like a 40-hectare patch of newly plowed land. The mud was buried 10 meters in some places. Its 375 homes and elementary school were buried under mud, earth and debris. There are 1,328 people still reported missing, believed to have been buried alive.

Various groups including Malaysian, Taiwanese and local groups conducted search-and-rescue operations during the grueling days at foot of Mt. Can-abag.

The cause of the tragedy.  Many experts have speculated on the cause of the landslide in Guinsaugon.  Some argued that heavy rains which surpassed the holding capacity of the soil nudged by an intensity 2.6 earthquake caused the cascade of mud and boulders from Mount Can-abag (in above photos).

Others criticized the over 30 years of rampant and unchecked illegal logging, harsh weather, unstable terrain and bureaucratic shortcomings. The situation certainly reflects government neglect, substandard living conditions and uncontrollable weather occurrences. Without proper attention and preventive measures, the Guinsaugon tragedy could be repeated elsewhere in the country. 

Meanwhile, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said in a statement issued the day after the landslide, "Geologically, it is underlain by volcanic rocks characterized by intense fracturing and weathering, which makes it unstable and susceptible to mass movement."  In 2003, government geologists listed more than 80 percent of Leyte Island as prone to geological hazards like landslides. Leyte, an impoverished island 420 miles southeast of Manila, lies on unstable ground straddling the Philippine Fault, which zigzags from north to south along the archipelago.

Displacement of tribes.  At least 25 Mamanwa tribal families (photos on the left) left the nearby Bantawon mountain for fear its cracks might cause another tragedy similar to what happened in Guinsaugon.   

This mountain tribe whose name Mamanwa literally means “mountain people” is originally an indigenous group inhabiting the mountainous areas of the northeast portions of Agusan in Mindanao Island. They migrated from Mindanao to evade militarization and the logging/mining corporations’ intrusion to their ancestral domains in the early 1980s.

They have dark-complexion and are curly-haired. Hunting and gathering, mat weaving and rattan craft are among the main economic activities of the Mamanwas, so they prefer to inhabit the forested areas in the newfound Southern Leyte mountain.  But now, they are again displaced by threats of landslides. 

Life in evacuation centers.  Local authorities and churches housed the displaced families in the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Church-St. Bernard, Roman Catholic Church-St. Bernard Parish Convent, St. Bernard Municipal Hall/St. Bernard Municipal Auditorium, St. Bernard Central Elementary School, Catmon Elementary School and Cristo Rey Regional High School (as shown in above photographs).

As of Feb 18, a report from the Office of Civil Defense said that there were already 2,489 families affected. The day after, according to UCCP in St. Bernard town, the 11 neighboring barangays were evacuated with an estimated 10,000 individuals temporarily seeking refuge in these centers.

Unicef Warning. The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) warned the Arroyo administration and several aid agencies to be alert of human trafficking after the mudslides happened last February 17.

About 40 children aged below 18 years old were totally orphaned from the tragedy (photo on the left).

Unicef was reportedly appalled by the threats at the early part of the tragedy when local radio stations reported that illegal recruiters were preying on orphaned children.  Southern Leyte is one of the areas in the region with the highest number of incidents of human trafficking even before the Guinsaugon disaster.

Time to heal and move on.  On March 2, relatives, together with government officials and church representatives, offered flowers to the nearby grave where the dead were buried and in the mud-covered area of Guinsaugon where 1,328 persons including 248 pupils were buried alive in the Guinsaugon Elementary School.

A new memorial area dedicated to those who perished in the tragedy, symbolized by a huge cross (above photos), was erected on Friday. Southern Leyte Governor Rosette Lerias led the formal blessing and planting of a huge cross. She said that the memorial rites, while symbolically closing the search and retrieval operation, also signaled the start of an effort to rebuild the lives of survivors. "We have a long way to go but I told them we can overcome all of this together," Lerias said.

In memoriam of the teachers and their pupils.  Victoria Galdo, staff at the provincial schools division office, identified the missing educators as Gloria Navos, Grade I teacher; Cesaria Tiempo, Grade III teacher; Merly Binondo, Grade IV; Lerma Dalugdugan, Grade V; Jocelyn Becong, Grade VI; Rodel Coquilla, pre-elementary volunteer; and Narciso Tiempo, head teacher.  Only Natividad Pia, a Grade II teacher in the now buried Guinsaugon Elementary School, escaped the tragedy. She was in Cebu when the tragedy happened. 

Over 100 high school students survived the tragedy as they were attending classes at the Saint Bernard National High School (SBNHS) in the poblacion (town center) when the landslide struck.  SBNHS is located about 8 kilometers from the site of the tragedy.  About 248 pupils attending classes in Guinsaugon elementary school were not as lucky.

Meanwhile, the provincial schools’ division staff said that classes in elementary schools at Saint Bernard have already resumed on March 4. Galdo added that the schools will hold classes on Saturdays in March to compensate for the lost class hours due to the two-week suspension after the tragedy.  Classes were conducted in tents (photos on the left) as the classrooms were still being used as temporary refugee centers.

An avalanche of relief support and rehabilitation assistance.  Various government and non-government organizations here and abroad sent donations of food, bottled water, clothing, medical supplies, basic household items (e.g., cups, pitcher, pails, mats, mosquito nets, cooking pots), financial assistance and other materials needed for the immediate relief and eventual rehabilitation of the victims. The Inter-Faith Humanitarian Mission (IFHM) was among those who responded to the need of the victims to the needs of the victims (above photographs).  The IFHM is composed of religious from the Order of Saint Benedict (OSB), Religious Sisters of Mercy (RSM), UCCP North Eastern Leyte Conference (NELCON) and South Western Leyte Conference (SWLC) of its Visayas Jurisdiction, Promotion of Church People’s Response (PCPR) Cebu and Eastern Visayas Chapters and various people’s organizations like Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan or New Patriotic Alliance), Bayan Muna (People First), Katungod and Gabriela (photos below).

Simultaneous to the closing of the “rescue-and-relief stage” last February 24, the Leyte Center for Development (LCDE) conducted a disaster needs and capabilities assessment (DNCA) from February 24 to 28. In its assessment, LCDE stressed the need for viable livelihood sources that would sustain the surviving victims and orphans of those who perished. These could include cattle, swine and chicken dispersal; establishment of multi-purpose cooperatives; distribution of farm implements and dispersal of plant seeds to start anew; core shelter that will be comprised of its basic components; trainings and capacity-building measures; medical missions; and psychosocial help/therapy to the victims who were traumatized by the incident.

Disaster preparedness and management.  What happened in St. Bernard, as shown in above photographs of houses under water and a public road destroyed, shows the prevailing disaster response system in the country which is reactive, emergency-focused and relief-centered. As government allocates a measly 0.1% of the national budget for calamity funds, it fails to provide preventive and mitigating measures to lessen the destruction and deaths in natural disasters. Life-saving measures such as local warning systems and disaster preparedness training are absent in almost all disaster-prone communities

Worst of all, funds allocated and generated for the needs of the victims of calamities fail to reach them and are lost to corruption. In fact, according to the Kalikasan (Nature) Network for the Environment-Center for Environmental Concerns (KNE-CEC), an environmentalist group, the government still has to account for the millions of calamity funds and relief aid from the previous landslide and flashflood disaster in Quezon and Aurora provinces in Luzon. Surely, financial assistance for the landslide victims in Southern Leyte is not yet accounted for. Bulatlat




© 2006 Bulatlat  Alipato Publications

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