Victims of the Killer Landslide

By Johann Hein B. Arpon

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.

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.

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